An 11-man, one-woman circuit court jury ruled Thursday afternoon that a Williamsburg man was guilty of assaulting his wife with a meat cleaver last year but they found him not guilty of trying to kill her.
The jury deliberated for about three hours and twenty minutes Thursday before returning a verdict of guilty on the first-degree assault charge against James Privett III, 27.
Jurors found him not guilty of criminal attempt to commit murder in connection with the assault on Erica Privett.
On Feb. 20, 2012, James and Erica Privett were living with her friend, Brenda Booth, in southern Whitley County when James struck his wife in the back of the head, then beat and kicked her before grabbing a meat cleaver and hitting her in the face five times.
Jurors began deliberating at 2:33 p.m. and returned to the courtroom with their verdict at 5:52 p.m.
It took jurors another 10 minutes of deliberations to recommend a sentence of 20 years in prison for Privett, which was the maximum sentence allowed by law.
He will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence or 17 years behind bars before he is eligible for parole.
"We believed that we had sufficient evidence to convict on the attempted murder but it is always difficult to look into someone’s mind to see what they were thinking," said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Stephens, one of the prosecutors in the case.
"We respect the jury’s verdict on that count. We felt like the jury made an appropriate sentence on the verdict on the assault first and gave him the maximum penalty. We think it was appropriate under the facts."
Geraldine Collins, the victim’s mother, said as she was leaving the judicial center Thursday after the trial that she felt like that "justice has been served."
After the jury’s sentence was read, Privett’s lawyer, public defender Ron Findell, asked to have the jury polled.
As their juror numbers were called, all 12 jurors responded by saying, "my verdict."
Findell declined to comment after the trial was over.
Circuit Judge Paul Winchester scheduled formal sentencing for March 26.
Under Kentucky law, judges may not increase a jury’s recommended sentence but they can reduce it although this seldom occurs.
Statement to police
The trial, which started Wednesday, resumed about 10 a.m. Thursday with Whitley County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ken Shepherd on the witness stand.
Prosecutors began the day by playing a recorded audio statement that Privett gave to police about four hours after the attack.
The recording starts off with Privett telling police that "it was retarded. It was really over a drug deal gone bad."
Privett claimed that he, Erica Privett and others were part of a drug ring where he did much of the work but was being squeezed out.
Privett claimed that he wanted he and his wife to get out of the drug ring but that she said no.
He also alleged that she was sleeping with people in order to get pills, including the ringleader of the drug trafficking group.
This made him "furious" by his own admission.
Privett told police that he could not remember exactly what led up to the physical altercation.
"I was so angry. I really don’t know what was said. I just snapped," he said.
He initially admitted to police that he hit his wife with his fist and knee and then said he "slapped her" but did not hit her with the meat cleaver.
After police confronted him with a picture of his wife in the hospital, which showed multiple cuts to her face, he later admitted to slapping his wife at least twice with the meat cleaver.
Testimony during the opening day of the trial Wednesday, revealed that Erica Privett suffered at least five cuts to her face with the meat cleaver, which required over 1,000 stitches.
Later during the interview with police, James Privett asked Whitley County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Jackson, who was one of the officers conducting his interview, "How much time you think I am going to get out of this Shawn?"
Privett could be heard crying at times during the interview and told police that he loved his wife even if she prostituted herself for pills.
"I love her. I want her to be my wife. When I said my vow forsaking all others, I meant it," he said. "She’s why I get up every morning."
Shepherd testified that the interview was conducted at the sheriff’s department about four hours after the attack.
After James Privett was arrested, he was placed in the back seat of Shepherd’s police cruiser.
Privett wasn’t crying when he was arrested by police and didn’t ask about his wife’s condition either, Shepherd testified.
Shepherd testified that he checked on Privett every few minutes when he was in the back seat of the police cruiser and at one point that Privett set a box on fire in the backseat of the police cruiser, which filled it up with smoke.
Findell told jurors during his closing argument that he thinks his client was trying to kill himself by setting the box on fire.
He also described his client’s voice during the statement to police as that "of a soul, who is in pain over what he had done. He snapped and I think that is clear from his voice."
After the prosecution rested its case Thursday morning, Winchester granted a defense request to drop a burglary charge against James Privett, who allegedly took his wife over to a neighbor’s house after the attack, kicked in the door, and apparently cleaned the blood off her face there.
Winchester granted the motion due to technical problems with the indictment and because he felt like it might confuse the jury.
James Privett didn’t take the stand in his own defense.
Findell only called one witness for the defense, which was Erica Privett.
She said that she was afraid of her husband but admitted talking to him by phone multiple times since October over the objections of the prosecutor’s office.
During the calls, some of which lasted two hours, Erica Privett testified that she told her husband that she loved him and admitted having phone sex with him at least twice.
