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There’s a different courtroom, but the parties involved in the murder trial of Wesley Earnest are the same: Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance is heading up the prosecution; Joseph Sanzone the defense; and Judge James Updike is applying the needed interpretations of the law to the trial as it unfolds.
There’s a different jury, but they’re hearing the same basic arguments for the case: the prosecution’s assertion that Wesley Earnest murdered his estranged wife, Jocelyn Earnest, on Dec. 19, 2007, and attempted to make it look like a suicide; the defense team’s strategy to cast suspicion that someone else committed the murder, if it was a murder at all.
There’s a different atmosphere, but the implications of what is decided is just as serious: the family and friends of Jocelyn Earnest are having to endure hearing what happened that December night in 2007 once again; Wesley Earnest and his family are once again hoping that he will be found not guilty.
A week into the murder trial of Wesley Earnest, much has changed, but little is different.
The retrial of Wesley Earnest got underway Monday, Nov. 8, in Amherst County with a day of jury selection. That jury, seated from a pool of almost 60 residents of Nelson County, was needed because Judge Updike had ruled in September that a change of venue was warranted in the case.
The media attention of that first trial, in which Earnest was first convicted, was intense. Those interested could follow real-time regular Internet updates of the case and then see video and photos of the trial later that day from a host of local media outlets. A television crew from the national CBS crime show 48 Hours Mystery was also on-hand video-taping the trial, with the goal of using it for a show this fall.
But this summer, Earnest’s conviction from his 10-day trial in March was dismissed by Judge Updike after it was discovered jurors in that case had access to journals written by Jocelyn Earnest that had not been entered into evidence at the trial. That meant a new trial would have to be held.
Besides having a jury from outside Bedford County hearing the case, the media has been limited in what it can show this time. Because of the layout of the courtroom in Amherst County, Judge Updike ruled against allowing cameras in the courtroom, though he said he favors that request in most instances. He also ruled early on that the defense strategy to cast suspicion on someone other than his client would be limited, stating that the evidence presented would have to be relevant to the case. Judge Updike ruled prior to the presentation of opening arguments that Earnest’s defense must show evidence that would clearly point to the guilt of another person, if it chooses that tactic. In the first trial, Sanzone had attempted to implicate Marcy Shepherd and Maysa Munsey, friends and coworkers of Jocelyn Earnest who found her dead on Dec. 20, 2007, in the death. He also used other forensic evidence to cast suspicion on a potential unknown killer.
Throughout the first five days of the trial, just what evidence would be presented during this case has been a matter of numerous motions, many times with the jury being asked to step out of the courtroom as a decision was made. Both the prosecution and the defense have been diligent in arguing their motions.
Day 1—Monday, Nov. 8:
A pool of 57 potential jurors from Nelson County were brought in with eventually 14—nine women and five men—being chosen to hear the case against Wesley Earnest. Two are serving as alternates.
Before a jury was even seated, a motion for mistrial was made by Sanzone. That occurred while the fourth panel of 12 potential jurors were being questioned. Two of that panel said discussion about the case had been going on amongst potential jurors. That motion was denied.
Most of the jurors dismissed from serving were done so by Judge Updike because of prior knowledge of the first trial. Several stated they had heard or read media reports that morning or the night before the trial was set to begin in Amherst County.
The day began with Wesley Earnest being arraigned on the charges of first degree murder and use of a firearm in commission of a felony, and he entered “not guilty” responses to both.
Day 2—Tuesday, Nov. 9:
The trial begins
Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz began the day arguing that if Earnest’s defense team wants to cast suspicion on someone other than their client, it must be done with evidence that clearly points to someone else’s guilt. Judge Updike specifically said Sanzone was not to cast suspicion on Maysa Munsey by bringing in evidence about an identify theft charge she had faced in Amherst County, unless he could prove its relevance to this case. “I never saw the connection,” Judge Updike stated during the debate on the issue, later adding “to say that was a stretch is expressing it mildly.”
Sanzone argued it was a circumstantial case, and that the behavior of Munsey and Marcy Shepherd had been “odd.”
“The circumstances have to be relevant,” countered Judge Updike, adding that just saying something might have happened, without evidence, “isn’t sufficient.”
He would later rule on the issue, limiting Sanzone’s ability to cast suspicion on Jocelyn Earnest’s two friends.
