Murder suspect enters plea

Published 10:58 pm Friday, February 10, 2012

A 21-year-old man on trial for capital murder unexpectedly put an end to the proceedings Friday morning by taking a plea deal.

Christopher Jonta Artis entered an Alford plea, in which he does not admit guilt but acknowledges there is enough evidence to convict him.

Artis was accused of killing Virginian-Pilot newspaper carrier John Price Jr. as he delivered his route about 4 a.m. on July 8, 2009, on Brewer Avenue.

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Neighbors called 911 after hearing the gunshots. Officers responding to the scene found Price lying on the road behind his green Ford Windstar van, clutching a newspaper in his hand. The van’s driver’s door was open, the radio was playing, the engine was running and several stacks of newspapers were on the passenger seat.

The jury trial was set to take three weeks. After jury selection consumed a day and a half, testimony began Tuesday afternoon. Neighbors testified that they had seen someone leaving the scene and walking briskly toward the 500 block of Second Avenue.

Artis lived at 545 ½ Second Ave. at the time.

On Wednesday and Thursday, jurors heard from people who had been housed with Artis in Western Tidewater Regional Jail while he was there on unrelated charges. They testified that Artis had bragged about the crime.

Prosecutors had hoped to prove that Artis attempted to rob Price during the killing. Detectives and forensics personnel testified one of Price’s pockets had been pulled out of his sweatpants, suggested someone had been looking for money. But his wallet, cell phone and a small amount of change were found with him.

Price died of a gunshot wound to the face.

Attorneys from the Capital Defender’s Office played recorded phone calls from the inmates to loved ones. The defense attorneys used various statements in the phone calls to suggest the inmates were trying to help their own cases by giving information against Artis.

Artis entered the Alford plea to a charge of second-degree murder. Additional charges of using a firearm in the commission of murder, attempted robbery, using a firearm in the commission of attempted robbery and shoot, stab, cut or wound were not prosecuted as part of the deal.

He was sentenced to 40 years in prison with 30 years suspended, so he will serve 10 years. After his release, he will be on supervised probation for 30 years.