For killing his estranged wife, 61-year-old James Elliott Fitch has been committed to the Virginia Department of Corrections for the rest of his life. And despite his attorney’s effort to soften or set aside his first-degree murder conviction, that verdict will stand, according to a recent decision by Albemarle Circuit Judge Claude Worrell.
On April 21, a jury of eight women and four men convicted Fitch of first-degree murder in the Nov. 21, 2020, slaying of his estranged wife, 55-year-old Yvette Denise Jackson.
Trial evidence showed that Jackson was killed by two gunshots to her head during a nighttime smoke break from her work as an in-home care provider at the residence of an elderly couple in the southern Albemarle hamlet of North Garden.
Friends and relatives of Jackson’s have told The Daily Progress that Jackson was a loving mother and grandmother who prioritized family and persevered through her own health issues and the abusive relationship that they say ended her life.
Trial testimony included accounts from numerous witnesses that Fitch had convinced himself that an explicit sex video, in which no faces were shown and whose origin and participants were never clarified, depicted Jackson. Text messages sent by Fitch portrayed an increasingly angry husband so consumed by the video that he allegedly told an auto repair shop owner, "She’s going to make me kill her."
Fitch’s attorney, David Heilberg, didn’t refute the evidence that his client was obsessed with the video or that he killed Jackson. However, Heilberg repeatedly attempted to show the jury that Fitch’s behaviors were the result of alcohol and obsession and that the slaying could not have been premeditated.
"If he’d planned to kill, he’d have had a better plan than he did, which was no plan," Heilberg said in his closing argument.
Even Fitch’s decision to obtain a gun, Heilberg asserted, was prompted by legitimate fear. Wanda Hawkins, the defendant’s sister, testified that she took Fitch to a clinic to be treated for a broken jaw because, as she put it, "Somebody rolled up on him."
This was what Heilberg called the "pistol-whipping," a violent attack on Fitch that occurred several months before Fitch fatally shot Jackson and what prompted him to arm himself.
Away from the jury, Heilberg argued that the defense should be allowed to present additional evidence about the pistol-whipping in the form of a police report as well as extensive medical records that would show that Fitch was a heavy drinker.
Prosecutor Holly Vradenburgh objected.
"A lot of those require contextualization," Vradenburgh argued. "We don’t want to back-door a mental health defense into this case."
Judge Worrell said the evidence that Fitch was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver would be admissible, but he denied the entry of more extensive medical reports or the police narrative on the pistol-whipping, which would have included Fitch’s allegations to an officer.
"His statements are inadmissible hearsay," Worrell said during the trial.
Following the verdict, Heilberg filed a motion to set aside the conviction and either find Fitch guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter or conduct a new trial with second-degree murder as the most serious charge.
"These hospital and police records contained information relevant and favorable to Fitch," Heilberg wrote. "This crucial evidence as to willful and deliberate premeditation was excluded from the jury’s consideration."
Worrell, however, stood by his rulings. In a denial dated Aug. 3, he affirmed the jury’s verdict and the sentence that he handed down on June 30. For the first-degree murder conviction, Worrell assigned a life sentence with all but 62 years and eight months suspended plus an additional five years on a firearms conviction.
Subsequent to the conviction, the court-appointed appeal lawyer, Peter Frazier, stepped away from the case. Fitch is now on his sixth lawyer, Bryan Jones, who has issued a notice that he plans an appeal.
Fitch, according to state prison records, is housed at Nottoway Correctional Center with a release date in 2082. If still living then, Fitch would be 120 years old.