EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 20, a jury determined that a nurse practitioner had injected her husband with a paralytic drug and left him to die in the bed to which she set fire as a means of destroying the crime scene.
Six men and six women found Michelle Michael guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree arson, crimes that were worthy of a life sentence with mercy, meaning the accused would be eligible for parole in as little as 15 years. In the court of public opinion, the jury’s decision to show compassion is equally unforgivable.
But in the words of one juror who wishes to remain anonymous, the decision to recommend a life sentence with the possibility of parole was intended to send a harsher message to the 35-year old Morgantown native.
The Monongalia County case was moved to Kanawha County because of publicity in the northern part of the state. CBS’ “48 Hours” was on hand to film the trial, and plans to run a story about the case later this year.
The trial, conducted by Monongalia Circuit Judge Robert Stone, was held in the historic No. 4 Courtroom in the old Kanawha County Courthouse.
The juror’s thoughts on the case and the verdict follow.
Through the entire case, Michelle Michael’s behaviors proved that she was dishonest, disrespectful, and disdainful. She lied to investigators over 100 times, and while on the stand in her own defense, she continued to lie, but this time, she lied to us. Her defiance and arrogance was outrageous. It was as if this woman truly thought she was smarter than everyone else.
The overall experience of serving on the jury was interesting and exciting, yet incredibly stressful. The pressure began as early as jury selection, in that legal teams asked a barrage of questions that ranged from professional expertise to personal values and beliefs. Lawyers seemed to be most concerned with potential jurors’ influence by media coverage, which I had no previous exposure to whatsoever. At the end of this particular long day, the prosecution and defense attorneys chose 14 jurors for what was going to be a lengthy, intense, and emotionally-disturbing trial. I was relieved to be seated next to a balance of men and women, all of whom were determined to keep an open mind and consider the facts as they were presented.
Day one: The prosecution delivered opening statements, and it was at this time that I first learned about the events that occurred on November 29, 2005, in Morgantown. I sat, literally frozen in my seat, and listened intently as the State began to explain and outline the way in which Michelle Michael allegedly murdered her husband and attempted to conceal her actions. Immediately following, the defense stated that someone else had committed both the murder and arson, warning us that there were too many stones left unturned.
As the trial progressed, I tried to stay alert and attentive, as the State called upon a total of 37 witnesses; James Michael’s parents, fire investigators, firemen, medical professionals, neighbors, detectives, friends, employees and co-workers of the victim. The defense called upon six witnesses – just six. A lifetime friend of Michelle Michael (who has lived in Philadelphia the last 10 years), the friend’s husband, the wife of the man with whom she had been having an adulterous affair, an accountant, a private investigator, and last but not least, Michelle Michael herself. It was as if the defense struggled to find people to stand up for Michelle Michael, and those who did speak on her behalf seemed uncomfortable with their role. It was clear that few people liked this woman, and as a juror, I was becoming one of them.
Throughout two weeks of testimony, I watched her story unravel through video surveillance tapes that caught her in nearly every lie told to investigators and authorities. I had heard about her affair with Bobby Teets, a courier for Mountaineer Home Medical, the business that James Michael owned and operated. I listened to hospital managers as they stated personnel problems with Michelle Michael, from personality conflicts to a disregard for human resource policies and procedures. She seemed to follow her own set of rules, which were lax at best.
Michelle Michael was not afraid of getting in trouble, even though this was the reason behind all of her earlier lies (she claimed). A woman who engages in intimate acts with another married man while her child sleeps in the adjacent bedroom is not afraid of getting caught. A woman who leaves town with the company of another man and stays in the same hotel room with him is not afraid of getting caught. Michelle Michael wasn’t afraid of anything, and she wasn’t grieving over anything, either.
It shocked me that Michelle Michael showed no emotion at all when crime scene photos were displayed, capturing her husband’s charred remains in an equally destroyed bed. She showed no emotion as scientists explained how the bed in which her husband died, smoldered under intense heat. She showed no emotion as doctors explained the torturous effects of the paralytic drug. She showed no emotion on the stand as she told prosecutors that she didn’t know how her husband died, and she showed no emotion when other people described his pleasant demeanor and dedication to patients.
