By John Ross, Staff Writer and Becky Killian, Editor
A jury deliberated for more than three hours before finding a Whitley County man who attacked his wife with a meat cleaver guilty of first-degree assault.
The verdict came the second day of the trial against James B. Privett III, 27, who was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault and first-degree burglary in the Feb. 20 attack against his wife, Erica Privett, 26.
That same jury handed James Privett a 20-year sentence.
“We’re happy,” said Erica Privett’s mother, Geraldine Collins. “Justice was served.”
As the verdict was read, the 12-member jury focused their eyes to the bench. The jury had been asked to determine if Privett was guilty of charges related to attempted murder and first-degree assault. Circuit Judge Paul K. Winchester stated the jury “agreed” James Privett was not guilty of attempted murder, but also agreed he was guilty of first-degree assault.
Winchester then gave the jury “penalty phase” instructions, stating that the sentence for first-degree assault required “not less than 10, no more than 20” years behind bars. In James Privett’s case, it was stipulated that he be required to serve 85 percent of his sentence before he would even be eligible for parole.
Then James Privett took the stand for the first time during the two-day trial and sentencing hearing.
Both the Commonwealth’s attorney and the defense attorney were given the opportunity to further present evidence at the sentencing phase.
First produced was a conviction list for James Privett, which was entered into evidence then shared with jurors.
On that list, James Privett had pleaded guilty in 2006 of fourth-degree assault against his ex-wife, Amanda Privett. When questioned about the nature of the incident, James Privett explained that the two “were fighting back and forth. I thought the fight was over with and went (to sit on) the couch.”
He said that his ex-wife then “jumped on him.” He said he retaliated by biting her on the arm.
Then he was asked about another fourth-degree assault conviction — this one with Erica Privett as the victim in 2009. James Privett explained that he had pushed her and “she got scratched — a minor abrasion.”
He pleaded guilty in that case, too.
Then James Privett was questioned about another fourth-degree assault charge he pleaded guilty to in 2010 — again with Erica Privett as the victim. This time James Privett said the couple argued over drugs and that he took a syringe from her and threatened to shoot her in the neck with it.
He also garnered charges of promoting contraband and criminal mischief after being caught in jail smoking marijuana and cigarettes, scraping paint off the floor, and “sparking a light bulb with toilet paper and a piece of lead to light a cigarette.”
James Privett expressed his remorse for slashing his wife’s face with a meat cleaver. “It was a horrible, horrible thing that happened,” he said. “I wish it hadn’t happened.”
He added he was sorry for hurting his wife and her family. Erica Privett’s mother, father and sister were in the courtroom, and upon hearing James Privett’s words, her father, Butch Collins, was visibly shaken.
“She (has) said she forgives me,” James Privett said. “(When) I close my eyes I see it, I wake up and I see it — I think about it every day.”
When asked if he should be held accountable, James Privett said he should. “A man has to stand accountable for his actions,” he said. “That’s what’s wrong with this country today — no one wants to man up.”
The jurors also saw drawings provided by Stephens, which were added to evidence and handed to jurors to review.
It was explained that while James Privett was in jail, he was asked by other inmates to make drawings which could be turned into tattoos. James Privett would be paid for the artwork and the money would be used to purchase “extras” while in jail.
In one of the drawings, it was learned a meat cleaver was included.
Defense Attorney Ron Findell asked the jury for 10 years, saying this was James Privett’s “first extreme serious brush with the law.” He also felt Erica Privett’s actions fueled James Privett’s rage, telling jurors that Stephens was “trying to make my client a total evil beast.”
“He made a bad mistake and did a bad thing,” Findell added. “He’s sorry he did it and he’s sorry from his heart.”
Stephens spoke to jurors as well, asking for the maximum sentence of 20 years. “Ask yourself — (you’ve) seen the images, (you’ve) seen the meat cleaver, and (you’re) looking at his record,” Stephens said. “At what point do we want him to be eligible to be back on the street?”
The trial — Day Two
During the trial, the prosecution continued to assert that James Privett, a drug user who was frustrated about being shorted in a deal, attacked his wife with the meat cleaver because he thought she had given away his last beer. The defense maintained that James Privett lost control because he was frustrated about his wife prostituting herself for pills and that he was suicidal after the attack.
Thursday’s testimony began with Whitley County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ken Shepherd on the stand. Shepherd, who began his testimony Wednesday, was the first to arrive at the southern Whitley County home in the 4000 block of Hwy. 1804 where the Privetts lived. A police interview with James Privett recorded hours after the attack was played for the jury.
