SNOW HILL — After three days of dramatic testimony, a Worcester County jury on Wednesday found a Texas man guilty of first-degree murder in the death of the Delaware woman reported missing near Pocomoke in November 2007 whose remains were discovered buried on the grounds of a bed-and-breakfast in Snow Hill over two years later.
Justin Hadel, now 20, of College Station, Texas, was found guilty of first-degree murder this week for the beating death of Christine Sheddy, a 26-year-old Delaware women reported missing in November 2007 from a farm near Pocomoke where she had been staying with friends.
Sheddy had moved to the Byrd Rd. residence just about two months earlier and shared the residence with another couple, Clarence “Junior” Jackson and Tia Johnson, along with Johnson’s two children, and Hadel, who is Johnson’s cousin. Sheddy was reported missing on Nov. 13, 2007, touching off a massive search in the area of the Byrd Rd. residence where she had been living with her two young children.
After an extensive two-year search, Sheddy’s remains were discovered buried on the grounds of the River House Bed and Breakfast in Snow Hill, where both Jackson and Johnson had worked prior to Sheddy’s disappearance. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later ruled Sheddy had been killed by as many as four blows from a blunt object. Investigators identified Hadel as the suspect and he was arrested in Texas and was charged with first-degree murder.
It later came to light Hadel had confessed to Tia Johnson about committing the murder after two unsuccessful attempts to tell his cousin about what had happened. In addition, Hadel later confessed to killing Sheddy to his jail cellmate, Jonathan Handy, while awaiting trial. Both Johnson and Handy testified this week Hadel had confessed.
Johnson, who had refused to testify in the months leading up to trial under fear of incriminating herself in the crime, was compelled to testify this week by the court under the doctrine of “use immunity.” Use immunity is granted to a witness in a criminal case that prevents the use of the witness’s compelled testimony against that witness in a criminal prosecution. A witness with use immunity may still be prosecuted, but only based on evidence not gathered from the protected testimony.
Johnson’s lengthy testimony on Tuesday laid out the events leading up the Sheddy’s disappearance in great detail. Johnson testified she had returned to the Byrd Rd. residence on the evening of Nov. 13, 2007, to find the typical bonfire blazing on the property with no one else around. Hadel and Jackson returned a short time later and told Johnson that Sheddy had run off.
Johnson made arrangements for Sheddy’s children to be picked up, while Hadel and Jackson went to search for Sheddy. The two men returned about two hours later and the three adults and Johnson’s two children packed some belongings and inexplicably went to the River House in Snow Hill for the night.
During the trial, testimony showed Hadel had struck Sheddy as many as four times with a shovel during a dispute over sex. Johnson testified Hadel had been intimate with Sheddy after she came to live at the Byrd Rd. residence. It also became apparent Jackson and Johnson were involved in the cover-up, although the extent of how much Johnson knew and when she knew it was not entirely clear.
What is clear is that Hadel eventually confessed to Johnson while the two were in a car together at a gas station in Salisbury after two earlier attempts to tell his cousin what happened that night. By the end of the trial on Wednesday, it was clear Jackson and Johnson were involved, at least in the cover-up, but the guilt for Sheddy’s death was squarely on Hadel. During his closing argument, State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby told the jury the evidence and testimony showed Hadel deliberately and willfully killed Sheddy.
“The defendant intended to kill Christine Sheddy,” he said. “He thought about it. He had enough time to reconsider before hitting her. You’ve heard the evidence, you’ve seen the pictures, you heard from the Medical Examiner who tells you a minimum of four blows were inflicted on a 5’3”, 104-pound woman.”
Oglesby pointed out with emphasis the Hadel’s willful and deliberate actions met the standard for premeditation.
“Was it premeditated?” he asked. “When he was preparing to strike her, it was willful, deliberate and pre-meditated,” as he pounded the jury box with his hand to punctuate each word.
Public Defender Arch McFadden, however, pointed to Johnson’s testimony that Hadel told her it was an accident.
“If you believe Tia, you’re probably somewhere in the area of first-degree assault,” he said. “He said he swung the shovel and hit her and that it was an accident. An accident is not homicide.”
McFadden attempted to paint Hadel as a pawn in a larger cover-up constructed by Jackson and possibly even Johnson.
“To believe he was the mastermind, that he ordered around Tia and Junior, both grown adults, is just incredible,” he said. “It was Junior’s decision to go to the River House. He had the key, he picked the room and he had the key to the shed where the tools were located. In order for the state’s theory to be true, a 16-year-old had to kill her and direct two grown adults to cover it up. It’s just incredible.”
McFadden also suggested Johnson lied on the stand to protect Jackson.
“As early as November 2007, Tia has already lied to protect Junior,” he said. “She lied to protect him then, and she is lying to protect him now. The only way to get Tia out of this, and get Junior out of this is to lie about what really happened, and they’re the only ones who really know. She made up stories to protect the man she loves.”
McFadden referenced a picture from the scene where the remains were recovered showing a piece of wood with the name Junior carved into it with a crown over top to hammer home his point.
“King Junior killed Christine Sheddy and they got Tia and Jonathan Handy to come in here and tell us Justin Hadel did it because it’s all they have,” he said.
However, Oglesby countered two independent witnesses testified Hadel had confessed to them.
“Justin Hadel confessed to two separate people and said he killed Christine Sheddy,” he said. “Two people with no connections. The defense would have you believe two witnesses both lied and completely fabricated confessions out of thin air. There is not a single piece of evidence that points a finger at anyone other than the defendant.”
Oglesby did not discount the assertion Jackson and Johnson were involved, at least in the cover-up, but told the jury that issue was not in front of them at this time.
“I do not doubt that it was Jackson’s idea to take the body to the River House,” he said. “He knew about the place and he had access to the place, but Justin Hadel is not charged with getting rid of the body. Who decided where to take the body is not at issue here today. The question before us is who killed Christine Sheddy, who struck her at least four times. It is uncontradicted that anyone but Justin Hadel killed Christine Sheddy.”
Oglesby also acknowledged defense’s notion Hadel was somehow the mastermind.
“There is no suggestion that Justin Hadel was ordering anyone around,” he said. “If you believe Handy, the order came from Junior to finish her off. But the question of why is not a question that has to be answered by you. If you believe Christine Sheddy died of injuries inflicted on her, and Justin Hadel inflicted those injuries, than you can find him guilty of murder.”
The jury did find Hadel guilty of first-degree murder after deliberating for three hours on Wednesday. Afterward, one juror, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the jury was convinced Hadel was responsible for inflicting the blows that killed Sheddy.
“We took an initial vote and while we weren’t immediately in total agreement, I think everybody realized he was guilty of killing her,” the juror said. “I think we all agreed he was guilty of something, but there was considerable discussion about the pre-meditation issue.”
After carefully reviewing the evidence, the juror said reaching the verdict wasn’t difficult.
“Everybody wanted to carefully go over the evidence again,” the juror said. “We wanted to make sure we got it right. We wanted to treat it with respect and carefully and thoroughly reach a decision. Somebody was dead and another person was likely going to spend the rest of his life in jail, so you want to do the right thing.”
The juror also said, while it wasn’t an issue for the jury to decide, most on the panel believed others were involved.
“I would suggest all of the jurors believed two other people should be charged with something in this case,” the juror said.