A Jefferson Parish jury of nine women and three men took about two hours Friday night to find former strip club doorman Terry Speaks guilty of stabbing Bourbon Street dancer Jaren Lockhart to death, dismembering her body, removing her tattoos and dumping the pieces of her corpse into Mississippi waterways.
Speaks was convicted of second-degree murder, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, which will put him in prison for the rest of his life without benefit of parole or probation.
His girlfriend and alleged co-conspirator, Margaret Sanchez, will be tried at a later date.
Speaks was expressionless as he walked out of the courtroom in handcuffs. Some of Lockhart’s family members wept quietly, but all adhered to the court’s strict rules forbidding emotional outbursts, whether joyous or sad.
Sentencing was set for July 8.
The verdict came three years and 13 days after Lockhart was last seen alive by witnesses and on surveillance footage leaving Temptations Gentlemen’s Club with Speaks and Sanchez on June 6, 2012. Co-workers said she had agreed to go to a “private party” at their Kenner home for money.
Prosecutors had no definitive DNA or forensic links, no eyewitnesses to the actual crime and no solid motive.
But they had a raft of direct and circumstantial evidence: a woman undoubtedly murdered; her body clearly mutilated, presumably to avoid identification; and a disposal method suggesting the murderer went to great lengths to conceal the crime.
Investigators found a burn pile at Speaks’ and Sanchez’s home with items that appeared to have belonged to Lockhart, plus deleted photos showing the couple had previously been to a beach where some of her body parts washed up.
In addition, Speaks’ former cellmates said he had confessed the crime to them and recounted details they would not otherwise have known.
Speaks and Sanchez were recorded speaking on the phone in what prosecutors said was coded language, and the jury heard a tape of Speaks, who was in jail for about a year before Sanchez was charged, making threats to her that he would give the authorities incriminating evidence.
A license-plate recognition camera caught the couple’s Chevrolet Lumina entering and leaving Mississippi in a two-hour span less than 24 hours before parts of Lockhart’s body began washing up onshore.
A policeman, a friend and a neighbor all testified that Speaks behaved suspiciously in the days before he and Sanchez were arrested on June 12, 2012.
Speaks’ defense relied mostly on reminding the jury on every cross-examination that no one saw Lockhart get in the couple’s car and that there was no physical evidence tying Speaks to the crime or Lockhart to his house or car.
Just before 5:30 p.m., the defense waived its right to present closing arguments to the jury.
That may have been the result of Speaks’ earlier decision to take the stand, a rarity for a defendant in a homicide trial.
Speaks, who defended himself for two days before handing the reins back to his public defenders, presented the jury an alternate tale of what happened on the night of Lockhart’s disappearance.
Speaks said he recruited Lockhart to dance at a private party with Sanchez but that he and Sanchez then were told by the man arranging the party that he needed only one girl, so they let Lockhart go and never saw her again.
He also testified that a friend named “J.C.” borrowed the car shortly before it was recorded going into Mississippi.
Under further questioning by defense attorney John Benz, Speaks said his decision to flee the police when the couple was captured was due to his paranoia over a previous sex-offender violation.
He said email and phone conversations from jail in which he appeared to speak in code with Sanchez and threaten to expose her after she got involved with another man stemmed from his belief that he and Sanchez were guilty of leading Lockhart into the circumstances in which she was killed.
“I thought we had contributed to the murder of Jaren Lockhart,” he said, drawing a parallel to a drug dealer selling drugs to someone who then dies.
“My thought is: We talked this girl into doing this party, and she ended up dead and we received money from that,” he said, his voice breaking. “So the whole time I’m thinking I’ve done something wrong ... I’ve committed a crime.”
Several minutes later, Assistant District Attorney Doug Freese began a cross-examination, picking at Speaks’ story and getting him to admit that he was essentially committing obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice by covering up the crime he said he thought he had committed.
“Mr. Speaks, as you were finishing up there, you looked like you were getting teary-eyed. You need a tissue?” Freese asked in a mocking tone that would resurface several times during more than two hours of cross-examination.
Freese asked Speaks why he never told Lockhart’s frantic boyfriend, friends and co-workers about the man Speaks called “Nick” and with whom he said he last saw Lockhart hours before she died. He asked why Speaks never gave investigators the man’s name and phone numbers to help solve the crime that had caused him to choke up on the witness stand.
“When he approached us, he said he was getting a new phone at the time,” Speaks replied.
“That’s bad luck, isn’t it?” Freese said in mock surprise.
Later, Freese appeared to be struck by another idea.
“Hey, I know!” he exclaimed. “How about the guy who borrowed the car from you? What’s his name?”
“J.C.,” Speaks replied.
“Where is he? Should I step out and call for him? Is he there?” Freese asked.
“Not that I know of,” Speaks said.
“No, he wouldn’t be, would he?” Frees said, asking Speaks why he never seemed to try to get in touch with the man who could have provided an alibi.
Freese raised his voice several times, asking questions that characterized Speaks as an arrogant man who thought he was better than others and asking Speaks why he didn’t shed any tears when photos of Lockhart’s severed body parts were being shown.
Speaks spoke in the soft drawl that jurors last heard Tuesday when he stopped representing himself, only occasionally raising it to protest that “we never murdered that girl.”
Freese walked Speaks back through his testimony on how he and Sanchez came to leave with Lockhart and how it contrasted with the version recounted by many of the dancer’s colleagues, making Speaks tell the jury each of them had lied.
“Let’s keep a list, because I think it’s going to get long,” Freese said, later going through several other witnesses’ testimony.
Speaks offered an explanation for an email in which he told Sanchez she should be grateful he had done the “spring cleaning” and also told her he had saved a pair of woman’s underwear “with both your juices” in them.
He said it was a typo and that he meant to say both “our” juices, meaning his and Sanchez’s — not Sanchez’s and Lockhart’s.
When Freese asked what he meant when he wrote, “You’re the one they’ll fry and not me” to Sanchez, Speaks said “fry” might have been intended to be “cry.”
“No, that doesn’t really fit, does it?” Freese said.
Freese elicited a series of “yes” answers during his questioning, asking about Speaks’ false statements to investigators, the coded language on the phone and the fact that Speaks didn’t tell police about a pair of boots he said Lockhart gave Sanchez before they went their separate ways. In each instance, he was walking Speaks toward the conclusion that he had obstructed justice and conspired to obstruct justice.
“Whoever committed this horrible crime should be found guilty, guilty and guilty?” the prosecutor asked the weary defendant.
“When you catch them, yes,” Speaks replied.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.