She was stabbed 190 times, and her killer got a plea deal. The DA explains why.

Dwanya Hickerson looks back to his mother in Jackson County Circuit Court in Pascagoula on Thursday, July 20, 2017 after pleading guilty to the robbery and killing of a transgender nurse from Hattiesburg in July 2016.
Dwanya Hickerson looks back to his mother in Jackson County Circuit Court in Pascagoula on Thursday, July 20, 2017 after pleading guilty to the robbery and killing of a transgender nurse from Hattiesburg in July 2016.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence could have gone after a death sentence for the former Navy sailor who brutally murdered a transgender woman, but he feared the evidence wasn’t strong enough to convince a jury of the man’s guilt on the charge.

Dwanya Hickerson, 23, pleaded guilty last week to second-degree murder and robbery of transgender nurse Dee Whigham of Hattiesburg. Hickerson admitted to stabbing Whigham 190 times in a hotel room in St. Martin on July 23, 2016. He will serve 35 years day-for-day for the murder, followed by eight years for the robbery.

Hickerson said he didn’t know Whigham was a transgender woman until after he had anal sex with her. When he found out, he said he “lost it.” Hickerson later burned Whigham’s cellphone and dumped it in a fire pit on the beach in Biloxi.

Whigham’s mother, Vickie Blackney Whigham, called what happened to her child “an act of pure hatred.” She also called Hickerson’s sentence “a slap in the face” because she felt he wasn’t going to serve enough time for the crime.

The Sun Herald sat down with Lawrence on Sunday to ask him about the decision to reach a plea deal.

“A lot of people maintained that the number of stab wounds was determinative of a murder, but in Mississippi manslaughter is defined as heat of passion,” Lawrence said. “So 190 stab wounds helped the state show a murder occurred, but the defendant would also be able show that he was in an enraged state and acted out of heat of passion and therefore, he would have an argument for manslaughter.”

Manslaughter carries a maximum-sentence of 20 years, but Lawrence said Hickerson would have only served half of that time, or 10 years. Even a simple murder conviction, Lawrence said, would still open Hickerson up to petitioning the court to get out prison as early as the age of 55.

The plea, Lawrence said, ensured Hickerson would remain in prison until at least the age of 60.

Other factors

Other factors played a role in the decision to reach a deal, Lawrence said, but primarily the concerns prosecutors had was that “every piece of evidence” could be argued both ways and could result in a conviction for a lessor crime or even an acquittal.

“So it was like that every single time we found a piece of evidence,” Lawrence said.

Other evidence sought by prosecutors didn’t pan out as well.

For example, prosecutors believe Hickerson started communicating with Whigham long before the murder, but Lawrence said the evidence wasn’t there to prove it.

Lawrence said the state believes Hickerson and Whigham were communicating on a private messaging app that could not be tracked.

“The strongest piece of evidence that I felt the state of Mississippi had was that the defendant burned the victim’s cellphone, but that also severely limited our ability to discover what I think would have been a former of communication between the two,” he said.

After prosecutors subpoenaed all of Whigham’s phone records, emails and iCloud accounts, Lawrence said the only communication between the two that prosecutors could prove occurred the same day as the slaying.

“We could find no evidence of a previous relationship and we dug and we dug and we dug for that,” he said, but there just was no smoking gun in the case to break it.

Lawrence pointed to the case of a former Latin Kings gang member who stabbed and bludgeoned to death a transgender teen in George County in 2015 as an example of a case that broke when prosecutors found the evidence to prove a prior relationship between the killer and the victim.

In the Hickerson case, Lawrence said, that evidence wasn’t there.

“We had statements from witnesses who knew the victim and that was it,” he said. “But those statements did not include in any shape or form that they (Whigham’s friend) knew this victim and this defendant had a previous relationship.”

“That’s just some of the examples I give to show that in this particular case, a single piece of evidence could receive two different impressions and would open me up to a jury. It was like that every time we would find another piece of evidence.”

Margaret Baker: 228-896-0538, @Margar45