Even though I was slowly deciding that this woman was guilty, I silently begged for her to take the stand and tell me something that would convince me of reasonable doubt. Despite what I had heard in testimony, I was confident that she would make me believe that she was incapable of such horrific crimes.
She did not.
Instead, she continued to lie and continued to suggest scenarios that simply weren’t logical. She tried to persuade us to believe that her husband committed suicide with a paralytic drug, and while dying, set his own bed ablaze. When Michelle Michael stepped down from the witness stand, I sat numbed by the experience. I had no choice but to find her guilty as charged.
During the entire seven and half days of arguments and testimony, before every break at the end of the day, Judge Stone would remind the jurors not to discuss the case with anyone — not even among ourselves. We were not to watch the news, read the newspapers, surf the Internet, or listen to the radio. We could not express our worries, frustrations, or confusion to anyone -– not even to our own loved ones.
So, when the prosecution and defense had delivered their final arguments, we the jury, were sent back into a long and narrow room to deliberate the fate of Michelle Michael. It was a relief to be able to talk about it for once.
The first three hours of deliberation provided an opportunity to do just that -– vent opinions regarding the evidence, the lawyers’ presentations, the witnesses’ testimonies, and whether Michelle Michael had actually committed these crimes. Everyone had a lot to get off their chest.
Although we didn’t cast votes on the first day of deliberation, I left the courthouse sensing that there were six jurors who definitely thought she was guilty and six who were leaning toward not guilty. Half of our group had questions about some of the evidence and testimony, with particular concern for possible motive.
On the first full day of deliberations, we decided to start the day with a poling of each juror. As I recall, the opening vote was nine to three, the majority in favor of a guilty verdict, both murder and arson. After that, we began discussing and analyzing the evidence, which included another viewing of the video showing Michelle Michael being questioned by the detectives at the Morgantown Police Department. We then discussed the fire, timelines, and the movements of Michelle Michael as she left and returned to Ruby Memorial Hospital.
We rehashed witness testimony, particularly the neighbor who swore that he saw Michelle Michael pulling out of her driveway on the morning of the murder. We discussed the availability of the drug used as the murder weapon, and the probability of someone else committing this crime.
As the day went on and deliberations continued, we took another vote which resulted in ten calls for guilty, two calls for not guilty. At one point our foreman decided to ask the judge what to do, as it seemed that we were unable to move in one direction or the other.
The judge reminded us of the oaths we had taken as jurors, encouraging us to give ourselves more time to render our decisions. We returned to the deliberation room and continued our discussions, which consisted of each one of us sharing our theories as to what really happened to James Michael and why we supported guilt or innocence.
This process left us exhausted and emotionally drained.
However, we moved to take yet another vote, and at that time, we learned that all twelve of us agreed to the charge of murder in the first degree, as well arson in the first degree. To be absolutely sure, we asked to sleep on our decision. I doubt anyone slept, though. I know I didn’t,
When we arrived for the third day of deliberations, we asked each person to cast their vote one last time. All 12 of us stood by our decision to find Michelle Michael guilty of all charges. At that point, we had yet another hurdle to cross … the issue of mercy.
Everyone discussed the fact that James Michael died without mercy, but I felt that sending Michelle Michael away for life -– locking her up and throwing away the key -– was too simple.
Not speaking for other jurors, I knew that she would have a much harder sentence if she spent each day hoping for release, wondering if the day would ever come. I knew that she would have to do more in prison to be set free, meaning that she would have to adhere to rules that she seemed to ignore in the days leading up to this case.
I thought about her children, who would still have enough years to reconnect with their mother, if they choose to do so. I thought about the concept of prison, which is a correctional facility, and hoped that her years behind bars would rehabilitate the emotions that motivated her to kill her own husband.