An Albemarle County jury returned verdicts Friday afternoon that gave the prosecutors of 61-year-old James Elliott Fitch everything they had sought. The jury convicted Fitch of first-degree murder as well as the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in the 2020 killing of his estranged wife, 55-year-old Yvette Denise Jackson.
“I know that the verdict will not bring her back, but justice was had for her today,” a tearful Sarah Copeland, Jackson’s aunt, told The Daily Progress on the bricks outside the courthouse in downtown Charlottesville.
Earlier in the week during jury selection, the defense attorney revealed that he intended to show that this was merely a case of manslaughter. So the task for the two-person prosecution team was presenting evidence of premeditation. A key moment in the three-day trial was when an auto repairman testified about an alleged utterance by Fitch.
“She’s going to make me kill her,” car shop owner Scott Mayo testified that Fitch had said.
Additional evidence pointing toward premeditation included Fitch bringing his gun to what the defense tried to portray as a friendly visit to his wife’s workplace, the home of an elderly couple in the rural hamlet of North Garden in the county. Forensic telephone evidence put Fitch’s phone at the scene of the killing on Nov. 21, 2020.
“This murder was premeditated,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Neal in her closing argument. “It was an execution.”
Three cans of Fitch’s favorite beer, Michelob Ultra, were found about halfway up the quarter-mile driveway at the North Garden residence. To the prosecution, this may have augmented the ambush theory, which was built on testimony by the female homeowner that she never heard anyone drive up or make noise before suddenly seeing raised arms on her front stoop and hearing a gunshot.
Fitch’s attorney David Heilberg, however, attempted to craft a too-drunk-to-premeditate defense. Heilberg said those three cans should be added to testimony that Fitch had a daily beer habit. Heilberg said Fitch’s drinking got so intense that it caused cirrhosis of the liver, earned him a year-earlier intoxicated driving conviction and, therefore, rendered him unable to truly premeditate.
“That is not evidence of intoxication,” said Neal, who noted that Fitch was able to borrow a van, drive 16 miles each way in the dark that evening and then stash his gun in a park near his Rougemont Avenue home.
“The entire case is about the state of mind of Mr. Fitch,” said Heilberg. “It’s not alcohol alone; it’s the unreality, the irrationality — all the things that were in his head.”
Heilberg attempted to show that his client deserved a lesser charge because he was consumed by rage over a sex tape that Fitch stored on his phone for at least 11 months.
While the recording’s source and participants never emerged, what did emerge about the so-called fisting tape was that Fitch described or showed it to several people. These included his sister, his employer, his wife’s employer and even his wife’s mother. But nobody testified that the video depicted the victim.
“You are a f—-ked up woman,” Fitch texted Jackson, according to forensic records introduced at trial. “Karma’s gonna get you, you dirty bitch.”
According to testimony from Albemarle County police forensic specialist Blaine Cosgro, Jackson put a block on incoming calls and texts from Fitch’s phone 10 days before her death.
“He was jealous, he was angry, he was obsessed,” Neal told the jury. “This was an abusive, controlling relationship.”
As the verdict from the four-man, eight-woman jury was read, lead police investigator Andrew Holmes turned back from his seat in the gallery to touch the hand of Jackson’s mother.
Only one of the dozen family members showed visible emotion. Fitch too was stoic, even as he was led out the courtroom’s backdoor a few minutes later.
After the two jury verdicts, Judge Claude Worrell revealed, that with the permission of prosecution and defense, he had been conducting a separate, concurrent trial and found Fitch guilty of a third crime Friday: being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The court agents did not want to sway the jury by letting them know of Fitch’s prior convictions.
Afterwards, defense attorney Heilberg expressed gratitude that the jury spent about 4 1/2 hours deciding.
“They listened and deliberated,” said Heilberg. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Fitch chose to be sentenced by the judge, so Worrell ordered both prosecution and defense back to court on June 30 for sentencing.
Jackson’s aunt, Sarah Copeland, may be among those invited to contribute to a planned victim impact statement.
“I had a niece who was loving and giving and full of fun and full of life,” said Copeland. “She loved her family. She was obviously too trusting. I can’t turn it around, but I am so glad that God is a vindicator and she’s in his arms. And that’s the ultimate place to be.”