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The trial was held in a different courtroom with a jury from a different county. But in the end, the verdict was the same: Guilty.
After more than four hours of deliberation Friday evening, the four-man, eight-woman jury from Nelson County once again found that 40-year-old Wesley Brian Earnest murdered his estranged wife, Jocelyn Earnest, at her Forest home on Dec. 19, 2007.
“The family is just grateful for the great (prosecution) team,” stated Laura Rogers, Jocelyn Earnest’s sister, following the announcement of the verdict. “In a situation like this no one wins. We are happy for justice for Jocelyn.”
Back in April, Earnest was found guilty by a Bedford County jury on the same charge of first degree murder, but that verdict was dismissed this summer after it was discovered that jury reviewed evidence—a series of journals written by Jocelyn Earnest—that it shouldn’t have seen.
Wesley Earnest’s attorney, Joseph Sanzone, had this to say about this trial’s verdict: “I do think this has been a difficult trial for everybody. Certainly no one wants to have someone like Mrs. Earnest die. Eventually we’ll have a better scientific basic for judging what happened in this case and cases like it.”
But Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz responded: “Twice now a jury has spoken. In our system, that means something.”
Though Wesley Earnest’s family didn’t speak to the media after the verdict, Patricia Wimmer summed up her thoughts in testimony during a short sentencing hearing: ““I will never believe he did this heinous thing to Jocelyn,” she said of believing her son was innocent.
The trial, which lasted nine days, was held in Amherst County after Judge James Updike granted a change of venue in September because of the publicity the first trial generated. Members of the jury came from a pool of 57 potential jurors from Nelson County.
That jury recommended a life sentence for Earnest on the first degree murder conviction and three years on a conviction of use of a firearm in the commission of murder. “He didn’t just kill one person, he destroyed a family,” stated Chief Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance during the sentencing hearing.
During his closing argument Friday morning, Nance argued that Wesley Earnest had planned out the murder, but made mistakes. “Those mistakes are the evidence that prove his guilt,” Nance stated.
Those mistakes, he argued, included moving Jocelyn Earnest’s body after he shot her, trying to plant a fake suicide note while leaving his fingerprints on it, borrowing a friend’s truck to travel from Chesapeake to Forest to commit the crime and using a gun for the murder that was obviously his.
“She did not even own a gun,” Nance told the jury, adding that she wasn’t “little Annie Oakley like the defense would have you believe.”
He said motive was key and Wesley Earnest had the only motive for killing his wife, who he was in a contentious divorce with at the time of her murder. That motive: finances.
“She was killed because she was Jocelyn Earnest,” Nance said, noting that Wesley Earnest had accused his wife of hoarding and stealing money that was his.
He said Wesley Earnest admitted his guilt, in a note written after her death, in which he asked when he might access money from his account and how he would be arrested, if it came to that.
“That’s a confession,” Nance stated. “That’s consciousness of guilt.”
Nance stated that Earnest had admitted he would lie to his friends when embarrassed about being broke and about being in the midst of divorce proceedings. “So what would he do when he’s on trial for murder?” Nance asked the jury to consider.
He said when Wesley Earnest had the tires changed on his friend’s truck without telling him, using a fake name, address and phone number at the tire store, it was an admission of guilt. “It’s Wesley Earnest telling you, ‘I drove that truck when I killed my wife,’” Nance stated.
He described what he believed occurred when Jocelyn Earnest was killed as her 6-foot, 4-inch tall husband towered over her with the .357 Smith and Wesson handgun used to shoot her through the back of the head. “She was the problem that he had to solve,” Nance said of Wesley Earnest. “Are you going to believe the evidence in this case or just a whole lot of hot air?”
But Sanzone had painted a much different picture of his client.
He had urged the jury not to just assume Wesley Earnest was guilty, simply because he was on trial. “Defendants, in our country, are not required to prove their innocence,” he said. “When you rely on circumstantial evidence, you have to be careful.”
Sanzone attacked the fingerprint evidence in both trials and has maintained that the current forensic science being used is outdated. “It’s seen its better days,” he said, trying to convince the jury to reject the testimony of two fingerprint experts who testified Earnest left two thumbprints on the fake suicide note.
He argued that at the time of Jocelyn Earnest’s death, the couple were living separate lives and, that if anything, his client needed his wife to stay alive in order to use her salary to help pay for a home at Smith Mountain Lake the couple owned that had about a $6,000 mortgage payment.
Sanzone urged the jury to believe a Chesapeake-area Taco Bell employee who had, in testimony Thursday, claimed he had served Wesley Earnest the evening Jocelyn Earnest was killed. But Wayne Stuart’s recollection of the time and day of that encounter wavered when questioned on cross examination by the prosecution. “He’s just a kid,” Sanzone argued about the fact that the jury should dismiss claims that Stuart had been manipulated in his testimony by Earnest. “He came in here and told you the truth.”
