Mistrial narrowly avoided

Published 10:31 pm Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The trial of a Suffolk man for capital murder narrowly missed ending in mistrial on Wednesday.

Christopher Jonta Artis, now 21, is on trial for the shooting death of John Price Jr., a Virginian-Pilot newspaper carrier, while he was delivering papers about 4 a.m. on July 8, 2009, on Brewer Avenue. Artis also is accused of attempting to rob Price.

The prosecution put jailhouse informant Michael Shutrump on the stand. He testified Artis bragged about committing the crime while they were incarcerated together at Western Tidewater Regional Jail.

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“He told me that he had shot him one night, early in the morning, on Brewer Avenue,” Shutrump said. “He told me vaguely about running up on him, asking him for money.”

Shutrump said Artis claimed he then went back to his house on Second Avenue, hid the gun in a shed in the neighbor’s backyard and then went to Hosier Road.

Artis later had his brother retrieve the gun and destroy it, Shutrump said.

Shutrump also reported that Artis said, “You can’t get gunshot residue if you have something on your hands like kerosene or diesel fuel.”

A gas can was found in Artis’ backyard when officers searched it after the shooting.

The problem that nearly caused a mistrial came about during cross-examination of Shutrump by the defense. David Baugh, an attorney with the Capital Defender’s Office, made reference to the death penalty while trying to call Shutrump’s character into question.

After establishing that inmates in Western Tidewater Regional Jail frequently provide information to police about other people’s cases to help themselves, Baugh questioned why anyone would confess “that he’s eligible for the death penalty.”

Prosecutor Will Jamerson leapt to his feet and said, “Judge, I’m going to object. We have a motion.”

The court went into recess while prosecutors discussed their strategy and researched whether the mention of the possible penalty in front of the jury required a mistrial.

After determining it did not, Jamerson did not move for mistrial and instead requested that Judge Rodham T. Delk Jr. admonish Baugh in front of the jury and instruct the jury to disregard the statement.

“Mr. Baugh’s statement was out of order,” Delk told the jury upon their return from the jury room.

Dr. Wendy Gunther, medical examiner, also testified Wednesday. She revealed that Price died from a gunshot wound to the face from a bullet that entered under the left eye and was found against his skull at the back of his head.

Price also had a bullet wound on his arm, Gunther said. The bullet entered near his right wrist, shattered the bones and exited his arm near the elbow after traveling lengthwise down his arm.

She said no gunpowder residue was found on Price’s body, indicating that the gun was at least a foot and a half away.

The trial is set to continue today. The court has scheduled up to three weeks of hearings on the matter.