Former school administrator Wesley Earnest, portrayed by prosecutors as a calculating liar and glib blowhard, was also pronounced a murderer
Monday by a Bedford County jury that concluded Earnest killed his estranged wife and staged her death as a suicide.
The jury of six men and six women recommended Earnest serve the rest of his life in prison
for the first-degree murder of Jocelyn Earnest, 38.
The blood drained from Earnest's face when the clerk read the verdict
in Bedford County Circuit Court. As his mother, Patricia Wimmer, and girlfriend, Shameka Wright, wept on a court bench behind him, Earnest, a tear rolling down his left check, turned to them and whispered, "I'm all right, I'm all right." Minutes later he was led away by deputies.
Over the course of the trial, Krantz and assistant prosecutor Wes Nance argued that Wesley Earnest, 39, left Chesapeake late on the afternoon of Dec. 19, drove to Forest, shot his wife in the head and left a typewritten suicide note and a .357-caliber revolver by her side.
Investigators immediately began looking at Wesley Earnest as a suspect, but two years of delay kept the case from coming to trial.
Jocelyn Earnest had been shot through the back right side of the head, and the bullet exited her left temple. A state forensic examiner from Roanoke testified that the angle of the gunshot was inconsistent with suicide, while another examiner said the only two fingerprints found on the note were Wesley Earnest's. The two printers in Jocelyn Earnest's house were unplugged, and experts could find no copy of the note on either of the two laptops she used.
Defense attorney Joseph Sanzone also continued to proclaim Earnest's innocence outside the courtroom, saying the fingerprints on the suicide note were only partial prints; and even if they were Earnest's, it's possible they were left on the paper years earlier when he and Jocelyn still lived together. The couple separated in 2005 after 10 years of marriage.
"I think the commonwealth's case, without the fingerprint evidence, would have been a very weak case," Sanzone said. He predicted fingerprint evidence will come under more scrutiny in coming years.
But prosecutors also introduced evidence from Chesapeake. A Baptist minister and businessman testified that, days before Jocelyn Earnest's death, Wesley Earnest told him he would be out of the Chesapeake area on Dec. 19. Also, Wesley Earnest had borrowed a pickup truck on Dec. 17 and returned it in January with four brand-new tires on it. The truck's owner said he was baffled because the tires that had been on it were in excellent shape. According to testimony, Earnest bought the tires under an assumed name -- Tom Dunbar of Roanoke. Prosecutors used the evidence to argue the truck was the vehicle Earnest drove to Forest, and he changed the tires in case he had left tracks outside his estranged wife's home.
Earnest testified that he was at home sick with seasonal allergies on the night of his wife's death, though no one could vouch for his whereabouts that evening.
"Mr. Earnest," Nance said, "ended up trying to be too smart for his own good."
Earnest's motive for killing his wife, according to Nance, was money. While he was boasting to friends in Chesapeake that he was independently wealthy and a millionaire five times over, he was actually borrowing money to stay afloat after separating from his wife. The two jointly owned a large home at Smith Mountain Lake, and Earnest had borrowed more than $125,000, in part to help make the mortgage payments. With his wife out of the way, Earnest stood to gain control over all their contested assets.
The jury's sentence is merely a recommendation, and Circuit Court Judge James Updike said he will pass final sentence at a later date.
Nance urged jurors to give Wesley Earnest a life sentence by noting that Earnest had three and a half hours to think about what he was doing as he drove from Chesapeake to Forest, yet he did not reconsider.
"This was a brutal crime," Nance said. "He showed a cruel indifference to the life of another. He had time to change his mind. Jocelyn Earnest only had time to turn her back. And that's when he shot her."