As he had done throughout the trial, Sanzone also used his closing argument to cast suspicion on Marcy Shepherd, a close friend of Jocelyn Earnest, who found her body the morning of Dec. 20, 2007. “She’s not telling you the truth,” he stated of Shepherd, who shook her head as she listened to Sanzone’s statement.
Once the jury got the case to deliberate, they made it clear they wanted to get the case finished that evening. The jury worked until almost 7 p.m., without a break for supper, before knocking on the courtroom door that they had reached a verdict. And then, following a short sentencing hearing, jurors continued to deliberate on the sentence without having a meal brought in for them.
Nance called three family members to the stand during the sentencing hearing Friday. Joyce Young, Jocelyn Earnest’s mother, told the jury that there wasn’t any way to describe the loss she felt. “It changes you forever,” she said through her tears. “It goes way beyond hurt.”
Laura Rogers described her sister as her “confidant.”
“She was just the best person I have ever known,” she said. “I’ll never, ever, ever forget having to tell my parents my sister was killed.”
Wesley Earnest didn’t stand as the jury left the courtroom just prior to beginning deliberations on his sentence. When they returned, he didn’t stand again, looking back at his mother in the courtroom seated behind him.
Judge James Updike set formal sentencing for Jan. 25 at 9:30 a.m.
Testimony during the second week of the trial, leading up to Friday’s verdict included:
Day 7—Wednesday, Nov. 17: The fingerprint evidence
Key testimony Wednesday included that of Ken Riding, a retired forensic scientist, and Andrew Johnson, a specialist with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Both pointed to two thumb prints left on the alleged suicide note found at the scene of Jocelyn Earnest’s death, as belonging to Wesley Earnest.
Sanzone, on his cross, made sure to bring out that neither Riding or Johnson could state when those fingerprints were actually placed on the paper. Sanzone, during other testimony, had attempted to point to the fact that Jocelyn Earnest had taken some copy paper out of the lake home that had belonged to his client.
Johnson stated that the fingerprint examiners had no bias in the case. “I’m not biased on any case I work,” he responded to a question from Sanzone.
Day 8—Thursday, Nov. 18: The defense continues its case
Judge Updike ruled that any questioning Sanzone posed about text messages that were deleted from Marcy Shepherd’s phone, prior to law enforcement taking possession of it, would have to clearly point to her guilt in order to be offered as evidence.
“They are selectively erased,” Sanzone argued.
Sanzone called Maysa Munsey, another friend of Jocelyn’s, to the stand, but was limited by Judge Updike in her questioning. In the first trial Sanzone brought out that Munsey had been charged in an identity fraud case and the morning Jocelyn Earnest was killed she had gone with Munsey to Amherst County to talk with investigators about that case. In the first trial, Sanzone sought to cast suspicion that Jocelyn Earnest’s death was connected to that other case and that Munsey might have been involved in her friend’s death.
But that theory was limited in this trial.
Also on Thursday the jury heard the Taco Bell employee’s conflicting testimony regarding Earnest’s whereabouts the night of his wife’s death. Wayne Stuart testified Earnest ordered a 10-piece meal about 5 or 6 p.m. Dec. 19 and that Earnest returned the following week seeking a signed statement that claimed he had been a customer that night. On cross-examination, Stuart stated he wasn’t certain of the date. “I was just helping him out,” Stuart said of the statement he gave to Earnest.
Earnest also took the stand on his own behalf Thursday.
He described meeting Jocelyn Earnest outside of a calculus class while both were attending West Virginia University and then about their marriage. “We enjoyed being outdoors,” he said of their relationship, adding that they decided to build the lake home because “we enjoyed being around the water.”
He said as his wife began to advance her career at Genworth Financial, she began working longer hours. “We weren’t seeing each other very often,” he testified, stating he asked his wife to begin to prioritize her activities.
“Things were getting strained,” Wesley Earnest stated of the marriage. Eventually he began an affair. By then he was staying at the lake home while she continued living at the Pine Bluff Drive residence.
He said he took a job with a school system in Chesapeake to get a “fresh start.”
“It was clear the marriage was not working,” Wesley Earnest testified.
Earnest offered conflicting testimony from a couple who had previously testified that Wesley Earnest had borrowed a truck from them on Monday, Dec. 17, 2007, and returned it the following Thursday, the day after Jocelyn Earnest’s death. But Wesley Earnest stated he returned the truck on Wednesday, prior to his wife’s death, and that their testimony was not true.
Earnest testified after finishing his duties as an assistant principal at Great Bridge High School the day of his wife’s death, he went home because he wasn’t feeling well. He said he went out about dinner time to purchase his tacos and denied ever driving to Bedford County to kill his wife.
He said his knees “buckled” when he heard the news that his wife was dead and he had to be escorted to a couch to sit down.
“Did you kill Jocelyn Earnest?” Sanzone asked his client.
“No,” he responded.
On cross examination, Krantz pressed Earnest as to whether he had lied to his friends about his financial situation, claiming that he was independently wealthy and also not married. “I did some exaggerating,” Earnest responded, adding that he was “less than truthful.”
“Did you deceive them?” Krantz asked.
“Yes,” Earnest replied.