Former NSU football player guilty of murdering fellow Spartan. But why remains a mysery. | Courts & Crime
Prosecutors and a defense lawyer attacked each other’s cases with everything they could, but couldn’t penetrate the biggest mystery surrounding the murder of Nick Ackies.
Some 170 pieces of evidence — a gun, bullets, marijuana, the defendant’s underwear, scores of photos.
More than 40 witnesses — friends, family, detectives, officers, forensic experts.
Five days of trial in which Ackies’ mother repeatedly broke down in tears, at one point fleeing the courtroom as a photograph of her dead son was plastered on a courtroom wall.
Still, the mystery remained.
Why, prosecutors wonder, did JaQuan “Jay” Anderson shoot a young man he called his “brother” — a fellow football player and Norfolk State University Spartan — for seemingly no reason?
Or, from the defense’s perspective: Why would Ackies come to Anderson’s apartment and attack him out of nowhere, reaching for a gun and forcing Anderson to shoot him in self-defense?
At the start of the trial, prosecutor Kat Taylor warned jurors they probably wouldn’t find out why Anderson killed Ackies — that no one might ever know, save the defendant, who stood trial this week on a charge of first-degree murder.
By Thursday evening, jurors had a lot more information, but not much more clarity about why Ackies was dead. Still, they convicted Anderson of second-degree murder, along with using a gun illegally. In doing so, they rejected Anderson’s claim that he killed Ackies in self-defense.
A judge sentenced Anderson to 27 years in prison, following the jury’s recommendation. The maximum he faced was 43 years.
The two young men met each other in December 2016 or January 2017 when Ackies, a senior from Douglas Freeman High School near Richmond, came to Norfolk State as a recruit, NSU head football coach Latrell Scott testified. Anderson, a senior finishing up his final season as a Spartan, took to the soon-to-be freshman who would replace him at defensive lineman.
“They kinda hit it off,” Scott told jurors. “Jay treated Nick like a little brother.”
When Ackies came to NSU, they stayed in touch, even though Anderson had graduated in May and was scraping by in post-college life by working a part-time security gig as a bouncer at nightclubs. Ackies had come to Anderson’s Lindenwood apartment in the 800 block of Hayes Street before, to buy weed from Anderson and sometimes smoke it together. One time they watched football film because Ackies wanted his advice.
There’d never been any beef between them, witnesses said. They hadn’t argued with each other. Ackies was known as a happy-go-lucky guy who made friends with everyone; Anderson as a leader people listened to, someone who defused situations, a peacemaker who’d earned the nickname “Gandhi.”
A woman who’d dated him, Rachel Cooper, told lawyers in the case there was another side to Ackies: a man who talked about having robbed rich white kids for weed and hinted he might do something bigger. But Circuit Judge Mary Jane Hall ruled that testimony inadmissible, so jurors didn’t hear it.
Both Ackies and Anderson were big men in October 2017, each standing 6 foot 2. Anderson weighed 215 pounds, Ackies 265.
Anderson testified he was planning to go to his mother’s place in the Richmond area the evening of Oct. 27 to celebrate her birthday a couple days later. Then he was going to D.C. to hang out, possibly with his girlfriend.
Ackies called him in the afternoon asking Anderson if he could come over. Anderson told him his plans.
So when Ackies showed up uninvited a while later, Anderson was a little surprised, he told jurors. Still, he let Ackies in, greeted him and reminded him he couldn’t hang out because he was leaving town.
Ackies stuck around while Anderson continued packing for the trip in his bedroom. On his bed sat a gun, one he’d bought from Bob’s Gun Shop three days before. Armed security guards get paid more, and Anderson planned to get his concealed carry license.
Anderson testified he wasn’t exactly sure what Ackies was doing in the living room while he packed in the bedroom.
When Ackies asked about the new handgun, which was sitting on the bed, Anderson made a joke by saying him it was for big guys like him. Ackies joked back, saying if Anderson pulled the gun on him, he’d take it from him.
That’s when things got weird, Anderson said.
Ackies started coming toward the bedroom from the living room. Unnerved, Anderson got the gun, which was loaded with the safety off, from the bed. Ackies said something to the effect of, “Oh, you gonna shoot me? Go ahead, shoot me.” He kept coming and reached for the handgun, Anderson testified.
The gun went off. Ackies stumbled back about 10 feet and collapsed at the apartment’s front door. Anderson said, at that point, he didn’t know who’d been shot, if anyone, and if Ackies was hit, Anderson didn’t know where. He said he didn’t see any blood.
So when Ackies started to move his upper body “like Frankenstein,” Anderson was afraid Ackies might get up and attack him again. Anderson shot him in the head.
Anderson testified no more than 30 seconds passed between the first and second shots.
On cross examination, Taylor was suspect. Ackies was the one who’d been shot and was lying unarmed on the ground. But Anderson, the only one with a loaded gun, was scared?
Anderson said he didn’t know Ackies had been shot at that point.
Although prosecutors didn’t highlight it, another piece of evidence contradicted Anderson’s story. The autopsy of Ackies found powder stippling, or unburned gunpowder, on his face. Wendy Gunther, the medical examiner who did the procedure, testified that only happens when a gun is fired within 2½ feet. Anderson’s account suggested he was 10 feet away when he fired again.
After firing the second shot, Anderson called 911, telling dispatchers he had to shoot his friend, who’d tried to rob him. He said he wouldn’t do CPR on Ackies because he was clearly gone.
“I love him,” Anderson told the dispatcher. “He’s dead.”