Tolson pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter

Published 6:32 pm Thursday, August 31, 2023

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After an initial cancellation due to expected bad weather, Dare County Superior Court resumed open session Thursday morning to consider a guilty plea from John Curtis “Jay” Tolson. The jury was not present.

Charged with one count of second degree murder for the July 2020 death of Kitty Hawk resident Amanda LeeAnn Fletcher Hartleben, three days into the trial, Tolson elected to change his not guilty plea to guilty.

Superior Court Judge Jeffery B. Foster noted that there had apparently been text communication between parties during the night leading to the Thursday, August 31, 2023 morning session plea.

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Judge Foster asked Tolson to stand and questioned if he understood the plea, the legal options and consequences of the plea, including being sentenced up to 204 months in prison and being treated as guilty even if he is not guilty.Tolson, who had entered the courtroom smiling and in an apparent good mood, spoke softly and politely said that it was a voluntary plea and that he did understand.

Hearing from Assistant Public Defender Christan Routten that, among other things, Tolson had lost his father at an early age and before his arrest spent time in a Maine rehabilitation center. She added that Tolson has been in custody since his October 28, 2020 arrest and asked that credit be given for time in jail.

She added that, had they continued, defense witnesses would have included forensic experts with different conclusions than the prosecutor’s experts on Hartleben’s injuries, which could have left the jury to decide which expert to believe. Tolson was, in part, also concerned about putting his fate in the hands of 12 people he did not know.

“For that and many other reasons,” Routten continued, “he feels it is in the best interest of everyone to take a plea and bring closure to all involved.”

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bland then asked if a family member could speak and Trisha Cahoon stepped forward saying between sobs that her cousin’s life was taken not just from the family, but from the entire community. She added that if Tolson had sought immediate medical help for LeeAnn, he would not be here today.

“He tried to clean up and hide what had happened,” she concluded. “To me that is horrible. So please take that into consideration because LeeAnn’s children are having a hard time and she is not coming back.”

Judge Foster then advised that he was accepting the plea of voluntary manslaughter. He offered condolences to the family and said he hopes the family will put this behind them because hate will not help, it will “only hurt you.” He then said he was glad Tolson was receiving treatment and it was a credit to Tolson for not putting the family through additional trial testimony.

When asked if he wanted to make any remarks, and advised that he need not make any, Tolson spoke quietly, saying “I pray for peace,” with an additional comment not audible to the audience.

“The court does accept the plea,” said Foster.

For a class D, level one felony, Tolson was sentenced to 56 to 80 months for voluntary manslaughter. He will get credit for time in custody. Tolson is to pay court costs, attorney fees, and not to have any contact with the victim’s family.

Deputies then handcuffed Tolson and he was taken out of the courtroom to serve his sentence with the North Carolina Department of Corrections.

After Tolson’s departure, Judge Foster then asked prosecutors if they knew anything about a Wednesday night social media posting in violation of court orders.

Bland said there was a post by a family member who was not aware of what they had done, and when advised of the issue, it was taken down about 15 minutes after publication.

Judge Foster said he would not hold contempt hearings as previously intended, but that he was incredibly disappointed that there had been so many attempts to destroy the trial.

“For people that were seeking justice,” Foster said, “there were a lot of efforts in the trial this week to destroy this jury trial. Statements being made from the stand and in the audience loud enough for the jury to hear. All of that endangered this trial and created a risk of a mistrial. And every bit of it was from people saying they were seeking justice. That is not the kind of behavior we tolerate in Superior court.”

With the business for the day completed, court recessed until September 5 for additional docket matters.


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