Former Virginia Tech football player Isimemen David Etute’s trial started on Wednesday in Montgomery County Circuit Court and ended Friday. Etute is charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Jerry Paul Smith. The Roanoke Times will be providing updates throughout the trial.
Former Virginia Tech football player Isimemen Etute was found not guilty Friday in the beating death of Jerry Paul Smith following a three-day trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Etute admitted to the fatal beating to police, with his attorney arguing it was self-defense after Smith, a gay man posing as a woman on a dating app, tricked Etute into a sex act in a first encounter and then reached for a knife as Etute confronted him about the deception in a second encounter.
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Etute had faced a sentence of five to 40 years if convicted of second-degree murder. The jury began deliberations at 3 p.m. and returned with the verdict at approximately before 6:30 p.m.
Immediately afterward, the victim's family quickly left the courtroom. The prosecuting attorney, Patrick Jensen, declined comment, referring questions to his boss, Commonwealth's Attorney Mary Pettitt.
The jury has been instructed, the attorneys have presented their closing statements and the jury has been sent to deliberate and choose a verdict.
Montgomery County Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Patrick Jensen presented his 35-minute closing statement to the jury first.
Jensen explained to the jury that in order to convict Etute of second-degree murder, the jury would have to find that Etute acted with malice.
Jensen said Etute and his friends clearly had no intent to harm anyone on May 31, 2021.
"They weren't going there to commit murder," Jensen said. "That was not the plan."
But Jensen maintained that the act Etute performed was wrongful and intentional.
He recalled the testimony of medical examiner Dr. Amy Tharp, who Jensen said testified Smith had been the victim of a "brutal beating."
Jensen said that while Etute was wearing "flip-flops" at the time of the incident, the flimsy shoes were attached to a "big person," and a "strong person."
He compared Etute, an "elite college athlete," to Smith, who weighed 153 pounds.
"That's a big disparity," Jensen said.
But defense attorney Jimmy Turk asked the jury to consider who would first resort to violence: a "gullible" 18-year-old boy who had never gotten into trouble before, or a "deceitful" 40-year-old man that "defrauds teenagers for his own sexual gratification?"
Turk said Smith was "controlling the entire environment and the entire episode." He said the decedent had "demanded that it be dark" and had hidden a knife under his mattress "in case there was something awry."
Turk argued during his 45-minute statement that the commonwealth's evidence was circumstantial, while the defense's evidence, which included the testimony of Etute, was direct.
Jensen argued that Etute gave different accounts to police and to the jury. Jensen said the murder charge might have been motive enough for Etute to change his testimony.
"He has a tremendous amount riding on this trial," Jensen said.
Turk argued police didn't ask Etute essential questions about Smith's reach for a knife or Etute's fear while in the apartment — two questions whose answers could have revealed Etute was afraid for his life and acted in self-defense.
But Jensen argued that in cases in which the suspects and witnesses have lawyers, "police only get one chance" to talk to them.
Even so, Turk said, the testimony given to police, while it differs from the testimony given to jury, "corroborates" the evidence presented by the commonwealth.
Turk maintained that Etute is a "good" young man with "perfect" friends that "we should all be proud of."
"If I had a son, that's exactly who I'd want to have," Turk said while pointing at his client. "It's awful what has happened to him."
But Jensen maintained that Etute had not acted in self-defense. He argued that after Etute punched Smith and Smith fell to the floor, there was "no way" Smith could have reached a weapon under his mattress.
"He could never reach a gun from there," Jensen said.
The attorneys completed their closing statements at about 2:55 p.m.
If the jury determines Etute acted with malice, he may be convicted of second-degree murder. If it cannot determine he acted with malice, he may be convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
If the jury determines Etute acted in self-defense, he will be acquitted.
When court was called into session at 9 a.m., defense attorney Jimmy Turk called Ehis Etute, the Isimemen Etute's brother, to testify.
Montgomery County Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Patrick Jensen said that in calling Ehis to the stand, the defense had violated a discovery order signed March 31 that required the defense to disclose a list of witnesses to be called within 10 businesses days of the trial.
Jensen and Judge Mike Fleenor both agreed that Ehis's name is not on the list of witnesses that the defense said it would call.
Ehis's name was mentioned during Isimemen Etute's testimony, when Etute testified that he had called Ehis after the May 31 incident and told him all that had happened.
Defense attorney Cliff Harrison argued the commonwealth had invited the defense to question Ehis when it cross-examined Etute about the conversation he had about his brother.
Fleenor called the court's first recess of the day for an undisclosed amount of time at about 9:25 a.m. to allow the judge "to think about this."
Minutes later, court resumed and the defense withdrew Ehis as a witness and called Jordan Brunson to testify instead.
Brunson said he was with Etute the night of May 31. He attended a soccer game in Radford with Etute and other friends. Then Etute made plans to meet Jalen Hampton back in Blacksburg outside the apartment they believed belonged to Angie Renee.
"Isi wanted to find out if he was a guy or a girl or not," Brunson testified.
Brunson said he texted his girlfriend seeking advice before entering the apartment complex. He said he and Hampton made plans with Etute for Etute to enter the apartment. If anything were to happen, Brunson testified, Etute was to "just walk away or run away."
Brunson said he was worried about Etute going into the apartment. "Something in my gut felt like something was wrong," Brunson testified.
Brunson said that Etute entered the apartment and was inside for about 10 minutes. Turk told Brunson it was only 3 minutes according to surveillance camera time stamps.
"It felt like a lot longer," Brunson said. He testified he had been on his phone.
When Etute exited the apartment, Brunson testified, Etute was crying, shaking and had blood on his fist.
"I just thought the worst," Brunson said.
With Brunson off the witness stand, the defense decided to rest its case. Then the defense made a motion to strike the second-degree murder charge against Etute, reducing the charge to manslaughter.
Jensen said there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that Etute acted with malice. Harrison argued that Etute's friends had testified he was emotional leaving the apartment and that the violence was not premeditated.
Fleenor said there was sufficient evidence that a jury could find Etute acted with malice. He said witnesses had testified Etute had struck Smith several times after he was down on the ground and a blood expert had testified that Smith was kicked or stomped at least twice. He denied the defense's motion to strike the murder charge.
Fleenor has called for a recess until shortly before 11 a.m. to allow attorneys to discuss jury instructions.
At 11:10 p.m. court resumed and attorneys reviewed the instructions they planned to provide to the jury. Among the instructions reviewed by the judge was one related to self-defense and one related to the defendant's intent to kill or cause bodily harm.
By noon, Fleenor had reviewed all 25 jury instructions, including the jury's verdict form.
The commonwealth indicated it would need about 45 minutes to make its closing statement, and the defense indicated it would like to have an hour to speak. Fleenor said he would allow each side to have an hour each "to use as much or as little as they would like."
By 12:05 p.m. the court was in recess for lunch. Proceedings will resume at 1 p.m.
The Isimemen Etute trial will enter day three on Friday in the midst of the defense's presentation of the case. Defense attorney Jimmy Turk told Judge Mike Fleenor before court adjourned on Wednesday that he had three to four witnesses left to call, and some of them "may be quick."
Catch up on The Roanoke Times comprehensive coverage of the case click here.