Stull murder trial opens in Marlinton
Marlinton, W.Va. – The murder trial of Charles Edward Stull began Thursday in Pocahontas County Circuit Court in Marlinton. Stull is charged with first degree murder in the shooting death of Jesse Bennett, of Durbin. Bennett died at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown 14 hours after being shot in a Durbin apartment with one round from a .22 caliber pistol. Stull, also of Durbin, claims he was showing the pistol to Bennett and the gun discharged accidentally. Pocahontas County prosecuting attorney Donna Price contends that the shooting was intentional and premeditated.
Prior to the entrance of the jury, Judge James Rowe conducted an evidentiary hearing. Rowe disallowed three autopsy photos presented by the State as gruesome and irrelevant. The judge allowed one autopsy photo, which showed the entrance wound on Bennett’s body.
Price requested the court allow hearsay evidence from ambulance drivers and a friend of Bennett’s. Stull’s defense team, Eugene Simmons and Michael Whitt, argued that the evidence should have been dealt with during preliminary hearings. Rowe agreed and said it was “simply unacceptable” to be dealing with the evidentiary matters at the start of the trial. The judge said he would review the evidence later, in chambers, with the attorneys.
Sixteen witnesses were sworn and the jury seated. During opening statements, Price told the jury she would prove that Stull deliberately shot Bennett. The prosecutor said witnesses would testify that Stull had shown the gun to others earlier in the day and was proficient in the gun’s operation. Price also stated that experts would testify regarding the gun’s mechanical condition and the distance of the gun from the victim when fired.
Simmons opened for the defense and reminded jurors that Stull is presumed innocent until the State proves its case. Simmons said Stull and Bennett were good friends and that Stull had no reason to murder Bennett. Whitt followed Simmons and told the jury, “Just because someone dies does not mean there was a murder.” Whitt said the evidence would show that the incident was “a tragedy and an accident, but nothing more.”
The prosecution called Monongalia County medical examiner Matrina Schmit as its first witness. Schmidt testified that the bullet wound to Bennett’s body was a contact wound and was the cause of Bennett’s death. Schmidt said the bullet hit Bennett’s liver and a major abdominal vein.
On cross-examination by Simmons, Schmidt testified she had used visual inspection to determine that the wound was a contact wound.
Trooper John Gilkeson testified for the State and said he arrived at the scene in Durbin after the victim had been transported by medical personnel. The trooper testified he recovered one expended .22 caliber shell casing on the sofa of the Durbin apartment and another unexpended round on the kitchen floor. Price had Gilkeson examine the weapon involved in the incident, which is a black Smith and Wesson .22 caliber pistol with a silver scope attached. Price also had Gilkeson examine the blood-stained shirt Bennett was wearing when he was shot.
On cross-examination, Whitt asked Gilkeson if blood and a bullet hole in a shirt can prove intent. The trooper testified that a gun does not discharge unless the trigger is pulled or there is a mechanical failure. The trooper conceded that the trigger can be pulled accidentally.
Witness testimony in the murder trial is expected to continue into next week.