PEARISBURG — Confederate monuments and the Dukes of Hazzard’s Catherine Bach made for unusual legal arguments Monday in a Giles County drug case – but they did not prevent a judge from sentencing Melvin Cecil Chapman to 30 years in prison, as a jury had recommended.
Chapman’s sentencing in the county’s Circuit Court came nearly two years after officers found him and Chyanne Nicole Neely in a Narrows motel room with a substance the state crime lab determined was methamphetamine.
It came seven months after a jury convicted Chapman, 51, of possessing a Schedule II drug, third or subsequent offense, and recommended three decades behind bars and a $20,000 fine.
And it came after Chapman’s attorney, Dennis Nagel of Christiansburg, argued in a motion that a Confederate monument at the Giles County courthouse — a statue of a soldier standing atop a tall pedestal labeled “Our Heroes” — might illuminate what he said was the different handling of the cases of Chapman, a Black man from Lindside, West Virginia, and Neely, a white woman from Rich Creek.
On Monday, Nagel and Commonwealth’s Attorney Bobby Lilly sparred about Confederate symbols in the case as Lilly sought to link Chapman to displays of the Confederate battle flag.
Sgt. S.S. Keaton of the West Virginia State Police testified that earlier in 2018, before the Narrows motel bust, he arrested Chapman for having Suboxone without a prescription. Chapman said he’d been targeted because of his race, Keaton said.
The truck that Chapman and two other people were riding in had a Confederate flag sticker in its back window, Keaton said.
Investigator Zach Collins of the Giles County Sheriff’s Office said he reviewed Chapman’s Facebook page and Chapman listed the Dukes of Hazzard as one of his favorite television shows.
Lilly sought to enter into evidence a picture of the General Lee, the Confederate flag-painted car that figured prominently in the show.
Nagel objected that the photo was irrelevant and that Chapman might have just been a fan of the actress who played Daisy Duke.
“He could like Catherine Bach on the TV show but not like the vehicle,” Nagel said.
Judge Lee Harrell said he would not accept the picture of the General Lee.
The courtroom arguments followed the motion Nagel filed in the months between Chapman’s jury trial and his sentencing, asking that Chapman’s punishment not be imposed until after his co-defendant’s case was concluded — so that the judge could consider what Nagel predicted could be very different outcomes.
Nagel also asked the judge to consider that the jurors who convicted Chapman came and went from the courthouse beneath a Confederate monument.
Asked about the motion in July, Nagel said that he was not accusing jurors or prosecutors of racism. But given the Confederacy’s history of unequal treatment based on race, a community that maintained such a memorial at the center of its legal system could have biases that would work against minority defendants, Nagel said.
On July 29, Neely, 34, pleaded guilty to an amended charge of possessing a controlled substance with the intent to manufacture or distribute it. She was sentenced to serve two years and one month.
On Monday, Nagel pointed to the gap between Neely’s sentence and the recommended 30 years for Chapman and argued that it was not fair. “Her conduct was identical” to Chapman’s, he said.
Both defendants had prior records of drug distribution. Neely told investigators that she and Chapman had been cutting meth with rock salt to dilute it and have more to sell, Lilly and Nagel said. The two were found in a motel room that Neely had rented, Nagel said. Each argued the meth belonged to the other.
But Lilly countered that the co-defendants’ cases were very different — that Neely did not have as extensive a prior record as Chapman, and that she immediately cooperated with investigators.
Neely admitted her involvement from the start and testified against Chapman, Lilly noted.
Nagel asked the judge to consider sentencing guidelines that called for a maximum 10 years for Chapman, and said that with Chapman’s health problems, a 30-year term might be equivalent to a life sentence.
Lilly urged the judge to impose the jury’s full recommendation.
Asked if he had anything to say, Chapman pulled down his face mask and apologized for taking up the court’s time, then said that he could not understand how he’d been found guilty — that he had been jailed nearly two years so far for a possession charge but hadn’t possessed anything.
Harrell consulted a law book for about 10 minutes after Chapman spoke, then pronounced his decision without any references to the Confederacy.
Harrell said that he found the jury’s suggested sentence to be reasonable and that he would sentence Chapman to 30 years.
Harrell said he was adding two years more that would be suspended so that Chapman would have a two-year period of supervised probation after his release. The judge also fined Chapman $20,000.
Nagel said Chapman wanted to file an appeal, and the judge appointed Nagel to handle it.
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