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Hazleton murder conviction upheld on appeal

Jan. 30—A Hazleton man who proclaimed his innocence after a Luzerne County jury convicted him in the fatal stabbing death of a woman in 2015 lost his appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Gene Hawkins, 52, in his appeal challenged the testimony of three witnesses who testified during his 2021 trial and the dismissal of a juror during deliberations.

The jury convicted Hawkins of third-degree murder following a week long trial before Luzerne County Judge Tina Polachek Gartley in the stabbing death of 34-year-old Lashaun Overton.

Overton and Hawkins were engaged in an argument in the area of 21st and Grant streets, Hazleton, on Sept. 3, 2015. The argument resulted in several people looking in their direction and saw Hawkins leave and later return with a knife.

Three witnesses who testified during the trial said they saw Hawkins with the knife, make a lunge type movement and later saw him with blood on his shirt.

Hawkins challenged the credibility of the witnesses’ testimony indicating none of them actually said they saw him stab Overton.

“…the trial court cited testimony from all three witnesses which the jury could have found circumstantially supported the conclusion that Hawkins stabbed Overton,” the appellate court ruled in dismissing Hawkins first appeal challenge.

The Superior Court noted the testimony of the three witnesses were similar including one witness who saw Hawkins climb stairs and lunge at Overton and walked away carrying the knife covered in blood.

Hawkins also challenged the dismissal of a juror.

During deliberations, the jury foreperson sent a note to Polachek Gartley indicating a juror had prejudged Hawkins during the jury selection process. The juror who prejudged had made up their mind that Hawkins was innocent before the trial began.

After the juror was questioned including other jurors, Polachek Gartley dismissed the juror who was replaced with an alternate juror.

“The court removed juror #3 on the grounds that she had violated her oath by prejudging the case at jury selection and before the introduction of any of the evidence on which she had sworn to base her decision. In light of this record, we see no abuse of discretion in (Polachek Gartley’s) decision,” the Superior Court ruled in upholding Hawkins’ conviction.

Hawkins was sentenced by Polachek Gartley on Aug. 4, 2021, to 20-to-40 years in state prison. During the sentencing hearing, Hawkins proclaimed his innocence and the jury’s verdict would be overturned on appeal.