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Earnest granted bond in murder case

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By Tom Wilmoth

Having been incarcerated since his arrest Feb. 27 for killing his estranged wife, Wesley Brian Earnest, 38, of Moneta was granted bond during a hearing Friday afternoon in Bedford County Circuit Court.

As of Tuesday morning, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office said it had not been notified Earnest had yet posted that bond. While bond is not commonly granted in a first-degree murder case, it wasn’t unexpected by prosecutors because the case is based on circumstantial evidence.

During the hearing Friday, in which several new twists in the case of the Dec. 19 death of Jocelyn Branham Earnest were revealed, Circuit Court Judge James Updike granted Wesley Earnest bond of $200,000 cash or $400,000 real estate.

“I think that’s fair,” stated Earnest’s attorney Joseph Sanzone after the hearing. “This will be a complicated and lengthy trial.”

Some of those complications were mentioned during Friday’s hearing.

Sanzone argued that Earnest had no prior criminal record and had been cooperative with investigators prior to his arrest. He argued that Earnest could not be placed in the area at the time of the crime, but rather had been at work in Chesapeake both the day of and day after her death.

During the hearing, Earnest testified that though he was no longer employed with the Chesapeake School System, he felt he could find employment in this area if granted bond. He added that, if released on bond, he would be living at his residence at 1357 Clearwater Dr., which had served as his primary residence for the past four years.

Under cross examination by Chief Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance, Earnest said he couldn’t remember many of the addresses where he had lived while working at Chesapeake. He was also questioned by Nance about property he owned in California.

Earnest admitted applying for jobs both in- and out-of-state. When asked about an application for an administrative job in Alaska, sent Dec. 18, 2007, the day before Jocelyn Earnest’s death, Earnest said: “I’ve applied to a number of positions.”

Earnest said he had limited money in checking and savings accounts to make bond.

Nance asked Earnest if he had used a false name since Jan. 1 of this year, a claim Earnest denied. Nance, however, questioned Earnest about whether he purchased new tires for a friend’s truck in January using the false name “Tom Dunbar” and a false address in Roanoke. Earnest admitted purchasing new tires for the truck, which he had also borrowed in December, stating that he had damaged one of the tires when he had borrowed it the first time. He denied using a false name.

“I replaced the tires,” Earnest said. “I did not want to tell him (my friend) that I had damaged his tires.”

During the hearing Nance argued against bond stating that Jocelyn Earnest’s death was not consistent with suicide and that fingerprint evidence on a note found at the scene of Jocelyn Earnest’s death pointed to Wesley Earnest. He also stated the gun found at the scene belonged to Wesley Earnest and that Earnest’s whereabouts at the time of his wife’s death could not be corroborated.

“There’s only one person physically linked to the false suicide note in that house. That’s Wesley Earnest,” Nance said.

“At trial we will prove his guilt,” Nance added.

Sanzone, however, argued that the evidence “is entirely incomplete,” with more forensic evidence to be processed. He said though evidence presented during the preliminary hearing stated Jocelyn Earnest was happy and positive, that in fact that wasn’t necessarily the case. He said just prior to her death, Jocelyn Earnest had taken a co-worker to face criminal charges in Amherst County.

He also said that another co-worker who had discovered Jocelyn Earnest’s body on Dec. 20, had failed to disclose to authorities that she had called Genworth Financial in Lynchburg to tell coworkers to get Jocelyn Earnest’s computer. During the preliminary hearing, it had been revealed that friend, Marcy Shepherd, and Jocelyn Earnest were in a romantic relationship.

Sanzone also reiterated his plans to challenge the fingerprint evidence in the case. He said the case was “different than the normal murder case” and that just because a charge was brought against Earnest it should not mean his client should be held without bond. “Until he’s proven guilty he needs to be able to defend himself,” Sanzone said, asking for a reasonable bond amount.

If he posts Bond, Earnest is not to have any contact with Jocelyn Earnest’s immediate family as well as several witnesses that were named. At the request of the Chesapeake School System he also is not to go on school property there.

Nance said he was disappointed that any bond was set, but because the case was circumstantial understood the reasoning of the court. “I appreciate the court’s reasoning,” he said, adding that he’s still confident in a successful prosecution of Earnest at trial.

Earnest is charged with killing Jocelyn Branham Earnest, Dec. 19 at her home in Forest. A Bedford County grand jury handed down the first-degree murder and use of a firearm in a commission of a felony indictments in May.

Earnest was found dead from a gunshot wound to her head at her home on Dec. 20 by Marcy Shepherd.

A July 29 date has been set for Earnest’s trial, but the defense is expected to raise several issues prior to the beginning of the trial. One such issue that is likely to be considered is the fingerprint evidence that allegedly links Wesley Earnest to the note found by Jocelyn Earnest’s body. Nance has said while there have been cases challenging the veracity of fingerprint evidence, he believes such evidence in Virginia is well established.

Wesley Earnest was serving as an assistant principal at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake at the time of the death of his wife. Prosecutors submitted evidence during Earnest’s preliminary hearing claiming that his partial prints were on the note found at the scene, called a “homicide note” by Nance, and that the gun that inflicted the wound to Jocelyn Earnest belonged to Wesley Earnest. The defense claimed that Wesley Earnest had given the gun to his wife for protection, but investigator Mike Mayhew with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office testified that he found the gun box for the gun at the home of the girlfriend of Wesley Earnest in Rustburg. Earnest was arrested at that home on Feb. 27.

The Earnests were in the midst of divorce proceedings at the time of Jocelyn Earnest’s death. Wesley Earnest had been denied bond during his April appearance in Bedford County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.