STAUNTON -- An Augusta County jury convicted Charles Melvin Spencer of first-degree murder Wednesday of the 2003 killing of his wife Joanne, and recommended a sentence of life in prison.
The jury deliberated for about two hours Wednesday morning before returning a verdict just after noon. Spencer will receive his formal sentence on Jan. 19 after a presentence report is completed.
Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin and Sheriff Donald Smith reacted positively to the verdict.
Martin said “not only did [Spencer] kill his wife, he didn’t care.”
Smith said the conviction was a team effort between his office and the commonwealth’s attorney’s. He said the case was made “after countless man hours,’’ and praised the work of his investigator Mike Roane.
“Investigator Roane never lost sight of this,’’ said Smith of the 13-year-old case.
The verdict came after a full day of testimony and argument Tuesday that included a taped confession from Spencer to a confidential Augusta County Sheriff’s Office informant. Spencer denied he killed his wife on the witness stand, saying he was telling stories to the informant.
Martin told the jury in closing arguments Wednesday morning that the evidence against Melvin Spencer pointed to his guilt. Martin said the body of Joanne Spencer was found on a West Virginia mountain in the same clothes she wore the last time she was seen. The body was found on Jan. 23, 2004. The woman had last been seen on the night of Dec. 11, 2003.
Martin said Joanne Spencer left her cigarettes in her Crimora home, and died from gunshot wounds fired from a .25-caliber pistol made by the former Raven Arms gun manufacturing company. The gun had been owned by Melvin Spencer but could not be found when the house was searched.
The location of Joanne Spencer’s body was another strong clue, Martin said.
“Where did they find Joanne’s body?’’ he asked. The decaying body was found on a mountain in McDowell County, W.Va., where Melvin Spencer grew up.
“There is no reasonable hypothesis of innocence,’’ Martin said. He said Joanne Spencer would have had to leave her house on a cold December night in 2003, and walk to West Virginia, several hours away by car.
Martin spoke of the confidential informant who garnered a confession from Melvin Spencer, noting the informant’s extensive record of felony convictions. But Martin said the confession was taped, offering recorded evidence.
“You heard the words out of Melvin Spencer’s own mouth,” Martin said.
Defense counsel Dana Cormier said the confidential informant’s offer to get Melvin Spencer’s confession had been rejected in 2015, when former Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lee Ervin and Sheriff Randy Fisher were still in office.
“They knew the evidence wasn’t sufficient to prove Melvin Fisher killed his wife,’’ Cormier said.
The defense attorney also said there were questions of who was last with Joanne Spencer on the night of Dec. 11, 2003. Melvin Spencer testified that when he went to bed, Joanne’s brother, Wendell Bruce, was still at the house.
He also said Sheriff’s investigators never checked phone records to see if Bruce attempted to call his sister as he said he did during Tuesday testimony.
“We don’t know if Wendell Bruce’s story was true. [The Sheriff’s Office] wanted to get Melvin Spencer,’’ Cormier said.
The question of Joanne Spencer’s cigarettes was also addressed. If she was a heavy smoker, it is conceivable she had more than one pack, Cormier said.
And Cormier said the .25 caliber bullets that killed Joanne Spencer could have come from numerous guns. A firearms expert testified Tuesday that more than one type of pistol could have made the markings with bullets that killed Joanne Spencer.
Cormier said Sheriff’s investigators looked for evidence “to fit getting Melvin’’ 13 years after his wife’s death.
He said Melvin Spencer had cooperated with investigators for 13 years, allowing them to search his home and a vehicle.
“There was nothing to convict other than suspicion,’’ he said.
Cormier said the confidential informant who gained Melvin Spencer’s confession had been told by Sheriff’s investigators “to step it up.’’ The message was that stronger evidence was needed to charge Spencer.
The informant made up stories of his own to obtain the confession, casting doubt on the validity of Spencer’s comments.
“You have a right to be suspicious,’’ Cormier said. “Melvin Spencer is the only person the Sheriff’s Office investigated.”