A man given a lenient sentence after pleading guilty to strangling a gay rights activist in Knoxville, Tenn., last year is back in court. Chad Allen Conyers, 32, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the April 2002 strangulation of Joseph Camber, 36, after the two left a gay nightclub in Knoxville. Conyers originally was charged with second-degree murder. But according to statements made in court last week by a Knox County prosecutor, Conyers's defense team convinced prosecutors that Conyers was a law-abiding citizen who had never--and would never--hook up with a stranger for casual sex. On that basis Conyers was allowed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and placed on judicial diversion, a decision that upset Camber's friends and relatives and enraged some in the gay community. If Conyers had stayed out of trouble, not only would he have avoided jail time in the slaying, but he also could have asked for the case to be erased from his record.
But Conyers was charged in Virginia Beach, Va., during the summer with a "peeping-tom" violation in an undercover sting operation in a department store rest room. Assistant District Attorney General Phil Morton told Knox County criminal court judge Richard Baumgartner last week that the prosecution now feels it was wrong about Conyers in the first place. "Today not only do we find out he denies the facts of this [Camber] case," Morton said. "Now we find him in a situation where he's making contact with a total stranger, initiating sexual discussions--facts similar [to those connected with the strangulation]."
Virginia Beach Police Department detective Jason Staab-Peters testified Friday that his vice squad had set up a sting at a mall department store rest room because of complaints that men were engaging in sex there. Staab-Peters said the men used a "tapping" code, explained in directions on the stall walls, to indicate what sexual service they were seeking. On July 31, Staab-Peters said, he went into one of those stalls. Conyers was in an adjacent stall and began "tapping," the detective said. Staab-Peters said
Conyers told him he was already engaged in a sex act and made a lewd comment to the detective. "I saw Mr. Conyers stand up, peeping over into my stall," the detective said.
After Conyers was charged, Staab-Peters said, he learned Conyers was working as a "park ranger" at a state park in Virginia Beach known as a hangout for men interested in casual sex with strangers. Conyers said he went to the department store to buy a vacuum cleaner and claimed Staab-Peters initiated a sexually charged conversation with him in the rest room. He said he peered into the stall only because he "felt uncomfortable." Conyers also denied that he and Camber had engaged in any sexual activity before he strangled Camber. If that's true, Morton said, then Conyers lied when he accepted the plea deal in Camber's slaying because he agreed the death arose from "some sexual activity."
Baumgartner has now set aside the judicial diversion and established a December 4 sentencing date to determine how much time, if any, Conyers should serve for killing Camber. Conyers was originally sentenced to a four-year jail term, but Morton said he is researching to see whether prosecutors can seek lengthier punishments. Conyers will remain free on bond until his sentencing hearing.