By Duncan Mansfield
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A career criminal whose bold escape with his gun-toting wife from an east Tennessee courthouse left one guard dead and another wounded entered a surprise guilty plea Monday and was sentenced to life without parole.
A shackled George Hyatte, 37, had nothing to add as he entered his plea in that same courthouse in Kingston, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, one month before he was to stand trial in the case and face a death penalty if convicted.
He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the 2005 fatal shooting of guard Wayne "Cotton" Morgan, 56; attempted first-degree murder in the wounding of guard Larry "Porky" Harris; and felony escape. In a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to be incarcerated for the rest of his life.
His wife, Jennifer Hyatte, a former prison nurse who met and married Hyatte behind bars, received the same sentence after pleading guilty to similar charges in 2007.
Jennifer Hyatte actually fired the fatal shots as George Hyatte commanded, "Shoot him!" during a carefully orchestrated break for freedom as the guards led George Hyatte to a van for a return trip to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary after a hearing at the Roane County Courthouse.
At the time, Hyatte was serving a 41-year sentence for a variety of violent crimes.
The pair were on the loose for 36 hours before being caught in a motel in Columbus, Ohio. It was their only time together. Jennifer Hyatte chronicled the misadventure in a 34-page diary titled, "A Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde," alluding to the Depression-era bank-robbing lovers.
District Attorney Russell Johnson told The Associated Press the plea deal was offered late last week.
Both sides said they wanted to avoid a trial because Hyatte would likely get the death penalty _ the worst possible outcome for the defense, but a victory burdened with years of appeals for the prosecution.
"The way we looked at it, (the plea deal) was a guaranteed result," Johnson said. "He will spend the rest of his life in prison, which is what we were hoping for."
Morgan's family quickly accepted. "We can get on with the rest of our lives and get some closure," the victim's son, Dennis Morgan, told The Knoxville News Sentinel.
Johnson said prosecutors weren't going to accept anything less than what Jennifer Hyatte received.
Defense attorney James Simmons told The AP, "It is a tragic case that had a tragic ending for everybody. Nobody wins these cases. George will be in prison for the rest of his life."
And he will likely never be with Jennifer Hyatte.
"No," his attorney said, "they will never see each other again."
A trial date has yet to be set for a third defendant, former prison guard Randall Ridenour, who is charged with letting George Hyatte use his cell phone to call Jennifer Hyatte before the escape. Ridenour has pleaded not guilty.
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