Abshire will remain behind bars until his October 12 trial in Orange.
"It feels good to have it move forward," says Justine's mother, Heidi Swartz, pictured outside the courthouse with Justine's father Steve Swartz, after Eric Abshire's March 3 arraignment.
The Greene County man accused of killing his wife and staging her death as an automotive hit-and-run pleaded not guilty to first degree murder at his arraignment Thursday, March 3 in Orange County Circuit Court.
Thirty-six-year-old Eric Dee Abshire, who has been incarcerated at the Central Virginia Regional Jail since his December 17 arrest, spoke clearly as he entered the plea before Judge Daniel Bouton. He agreed to waive his right to a speedy trial, giving his court-appointed attorney, Charlottesville-based Charles Weber, additional time to scrutinize several boxes of evidence collected by the prosecution during the four-year investigation into the November 2006 death of 27-year-old kindergarten teacher Justine Swartz Abshire.
Acknowledging the complexity of the case, Judge Bouton set aside two weeks for trial, October 12-26. He also granted the defense's request for access to transcripts from an investigative grand jury, but warned Weber that only he and his staff get access to the top-secret testimony.
At a February 10 hearing at which Abshire was denied bond, Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler claimed "many" witnesses reported fear of retribution if they testified before the grand jury. One in particular, Wheeler said, recalled a direct threat by one of Abshire's relatives relating to the witness testimony. So will Abshire himself get access to those records and see who was accusing him of things?
"I only heard the judge say counsel and staff," said Wheeler.
The defense counsel, however, says Abshire will have access to the information, if not actual copies of the transcripts.
"He's got to assist in his own defense," says Weber, who has also requested that the Commonwealth provide Abshire with a forensic pathologist and a criminal investigator. Those motions will be heard on Friday, March 11.
Justine's parents, Heidi and Steve Swartz, were both present for Abshire's arraignment and say they're disappointed but not surprised that their former son-in-law claims innocence.
"Eric has denied this from the beginning," says Heidi Swartz. And while a perjury charge against Abshire was set aside until the murder charges are resolved, both parents say they're pleased to see the trial date scheduled.
"The most important thing," says Steve Swartz, "is that it moves forward."