Joseph Wert bound over in fatal shooting

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THE DEFENDANT’S TABLE – Joseph Wert (at right) sits at the defendant’s table with (from left) private investigator Stephen Phelps and attorney Joe Byrd during a preliminary hearing Friday in General Sessions Court. Wert was bound over on a second degree murder charge in the Jan. 14 fatal shooting of Larry Gene Watkins.

Judge reduces charge from 1st to 2nd degree murder

Cedar Grove resident Joseph Wert, 21, was bound over Friday to the Grand Jury for the January 14 fatal shooting of 46-year-old Larry Gene Watkins, Jr. of Cedar Grove.

During Friday’s preliminary hearing, however, Carroll County General Sessions Judge Larry Logan reduced Wert’s original charge of first degree murder to second degree murder after hearing testimony, evidence and arguments presented by prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office and Wert’s attorneys.

Assistant DA James Webb presented the state’s case with DA Matt Stowe present at the prosecution table.

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Wert’s defense was headed up by attorney Joe Byrd of Byrd & Byrd of Jackson with assistance by attorney Jennifer Free, also of Byrd & Byrd, and private investigator Stephen Phelps.

Testifying as witnesses for the state during the hearing were Carroll County E911 District Director Kristy Meggs, Cpl. Mike Mulligan with the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department, and Criminal Investigator Joseph Hudgins, Jr. with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).

As part of Meggs’ testimony, an audio recording of the 911 call made by Wert’s mother, Susan Yatzun, at 4:56 p.m. on Jan. 14 was played before the court.

During that recording, a seemingly hysterical Wert could be heard talking and crying in the background as Yatzun spoke with dispatcher Pam Moss, telling Moss that somebody had been shot at their residence at 660 Moss Creek Road.

“I shot him. I had to,” Wert could be heard saying in the recording. “I shot him right through the chest. He’s [expletive] dead.”

Mulligan testified that he was among the first responders at the scene, along with Sgt. Scotty Davis and Deputies Jason Walker and Stephen Scott, and during Mulligan’s testimony, a video recording from Davis’ dashboard camera was played in correspondence with an audio link from a microphone in Davis’ possession.

After the officers arrived at the scene and exited their vehicles, the video just showed a view of the driveway and house, though conversations between officers and with Wert could be heard.

Hudgins testified that he was in Henry County when he received the call for assistance at around 5:50 p.m., and he arrived at the scene at around 7:30 p.m. after obtaining a search warrant from Circuit Court Judge Donald Parish.

Hudgins said that when he tried to talk with Wert, his mother told him not to say anything and that she was contacting a lawyer.

“He [Wert] chose to end the conversation at that point,” said Hudgins.

In describing the crime scene, Hudgins said Watkins’ body was lying face up on the ground about 250 feet from Wert’s residence down a trail leading to a nearby pond levy.

Hudgins said that Watkins was not wearing a shirt, though a blue dress shirt was lying on the ground near his body, and a nine-millimeter pistol with a full magazine and a bullet in the chamber were found in one of the front pockets of Watkins’ blue jeans, while the other pocket had been pulled inside out.

As Hudgins detailed, Watkins had what appeared to be a gunshot wound near the center of his chest, an exit wound in his back, and a gunshot wound to the neck. He said residue indicating a gun fired from close range was found around the chest wound, though definitive lab results regarding this residue were not yet available.

Hudgins also said that a piece of lead believed to be the bullet from the chest wound was found on the ground underneath Watkins’ body near the exit wound, and lead fragments believed to be from the bullet that struck Watkins in the neck were also found near the body.

Hudgins pointed out that lab results had not yet confirmed whether or not these were indeed a bullet and bullet fragments.

During the warranted search of Wert’s residence, Hudgins said that officers found a 44-magnum revolver on a kitchen counter with six bullets in the cylinder, three of which appeared to have been fired.

Two “reddish-brown stains” were found on the floor between the front door and the kitchen, though Hudgins said the composition and source of these stains had not yet been determined either.

In reviewing the 911 call, Hudgins testified that he could hear Wert admit to shooting Watkins and state that he didn’t want to kill Watkins, but Watkins was “waiving a gun around, so he shot him.”

From the dash cam audio, Hudgins said he heard Wert say that he and Watkins had gotten into a fight earlier and Watkins had punched him, and Watkins had later approached him holding one hand behind his back.

During Byrd’s cross examination of Hudgins, it was revealed that Watkins had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit at the time of his death, Watkins was a known user of methamphetamine with convictions for manufacture of meth and reckless endangerment against his ex-wife, and Watkins had made previous threats against Wert, particularly regarding Wert’s relationship with Watkins’ ex-wife.

It was revealed during testimony that Wert had no previous criminal record and there was no evidence that Wert had ever threatened Watkins prior to the Jan. 14 incident.

Testimony and photographic evidence also revealed that Wert had a busted lip and a cut inside his mouth, presumably from his altercation with Watkins.

During his closing argument, Webb said that Wert gave officers conflicting accounts regarding the shooting, and the fact that Watkins’ gun was still in his pocket made it unlikely that he was either waiving it around or holding it behind his back.

Webb also argued that the bullet found underneath Watkins’ body indicated that Wert had first shot Watkins in the neck, and after Watkins fell, Wert came and stood over him and “finished him off” with a shot to the chest.

Byrd, in his closing arguments, countered that there was no clear evidence that Wert was standing over Watkins when he shot him in the chest, the E911 and dash cam recordings could not be heard clearly, and Wert was obviously too hysterical after shooting Watkins to have made up stories to tell the police.

Byrd also pointed out that Wert had earlier called his mother, who was out shopping at the time of the shooting, and told her that he was afraid that Watkins was going to kill him.

Byrd said that there was no evidence of premeditation in this case, and that Wert had “reason to believe that he was under threat of immanent death.”

“I don’t see evidence of premeditation,” said Logan, who added that he had never presided over a case in which so much relied on forensic evidence that was not yet available.

Logan said that he did find probable cause for second degree murder.

“The Grand Jury can decide,” said Logan, who expressed doubt that Wert would be indicted.

The Grand Jury will convene on September 8, and if indicted, Wert will next appear in Circuit Court on Sept. 14.

Wert, who was accompanied in court by his parents, has been out of jail on a $100,000 bond since February 14.

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