In the recording, James Privett talked about a drug deal gone bad, his frustration over being treated like a “workhorse” in the deal, and his anger about his wife prostituting herself for pills.
“I was so angry. I really don’t know what was said,” James Privett said. “I snapped.”
After he was asked if his wife hit him, James Privett said Brenda Booth — the woman who owns the house where the Privetts were staying — hit him. He said he hit his wife with his fist and his knee.
When an interviewer asked James Privett if he hit his wife with a meat cleaver, there was silence, then he said, “I slapped her with a cleaver.”
James Privett maintained he “slapped” his wife “once” with the cleaver. Then an interviewer said, based upon her injuries, it looked as if she had been struck more than once.
“She’s cut up. You want to look at her? You want to see?” the interviewer said.
The comment was followed by the apparent sound of a man crying.
In the courtroom, while listening to the recording, James Privett held his head in his hands and, at one point, wiped his eyes.
On the recording, the police continued their interview, asking James Privett why he struck his wife with the meat cleaver so many times. James Privett responded that they were trying to make him talk so they could “take away my life.”
After an interviewer said they were “going to do that anyway,” James Privett said he had endured his wife exchanging sex acts for pills for the four-year duration of their marriage before adding, “I love her.”
“When I said my vows, forsaking all other, I meant it,” James Privett said, sounding like he was crying.
The tape continued, with James Privett saying, “She’s a (expletive) prostitute.” He also said he felt like a “fool” handling the pills for the drug dealers.
Both an interviewer and James Privett agreed, echoing one another, “It’s a bad situation.”
James Privett said he was worried about going to the penitentiary.
“She’s my wife. She’s my life. She’s the reason I get up every morning,” James Privett said.
James Privett asked if he was being recorded, and the interviewers said he wasn’t. He then asked what he was charged with.
After being told he was charged with attempted murder and second-degree burglary, James Privett denied he broke into any home.
After the recording, Stephens asked Shepherd about an injury James Privett suffered to his right wrist. Shepherd said he took James Privett to Baptist Regional Medical Center and he believed the exam showed the wrist had been broken or sprained. A brace was put on James Privett’s arm.
During questioning by Findell, Shepherd confirmed he saw James Privett near the scene of the attack when he arrived. James Privett — whom Findell contended could have run far from the scene within the 15 minute time frame it took Shepherd to arrive — was about 500 feet from Shepherd, walking away.
When asked by Findell if James Privett had said “kill me” or “shoot me,” Shepherd said he didn’t.
Shepherd did say James Privett seemed to be intoxicated.
Stephens questioned Shepherd again, asking if James Privett had asked about his wife. Shepherd said he did but it was “hours” later.
During another line of questioning by Findell, Shepherd said he had put James Privett in the back seat of his cruiser. While in the back seat, James Privett used a lighter in his pocket to ignite a cardboard box. When Shepherd opened the door, he said he heard James Privett coughing and saw smoke.
“He could have killed himself through smoke inhalation,” Findell said.
After a recess, Findell called Erica Privett back to the stand, where he questioned her about her visits with her husband at the jail and the numerous phone calls they had exchanged. Findell said for the visits, Erica Privett arranged to visit another inmate while a friend arranged to see James Privett. Once at the jail, the two changed spots so Erica Privett could see her husband. During the second visit, the exchange was discovered and Erica Privett was asked to leave.
In order to visit her husband, Erica Privett walked more than two miles from where she was staying to the jail in cold weather, Findell said.
During the calls, which were recorded, Findell said Erica Privett never said she feared her husband.
“I felt like it was apparent, though,” Erica Privett said, adding she wanted an explanation from her husband about the attack and that he “couldn’t get to me” through the glass.
Saying Erica Privett had said Wednesday all she wanted was an apology, Findell said, “He’s given you that apology numerous times while he was in jail.”
Erica Privett agreed her husband had apologized, but she didn’t think it was heartfelt.
Findell said the recordings included Erica Privett saying she loved her husband and couldn’t wait to see him.
Though she said she no longer is a drug addict, Erica Privett said both she and her husband used drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine and pills that they snorted.
Erica Privett agreed that her husband never threatened her during the calls and that she had been advised by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to not visit her husband. She also admitted she had phone sex with her incarcerated husband.
