Even before Wednesday’s opening arguments, the defense attorney at an Albemarle County murder trial dropped a bombshell. Veteran lawyer David Heilberg told the pool of prospective jurors that James Elliott Fitch shot and killed his wife, Yvette Denise Jackson, nearly three years ago.
“There’s no issue that he killed his wife,” Heilberg announced during the jury selection process. “But there is question about how it happened.”
After the jury was winnowed down to 13 people, including one alternate, Heilberg said in his opening argument that Virginia has multiple ways of ranking homicides and that his client’s alcohol use “and just plain emotional craziness” should preclude the jury from rendering a first- or second-degree murder conviction.
“If someone is impaired by alcohol they cannot form the intent for premeditated murder,” Heilberg said. “For second-degree murder you need malice, and ‘heat of passion’ and malice cannot coexist.”
Heilberg warned the jury that they will likely see what prompted his client’s angry emotions: a sex tape that mysteriously appeared on Fitch’s phone that he said his client believed to depict his wife.
The prosecution, however, depicted an abusive relationship.
“About 10 days before she was killed, she blocked James Fitch’s number on her cell phone,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Holly Vradenburgh. “Yvette had become fearful and nervous.”
Vradenburgh said that Jackson had asked Fitch to move out about six months prior to her death.
“He was not handling the separation well,” Vradenburgh said. “He was jealous. He’s angry, jealous and frustrated that Yvette would dare to see other men.”
The victim’s mother testified that her daughter was assaulted by Fitch.
“Mama, he hit my face,” mother Margaret Jackson said her daughter told her. “She took him back in, and the same thing happened again.”
The mother said that Fitch began getting so “controlling” that he insisted on driving his wife to her work as an in-home healthcare assistant. That meant a pair of a 32-mile round trips for each overnight shift helping an elderly couple at their residence in North Garden. She said she questioned her daughter.
“I’m only doing this to keep the peace,” she said her daughter replied.
There was little peace on Nov. 21, 2020. On that night, a frustrated Fitch allegedly called the home’s landline when he couldn’t get past the block on his wife’s cell phone, he conceded in a police interview whose audio was played in the courtroom.
“I spoke to her the night she got homicided,” Fitch can be heard on the recording.
North Garden employer Kathleen Hoffman testified that on that night Jackson had stepped outside the front door for a smoke break. Hoffman said she happened to glance through the frosted glass window beside her front door.
“I saw two arms extended pointing to her head, and then a gunshot,” Hoffman told the jury.
After Hoffman left the stand, the jury heard her frantic phone call to 911. As Hoffman struggled to answer the operator’s questions, she grappled with the horror that her husband’s caregiver has been shot and interrupted herself with gasps and sobs.
At that, sobs erupted in the courtroom, and several of the 12 friends and family attending the trial led Jackson’s distraught mother out.
That move prevented Jackson’s mother from seeing the crime scene photos that soon followed as Albemarle County police officer Anna Rumsey testified about what she found. Rumsey said that she drove at speeds of up to 90 mph to the scene, but it wasn’t fast enough to save Jackson.
“She showed no signs of movement,” said Rumsey.
The trial is slated to resume Thursday morning in Albemarle Circuit Court.