In his opening statement before the jury, Wes Nance told the jury that he would prove that Jocelyn Earnest’s death wasn’t a suicide and would prove that Wesley Earnest—through his actions, deeds, statements and lies—was the one actually responsible for the death of his wife. He pointed to Wesley Earnest’s mounting financial problems as a motive.
But Sanzone countered, in his opening, that by the time of Jocelyn Earnest’s death the couple were living completely separate lives and that his client didn’t have any reason to kill her. In fact, he said, “if there was a single person on this Earth who needed Jocelyn Earnest alive and working, it was Wesley Earnest.”
Nance began his case by calling the mother and sister of Jocelyn Earnest to the witness stand on Tuesday.
Jocelyn’s mother, Joyce Young, testified that her daughter was excited about the upcoming Christmas holidays. “She was upbeat, she was happy,” Young stated about a visit by her daughter and Munsey to her home in West Virginia the weekend before her death.
Bedford County Sheriff’s Office deputy Jason Jones testified that when he arrived at Jocelyn Earnest’s home on Dec. 20, 2007, the home was “extremely hot” and that the thermostat had been pushed to the 90-degree mark. He testified that he found Munsey and Shepherd on the porch crying when he arrived at the scene at about noon. On cross examination by Sanzone, he admitted he didn’t know what had occurred inside the home prior to his arrival.
Most of the day featured Investigator Mike Mayhew of the BCSO testifying about collecting evidence at the scene once he arrived. His evidence included numerous photographs that he had taken.
Day 3—Wednesday, Nov. 10: Jocelyn Earnest’s friends take the stand
The third day of the trial featured several of Jocelyn Earnest’s friends taking the stand, including Jennifer Kerns who described an encounter with Wesley Earnest at Jocelyn’s home.
The day began with a discussion of what, if any reference, would be made to the journals Investigator Mayhew had collected from Jocelyn Earnest’s home and work office. Those journals, which were not admitted into evidence at the first trial, were the eventual reason Earnest’s conviction was dismissed this summer. Judge Updike was assured that this time the journals weren’t even in the courtroom and the only reference to them was a photograph of them.
Sanzone questioned Mayhew as to whether he had seized any potential evidence from Shepherd or Munsey the day they found Jocelyn Earnest dead. He asked Mayhew if a gun residue test had been conducted on them. “No sir, I did not,” Mayhew responded.
Krantz and Sanzone again argued before Judge Updike about the relevance of casting suspicion on Jocelyn Earnest’s two friends. Krantz said they had never been suspects in the case, but Sanzone said there were a lot of factors that need to be considered. Specifically, he said a “romantic relationship” existed between Shepherd and Jocelyn Earnest that “appeared to be going sour.”
Krantz countered by stating that Shepherd and Munsey had been cooperating in the case with law enforcement and had notified authorities that they had found Jocelyn Earnest dead.
“Nothing plus nothing equals nothing,” Krantz stated. “The simple fact is this is nothing. It’s just intended to confuse and mislead the jury.”
Jennifer Kerns, a friend of Jocelyn’s, stated that she had accompanied her friend to a lake home owned by the Earnests. Kerns said she and Jocelyn observed Wesley Earnest at the home with his girlfriend engaged in sexual activity. From that point on, she testified Jocelyn Earnest’s attitude changed, as she realized the marriage was over. “She then became proactive,” Kerns stated.
She also testified of a meeting she had with Wesley Earnest outside of Jocelyn’s home in Forest in late 2006. She said as she approached the front door, “Wesley stepped right out in front of me.”
She said Jocelyn had called her, distressed, so she had hurried over to the home. Wesley Earnest, she said, was wearing a dark-colored sweat suit and had a hood pulled around his head. “I said to him, ‘she doesn’t want to see you, she wants the lawyers to handle these issues,’” Kerns stated. She added that Wesley Earnest wanted her to tell his wife that she was being “unreasonable.”
Kerns said she didn’t see Wesley Earnest’s vehicle and that when he left he walked up the road from Jocelyn’s house toward a wooded area.
Nance has asked all of his witnesses who are friends or family of Jocelyn Earnest if they had ever seen her with a handgun. None said they had. Several co-workers of Jocelyn Earnest at Genworth Financial also stated that her demeanor had been “upbeat” and “happy” in the days leading up to her death.
