After more than eight hours of deliberations, an Albemarle County jury found Vernon Leroy Shifflett guilty on Wednesday night of voluntary manslaughter in the Aug. 10 shooting death of 68-year-old Gifford “Trix” Crawford.
The verdict came despite the jury’s belief that it would be hung without further explanation of the jury instructions.
Three hours into deliberations, the jury’s foreman wrote they didn’t recall any evidence addressing Shifflett making known his desire for peace by word or action to fulfill his self-defense claim. An hour after that question was raised, the jury’s foreman wrote that the jury didn’t think Shifflett made known his desire for peace, but wondered whether self-defense was still an option.
Shifflett, 49, has said he was acting in self-defense when he fired at Crawford, who was his neighbor and landlord. Authorities have said the sale of Crawford’s home was finalized on Aug. 10, the same day that witnesses said Crawford talked to Shifflett’s wife about evicting them.
Around 9 p.m. that night, Shifflett told police, he walked to Crawford’s former home that night after seeing that someone came on the property, fulfilling a request that he said the new owner of the home made of him. The defendant told police that he told Crawford that he didn’t appreciate him cursing at his family members. Shifflett said he hit Crawford on the head with a flashlight after Crawford reached beside his seat and opened the door.
The exact order of what happens next is unknown, but the altercation ended with a bullet wound in the ear for Shifflett and fatal bullet wounds in the chest and head for Crawford.
Just before 9 p.m. Wednesday in Albemarle Circuit Court, the jury said in a note that it was at the risk of being hung because of “inconsistent jury instructions.” The note said the jury believed the criteria for both voluntary manslaughter and self-defense could be met.
Michael Hallahan, one of Shifflett’s attorneys, said in court that the jury’s note appeared to be in his client’s favor.
“This is pretty much a verdict form for not guilty,” Hallahan said in court. “They just took seven lines to do it.”
An hour after a question that indicated the jury was at risk of being hung, the jury’s foreman scrawled an informal note that said the jury was not coming to a consensus.
Judge Cheryl Higgins asked the bailiff to find out the split in the jury’s vote. After receiving that information, which was not shared with others in the courtroom, Higgins brought the jury into the courtroom again just after 10 p.m. and read them the Allen charge.
The text, which was named for an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case, is meant to encourage a potentially deadlocked jury to come to a consensus on a verdict.
The jury returned an hour later with a verdict for Shifflett — guilty of voluntary manslaughter and not guilty of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Shifflett was originally charged with first-degree murder and the firearm count, as well as a possession of a firearm by a felon charge that will be heard on Sept. 20. Authorities said Shifflett has two felony convictions from the 1990s for driving after having been declared a habitual offender.
Donna Wheaton, Crawford’s daughter, told the jury that life has been difficult since her father’s unexpected death. She said there are family members that he will never meet and vacation time that she will no longer be able to spend with him.
“My dad won’t be there for Thanksgiving or Christmas at my aunt’s,” Wheaton testified.
Denise Lunsford, commonwealth’s attorney, asked the jury to consider giving Shifflett a 10-year sentence, which is the maximum under the law for a voluntary manslaughter offense.
“This is not how we resolve disputes,” Lunsford said in court. “This is not the Wild West.”
Colton Puryear, one of Shifflett’s attorneys, said in court that he thought a six month jail sentence was appropriate for Shifflett. He said his client had expressed remorse.
Shifflett was taken into custody early Thursday morning after the judge imposed the jury-recommended sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
After the courthouse had been emptied and closed for the day, Puryear said he felt that justice was done. Lunsford didn’t comment after the hearing.
Stacy Shifflett, Shifflett’s daughter, said she was disappointed with the trial’s result but was pleased that her father didn’t receive a harsher sentence.
“There’s only one judge,” she said, pointing skyward. “The man up above.”