Day two: Trial opens with gruesome details, timeline emphasis
A shoe, two gold earrings, and a cell phone were among the items found along Taylorsville Road near the lifeless body of kindergarten teacher and 1997 Western Albemarle High School graduate Justine Elizabeth Abshire, but while investigators measured fabric "drag marks" stretching a dozen feet along the road leading to her body, several other things were missing.
"I've never seen a hit and run where the body was dragged so far with no brake or skid marks," testified former Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Joseph S. Hogsten, who was among the first investigators on the scene and also noted the absence of vehicle debris.
"In any vehicle crash," Hogsten testified of the more than 100 crashes he's investigated involving cars, pedestrians or animals, "always, the debris is located at the point of impact."
Hogsten was one of 14 witnesses to take the stand today as the prosecution launched its case against 36-year-old Eric Abshire, charged with first degree murder for the November 2 or 3, 2006 death of his wife.
In an opening statement that lasted about 20 minutes, Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler laid out details of a circumstantial case with a clear mission: to convince the jury that Abshire killed Justine elsewhere, then brought her to Taylorsville Road, where– motivated by his involvement with other women and the $1.5 million in insurance prosecutors claim he stood to gain– he staged a hit and run. To make the case, Wheeler focused on the events as reported by Abshire.
"The defendant is the person who controlled the timeline," Wheeler said. "It's his word that says she came home after class, his word that says she was alive at 1:19[am]. The evidence shows she probably wasn't alive at 1:19."
Wheeler further suggested that the man who allegedly slept with another woman between Justine's death and her funeral was hardly focused on his wife's well being the night of her death.
In a "long phone call" to another woman just before midnight on November 2, about two hours before he'd claim to find Justine's body, Abshire purportedly professed a desire to "be with her, the other woman," Wheeler said.
"We don't have to prove motive," she told the jury, but "we do know that love and money can lead to some tragic circumstances."
Abshire's defense attorney Charles Weber also focused on time in his opening statement and sought to plant doubt in jurors' minds about what he calls an "ambiguous timeline."
"The claim is she was already dead at 1:19," said Weber. "Wait til you hear full testimony before you decide."
One thing Weber did concede: that jurors would likely find Justine a more lovable person than his client, a former dump truck driver who allegedly cavorted with at least eight women during the course of the courtship and ill-fated marriage.
"It's not a popularity contest, not a beauty contest," said Weber. "It's whether Mr. Abshire deliberately, premeditatively killed his wife."
The October 13 proceedings proved especially difficult for members of both the Abshire and Swartz families. As court opened, Abshire's two teenaged daughters, sitting on either side of their mother, Allison Crawford, wept as they looked at their father. As opening arguments began, Crawford escorted the girls from the courtroom.
Except for her father and sister– both of whom are witnesses and are therefore excluded from the courtroom– Justine's friends and family sat stoically through most of Thursday's proceedings which included the prosecution's detailed descriptions of Justine's injuries. However, crime scene photos showing the blond woman's facial injuries and her body's position in the road proved overwhelming to her grandmother, who was ushered from the courtroom quietly sobbing.
Further testimony from investigators and a medical examiner is expected on Friday, October 14.