Erica Privett also admitted to sneaking two visits with James at the jail before jail officials intervened and refused to let her see him any longer.
"I was looking for an explanation for why he did, what he had done," she testified.
During closing arguments, Findell told jurors that his client was willing to accept responsibility and be held accountable for what his actions were, but he denied that James Privett was trying to kill his wife.
Findell told jurors that if his client really wanted to kill his wife, then he would have continued slashing away after five cuts and probably would had tried to slash her neck.
"He had every opportunity to kill her there if that was his intent," Findell argued.
Findell said that his client was distraught, upset and under the influence when he was arrested by police.
He asked jurors to find his client not guilty by reason of extreme emotional disturbance on the attempted murder charge and to find him guilty of assault under extreme emotional disturbance.
"I think that is the most appropriate sanction for him based upon his behavior that evening," Findell said.
Extreme emotional disturbance was defined in the jury instructions as "a temporary state of mine so enraged, inflamed or disturbed as to overcome one’s judgment, and to cause one to act uncontrollably from the impelling force of the extreme emotional disturbance rather than from evil or malicious purposes."
It was further defined "as not being a mental disease in itself, and an enraged, inflamed or disturbed emotional state does not constitute an extreme emotional disturbance unless there is a reasonable explanation or excuse. "Therefore, the reasonableness of which is to be determined from the view point of a person in the defendant’s situation under circumstances as the defendant believed them to be."
During his closing argument, Stephens painted a different picture for jurors telling them the trial was about what James Privett did on Feb. 20, 2012, which was choose to strike his wife of four years with a meat cleaver.
Stephens noted that Privett claimed to have only slapped his wife with the meat cleaver, which he showed jurors encouraging them to lift up the heavy instrument during their deliberations.
"That alone would be a club and it’s a club with a nasty blade on the edge," Stephens said.
After beating his wife with his hands, Stephens said Privett intentionally went to the kitchen to get the meat cleaver and then returned to the living room to hit her with it.
"That is an intentional act not an extreme emotional disturbance," he argued. "No matter what his reasons were, he was acting out of hate."
He added that Privett struck his wife so hard that he sprained his own wrist, which required police to take him to the hospital before taking him to jail.
He noted that during Privett’s interview with police, he mentions three times that he had been made a fool and told police they were trying to ruin his life.
Stephens denied the allegations that Erica Privett prostituted herself, and noted the only evidence presented concerning that was from Brenda Booth, who testified that James sometimes had her prostitute herself.
If Privett believed that his wife was prostituting herself, Stephens contended that this wasn’t extreme emotional disturbance but rather motive for trying to kill her.
"No one deserves this because their husband thinks this is what they deserve. He ought to be punished for what he did, trying to kill his wife," Stephens argued.
During the sentencing hearing, jurors were informed that the maximum sentence was 20 years and the minimum sentence was 10 years for the crime of first-degree assault.
Had Privett been convicted of attempted murder, he would have faced between 10 and 20 years for that crime and jurors would have been forced to decide whether the sentences should be served concurrently or at the same time, or consecutively, which is one after the other.
During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors also introduced copies of Privett’s prior convictions, which in this case were three fourth-degree assault/domestic violence convictions, which occurred in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
The 2006 assault charge stemmed from an altercation Privett had with his first wife, Amanda. The second two assault charges dealt with incidents involving his current wife, Erica Privett.
He was also convicted promoting contraband twice and for criminal mischief while locked up in jail awaiting trial on this charge.
The only other evidence that prosecutors introduced during the sentencing phase of the trial were two drawings that Privett had done while in jail, which had meat cleavers in them.
Privett didn’t take the stand during the guilt or innocence portion of the trial, but did testify during the sentencing hearing.
He testified that he did drawings for other inmates as a way of making additional money to spend at the jail canteen. The drawings in question were done at the request of an inmate, who wanted an outline for a tattoo with leprechauns depicted. He said the inmate asked him to add a couple of meat cleavers too.
Privett testified that the first two assault charges resulted from minor altercations with minor abrasions at most.
He said the 2010 assault conviction dealt with drugs, which he was trying to get his wife to quit taking. Privett said that he had a syringe and threatened to shot her in the neck with the drugs but that he never touched her.
"It was a horrible, horrible thing that happened," Privett told jurors about the meat cleaver incident. "I wish it hadn’t happened.
"Didn’t nobody do it but me. I wish that I could take it back."
In his closing statement during the sentencing hearing, Findell said that the prosecutor was trying to paint his client to be a "total evil beast."
"My client here made a bad mistake. He did a bad thing. He is sorry from his heart," Findell added.
In his closing, Stephens asked jurors to look at Privett’s record most of all.
"Ask yourself at what point do we want him back out on the streets?" he asked jurors urging them to give Privett the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.