Day 4—Friday, Nov. 12: Marcy Shepherd takes the stand
Marcy Shepherd took the stand Friday and described the events leading up to the discovery of Jocelyn Earnest’s body on Dec. 20, 2007. She stated she had become concerned the evening of Dec. 19 after numerous attempts to contact her friend that evening. She said she went by Jocelyn Earnest’s home late that evening, about 9:45 p.m., and though Jocelyn’s car was there, she didn’t respond to knocks on her door.
“I just left, I went home,” she said of not finding Jocelyn at home. “I sent her a text message. I asked her to contact me.”
That response, she said, would never come.
The next morning her concern grew and she eventually went over to Jocelyn Earnest’s home in Forest, a little before noon. “It looked the same as the night before,” she said of the outside of the home. “I started to get a little bit more worried.”
Shepherd stated she called Maysa Munsey, retrieved a key to the home from a backyard shed and went into the home. She described as being hit by a “wall of heat” in her face. Then she saw Jocelyn lying on the living room floor.
“I said to Maysa, ‘call 911 now,’” Shepherd testified. “I didn’t know what to do so I called 911, too.”
She was instructed to see if Jocelyn was alive. “Her body just looked stiff and unnatural,” Shepherd stated.
Then she found a gun next to Jocelyn’s body.
She said Munsey arrived soon after. “We were crying on the front porch,” she said. “I never went back in the house.”
On cross examination, Sanzone focused first on the relationship Shepherd had with Jocelyn Earnest, which included a kiss after a Christmas party in 2005. Shepherd characterized their relationship as “emotional” adding that she had kept the relationship secret.
Sanzone pressed Shepherd about a series of text messages between her and Jocelyn, some of which were deleted from her phone by the time law enforcement had collected it. “I was afraid, I did not want to be without a phone,” she said of not giving the phone to investigators right away, adding they had agreed to let her keep it.
Shepherd stated that if any text messages had been deleted, it had not been intentional.
Sanzone accused Shepherd of being at Jocelyn Earnest’s home when she was killed and that she knew who the real killer was. “I was not,” she responded.
Other testimony Friday included that of Dr. Amy Tharp, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Jocelyn Earnest and Marjorie Harris, a blood pattern expert for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Tharp testified that the gunshot wound that Jocelyn Earnest suffered — with an entry wound behind her right ear — was not consistent with suicide. She added that the gunshot occurred somewhere from 2 inches to 2 feet away from Jocelyn Earnest’s head, also not consistent with suicide. She testified that no blood splatter had been found on Jocelyn Earnest’s right hand and that, because of the nature of her wound, that her death would have been instantaneous.
Harris testified that Jocelyn Earnest’s body had been moved more than 2 feet after her death.
Day 5—Monday, Nov. 15:
The financial record
As the trial resumed this week, the prosecution began to present its case as to the motive it claims Wesley Earnest had to kill his estranged wife, specifically his dire financial situation.
That testimony included calling Jennifer Stille, the lawyer representing Jocelyn Earnest in her divorce at the time of her death, and Chip Umberger, a senior credit officer at Bank of the James which made $900,000 in loans to the Earnests for the home at Smith Mountain Lake.
Stille testified that Wesley Earnest, in divorce documents, had presented a document stating he owed about $11,000 in monthly bills compared with a gross income of less than $7,000 monthly. She also testified that some of that debt was joint debt between the couple for which Jocelyn Earnest had responsibility.
Testimony also centered around a $135,000 escrow account that had been set up by the couple, during divorce proceedings, to help pay the monthly mortgage payments on the lake home. Umberger testified that letters had gone out to the Earnests in September 2007 and December 2007 stating that payments on those loans were behind. He testified that the escrow account was utilized to make payments, but that fund was eventually used up.
The status of the loan on the home now became an issue as Krantz asked Umberger about it. The loan has since been paid off. A fire destroyed the home in 2009 as it faced foreclosure. No charges were ever placed and the cause of the fire was never determined. Arguments on the status of the home, and the fire, were made outside the presence of the jury.
As he did in the first trial, James Fitzgerald, a former FBI agent and profiler, testified that the suicide note found near the body “was not consistent with the writing style of Jocelyn Earnest.” Fitzgerald had worked to help identify the Unabomber. He also testified he could not say whether Wesley Earnest wrote the note.