While questioned by Stephens, Erica Privett said her husband hit her because he thought she had given his last beer away. After she was struck by the meat cleaver, she said she doesn’t recall anything until she woke up in the hospital. As a result of her injuries, she has a plate in her head and had to have more than 1,000 stitches.
During his close, Findell said James Privett never claimed self-defense and that he wants to be held accountable for his actions; however, Findell maintained his client wasn’t attempting to murder his wife and that he was emotionally disturbed at the time and that the jury should charge him appropriately for that emotional state.
Saying the Privetts were a “very tempestuous couple,” Findell talked about their “on” or “very off” relationship, saying it has been “on” again over the past 11 months during which they have maintained contact while his client was jailed.
On the day of the attack, Findell said his client’s behavior when Shepherd arrived showed he was distraught and upset. He was also under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“It’s clear he wasn’t thinking in his right mind,” Findell said.
Findell suggested James Privett’s distress was so great he tried to kill himself while in the police cruiser with the only means possible — by lighting the cardboard box on fire.
As for the taped interview, Findell said you could hear “anguish” in his clients voice as he talked about a drug deal gone bad, how he was the “workhorse” behind people peddling drugs and that they wanted to get rid of him. All that was compounded by his wife’s sexual activities, Findell said.
The day of the attack, James Privett had spent the afternoon drinking and abusing drugs. He told his wife he wanted out of the life they had been living and she refused, Findell said. That was what led to the fight, Findell said, denying it was prompted by a missing beer.
Findell said his client could have easily killed his wife with the meat cleaver had he only sliced her neck, but instead he “swiped” the meat cleaver at her after he took it from Brenda Booth, who had hit him with it.
Once James Privett saw he had struck his wife with the meat cleaver, he dropped it and took her next door, Findell said. Police found a towel that appeared bloody in the sink of the home and Findell said, when police arrived, Erica Privett, whose face was badly damaged, had been cleaned up.
“So he’s obviously trying to help her,” Findell said.
“This is clearly an individual who’s not thinking clearly, not acting clearly,” Findell said.
During his close, Stephens portrayed the police interview in a different light, saying James Privett calmly explained the drug deal gone bad and how he was cut out of his portion. When asked about his wife, he had claimed he “slapped” her with the meat cleaver.
After striking the back of his hand on the jury box, Stephens donned gloves and removed the meat cleaver from a box. It appeared to be bloodstained.
While deliberating, Stephens encouraged the jury to lift the cleaver, saying it was heavy enough to be a club.
“It’s a club with a very nasty blade on it.”
Stephens said James Privett, who had lived in Booth’s house long enough to know where things were, walked into the kitchen to retrieve the meat cleaver while his wife laid on the floor. He then came back and struck his wife repeatedly with the meat cleaver.
“That’s an intentional act. That is not an extreme emotional disturbance.”
Stephens said Erica Privett was struck five times with the meat cleaver, banging his hand on the jury box five times.
“He was acting out of anger and out of hate,” Stephens said.
Because of the force of the blows, Stephens said James Privett injured his wrist.
Stephens said James Privett claimed to be angry that his wife was “sleeping around,” although Brenda Booth suggested James Privett may have encouraged her to do so. He then told the jury Erica Privett isn’t on trial and that her husband judged her without a trial and chose the punishment of death for her.
“We know what he was trying to do was punish her. . . and that he intended to kill,” Stephens said.
While displaying a photo of the injured Erica Privett to the jury, Stephens said, “I suggest to you that no one deserves this.”
“Tell James Privett that what he did was wrong,” Stephens said.
Stephens told the jury they could let both the Privetts know what James Privett did was wrong, and that maybe that would help Erica Privett think she didn’t deserve the attack every time she looks in the mirror and sees her scars.
He then asked the jury to find James Privett guilty of attempted murder and first-degree assault.
Before the verdict — a surprise
While the jury deliberated on James Privett’s fate, Erica Privett was quietly escorted out of the courtroom, and after a few minutes the escort came back alone.
Erica Privett never returned to the courtroom, neither to hear the verdict nor to hear her husband’s sentence.
Later Thursday night, it was learned through the Whitley County Detention Center’s website that Erica Privett had been arrested and jailed at the detention center.
She faces a charge of receiving stolen property under $10,000; however, the circumstances surrounding the charge were unknown at press time. No bond or court date had been set as of press time either.
Editor’s note: In the story about the trial printed in Wednesday’s edition, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Robert Stephens name was incorrectly spelled. We regret any confusion caused by this mistake.