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Shull murder trial opens; premeditation a crucial point

Jul 14, 2015 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

On the first day of a Riverton man's murder trial, prosecutors painted him as a calculating killer, while his attorney portrayed him as man madly in love who committed a crime of passion.

The defendant, Jeremiah Ethan Samuel Shull, faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, and strangulation of a household member. His trial beganon Monday in Lander District Court and is expected to last all week.

Opening statements

Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun delivered a succinct opening statementon Mondayto the 13 members of the jury. He said Shull, then 22, stabbed and strangled his estranged wife, Julie Cordell-Shull, 30,in the early morning ofOct. 19.LeBrun said Shull also killed the man in bed with her, JacobWillenbrecht, 27, of Riverton.

"Jeremiah Shull entered with a Gerber knife ... closed the door behind him, locked it, removed and opened his knife, and slit Jacob Willenbrecht's neck nearly ear to ear," LeBrun said.

By contrast, Shull's attorney, Sky Phifer, spent more than an hour on his opening statement, recounting to the jury the history of his client's tempestuous relationship with his wife and trying to lay the foundation for the defense's theory that the assault was a crime of passion.

At the end of the remarks, Phifer cast Shull's actions onOct. 19in a different light than LeBrun had.

"As a result of a sudden heat of passion and because of the infidelity of his wife -- he finds her in bed with another man -- (he) loses it and kills him," Phifer said.

What's the difference?

Whether the jury believes the defense's theory or the prosecution's could be a difference of decades in prison for the defendant.While the defense has yet to contest that Shull killed, first-degree murder requires a defendant to kill with premeditation and malicespecifically, something that Phifer is arguing Shull did not have.

If the jury believes Shull instead acted "upon a sudden heat of passion," as Wyoming statute puts it, it could merely convict him of manslaughter. The maximum sentence for that crime is 20 years in prison, while the minimum sentence for first-degree murder is life in prison.

The latter charge is also punishable by death, but Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun in an interview confirmed he is not pursuing that penalty.

Evidence

Both sides brought up facts in their openingstatementsthey think will support their theories -- facts they hope to establish with hard evidence later in thecase.

In his opening,LeBrunmentioned evidence he said indicated Shull planned the attack in advance.

While Shull walked 7 miles from his Riverton home to Cordell-Shull's north of town, the defendant called his father, LeBrun said. In that call, Shull told his father he would be going to prison for a long time and he wanted his father to have his Jeep, the prosecutor said.

LeBrun also stated that Shull locked the door behind him after he entered Cordell-Shull's bedroom, but before attacking Willenbrecht.

Additionally, Shull sawWillenbrechtwith Cordell-Shull the day before, LeBrun said, adding that Shull threatened the man with violence then, too.

Meanwhile, Phifer argued that, in her year-long relationship with Shull, Cordell-Shullwould vacillate between returning Shull's obsessive affection and spurning him. The attorney recounted episodes he said displayed a roller coaster of emotions, culminating in the alleged attack onOct. 19.

Shull and the then Julie Cordell met in October 2013, Phifer said, adding that the two hit it off even while she was living with a different boyfriend. A few days later, Phifer said, she left and stayed with the defendant for several days.

"Jeremiah fell head over heels in love. At the end of it, he had given her a ring," Phifer said.

Shull went to work the next day and Cordell-Shull brought him lunch as a sign of affection, but the defendant did not see her again for a long time, the lawyer said.

However, Cordell moved in with Shull in January 2015, and they get married the next month. A few months later, she left the state with another man, Phifer said. For the next few months, Cordell-Shull returned to Shull several times, only to leave again,the lawyer added,leaving the defendant heart broken and at times contemplating suicide.

"He gets her, he gets her, and he gets her back and in 10 minutes it all comes undone," Phifer said.

Phifer denied that the alleged Oct. 19 attack was premeditated, noting his client knew Cordell-Shull keeps a revolver in her bedroom

"For crying out loud, you don't take a knife to a gun fight," Phifer said.

Victim's testimony

Cordell-Shull took the standon Tuesdaymorning. Both sides tried to use her testimony to support their version of events.

Cordell-Shull confirmed she was with Willenbrecht in front of her home onOct. 18when Shull came up to their vehicle. She did not hear the conversation, but Willenbrecht told her Shull threatened him, Cordell-Shull said.

Cordell-Shull told Phifer that Shull was obsessed with her.

"That is a little scary at times," she said.

The defense attorney pointed out that the Fremont County Attorney's Office is also charging Cordell-Shull with distribution of methamphetamine, and asked if she was coloring her testimony to curry favor with prosecutors.

"Not at all," Cordell-Shull said.

During the alleged attack, prosecutors argue, Shull also stabbed Cordell-Shull, and choked her until she passed out before leaving. Much of the argument so far has focused on the most serious charge, first-degree murder, but Phifer said in his opening that Shull did cut Cordell-Shull during the alleged attack, and put her in a chokehold afterward.

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