Sailor’s death sentence in Houston County murder, dismemberment vacated

wcrenshaw@macon.comNovember 21, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- A federal judge has vacated the death sentence of a Navy sailor accused in the brutal murder and dismemberment of a shipmate in Houston County 20 years ago.

Travis Clinton Hittson was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of Conway Utterbeck a year earlier. The two were on leave from their ship at the time. Another shipmate, Edward Vollmer, was also charged with murder but reached a plea bargain and was sentenced to life in prison.

The two were accused of beating Utterbeck with a baseball bat and shooting him. They were in Warner Robins because that’s where Vollmer’s parents lived, but his parents were not home at the time.

According to the Nov. 13 ruling, Hittson does not deny participating in killing Utterbeck but argues he should not have been sentenced to death. The ruling states, in fact, that Vollmer “was far more culpable” than Hittson. The ruling also notes that in arguing against parole for Vollmer, the state itself called him the “instigator” of the crime and said he convinced Hittson to do it.

In vacating Hittson’s death sentence, U.S. Middle District Court Judge Marc Treadwell ruled that a psychiatrist who evaluated Hittson should not have been allowed to testify in the sentencing hearing.

The evaluation was ordered, the ruling stated, because Hittson’s attorney had planned to put two psychiatrists on the stand who had evaluated him, so the state was allowed to also do an evaluation.

In the end, the defense chose not to put its psychiatrists on the stand, but the state called its psychiatrist to rebut testimony of “lay witnesses” for Hittson. Those included shipmates and superiors who said he was not violent but was gullible and an alcoholic.

The state psychiatrist testified Hittson had called Utterbeck names, including hillbilly.

Treadwell ruled the testimony violated Hittson’s right not to incriminate himself and his right to counsel.

According to the ruling, the state must hold a new sentencing hearing or agree to a lesser sentence. Houston County District Attorney George Hartwig could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Hittson was represented on the appeal by the Georgia Resource Center, and his attorneys there were not available for comment. The center is a nonprofit group that provides free legal assistance to indigent defendants on death sentence appeals.

According to the summary of the case in the ruling, Vollmer told Hittson he wanted to kill Utterbeck because Utterbeck was planning to kill them.

They killed Utterbeck at the home of Vollmer’s parents, then dismembered the body and cleaned up the crime scene.

According to statements made to investigators, Hittson admitted that at Vollmer’s direction he struck Utterbeck several times in the head with a baseball bat and shot him in the head.

They put the remains in garbage bags, buried the torso in Houston County, then drove back to their station in Pensacola, Fla., and buried the rest of the remains.

During the investigation of Utterbeck’s disappearance, shipmates were interviewed and Hittson confessed, leading to the recovery of remains. Loggers earlier had found Utterbeck’s torso in Houston County.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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