Man who admitted killing 6 people denied in bid to withdraw guilty plea and go to trial

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LINCOLN COUNTY,  Tenn. -- A Huntsville man who pleaded guilty last year to killing six people was denied Friday in his request for a new trial.

Henry Burrell, 38, was sentenced to two life terms in January 2014, after admitting guilt in the brutal killings which claimed the lives of an 18-month old toddler and a seven-months pregnant woman, among others.

Burrell filed a petition to withdraw his guilty plea and seek a trial in April, 17th District Attorney Robert Carter said Friday afternoon.

Burrell had argued his guilty plea was due to ineffective assistance of counsel and he was coerced into entering the plea.

The DA said it was unusual for a defendant who could have received a more severe sentence -- up to six life terms -- to try to withdraw a plea and petition for a trial, with the prospect of getting more prison time. Carter said Burrell's argument that his plea was invalid had no merit and was properly dismissed by the court. Carter said the judge in the plea hearing last gave Burrell ample time to change his mind.

"The judge went over each of his rights, including a right to a trial, a right to call witnesses, a right not to have to testify," Carter said. "And he asked him 'Is anybody making you do this? Is there any reason why you're not thinking clearly right now.' He told the court he wasn't promised anything and he wasn't threatened."

The murders took place in October 2012. Bodies of the victims were found in Hazel Green, Ala., and Park City Tenn. and Fayetteville, Tenn.

The killings by Burrell and co-defendant Zakkawanda Moss were part of their bid to take over the drug dealing operation of Warren Crutcher, 24. Crutcher was among the victims in the killing spree.

Burrell’s sentencing hearing last year included him winking at the victims families who were in the Fayetteville courtroom. He admitted guilt in the murders of Amber McCaulley, Chabreya Campbell and her unborn child, Rashad Rico Ragland, Jessica Brown and Crutcher

Last year, Burrell told Judge Forest Durard that he understood the nature of his plea and just wanted to get the matter over with.

His appeal also cited his attorney's failure to get him a mental evaluation.

"His public defender testified at length for two hours," Carter said. "She said they never found any reason to even ask for it. She looked into his history, asked if he had any mental health issues and none of that returned any information that could be the basis for a mental health exam."

Friday’s hearing was about five hours long and also included testimony from Burrell.

Judge Durard presided over the hearing and denied Burrell’s request to set aside the guilty plea and go to trial.

Carter said Durrell had entered guilty pleas 11 times on charges in Alabama, so he is familiar with how the system works.

"I think this defendant clearly knew what he was doing when he entered the plea," Carter. " The evidence from the hearing clearly showed he was not coerced into doing anything he didn't want to do.  The public defender was not going to intimidate this guy into anything, he knew exactly what was going on and made a conscious decision to enter the plea.

"I think the Judge made the absolutely correct decision."

Moss was convicted of six counts of murder in November 2013 and sentenced in January 2014 to six life terms. Burrell entered his guilty plea a few days later.