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Shull's courtroom saga ends with guilty plea

Jul 25, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Jeremiah Shull, who killed his estranged wife's lover in 2014, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Monday, negating the need for a second trial after the Wyoming Supreme Court had overturned his first conviction in February.

The 25-year-old's decision means an "open plea," in which could he could be sentenced to "any term of imprisonment deemed appropriate by the court," ranging from 20 years to life.

In recent weeks, district court judge Norman Young has given approval for Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun to introduce new character evidence against Shull -- evidence suggesting premeditation which hadn't been allowed in the first trial.

"Information brought out in the hearing last week means I now believe this is my best course of action," Shull said as he pleaded guilty Monday.

LeBrun would have been allowed to present evidence that Shull had drawn a knife on his wife's friend and threatened to kill him a few months prior to the murder.

Two witnesses testified Thursday to confirm that the incident took place.

Shull's second trial had been scheduled to begin Aug. 7.

"It is illustrative evidence of his relationship with his wife and how Mr. Shull would react to her perceived unfaithfulness with anyone," Young previously said in June, when he gave tentative approval to the introduction of that evidence.

When he was 22, Shull stabbed Jacob Willenbrecht and slit the victim's throat as Willenbrecht slept in bed with Julie Cordell-Shull on Oct. 19, 2014.

Forensic evidence found 16 knife wounds had been inflicted.

The debate over whether the killing was "premeditated" dominated Shull's first trial.

His attorney, Sky Phifer, said Shull did not know Willenbrecht was sleeping at Cordell-Shull's house when Shull arrived.

However, Shull called his father two hours before the killing to say he expected to spend the rest of his life in jail.

When his father called the police, he said he believed his son was "alluding to committing a crime that is fairly serious."

Phifer argued -- unsuccessfully -- that that phone call should be suppressed because the interpretations of Shull's father amounted to hearsay.

Shull walked seven miles to his wife's house before killing Willenbrecht that night. He said Monday the walk took him "a few hours."

While pleading guilty, Shull stressed his assertion that the killing had not been planned. Reading from a drafted statement, Shull painted himself in a sympathetic light.

He said his marriage with Cordell-Shull was "quite rushed" and described himself as a loving husband wanting to reconcile with his wife.

"I truly believed that the woman I married -- if I could get her sober, things would go back to the way things were," he said.

"It was painfully clear to everyone but me that our marriage was one-sided."

Shull said he had gone to his wife's house not with any ill intent, but as a desperate last attempt to save his marriage and urge her not to leave Wyoming.

"I realized I wanted to talk to Julie one more time before she left the state," he said.

During the original trial, the jury also convicted Shull of aggravated assault and strangulation of a household member for stabbing and choking his wife during the attack.

Young also gave Shull four to five years in prison for the strangulation charge and eight to 10 years for the assault.

Shull said that when he entered his wife's bedroom, his anger took over.

"I saw an image forever burned in my brain: A man wearing nothing but his boxers, lying next to my wife where I had been just three days prior," he said. "All my anger toward my wife got directed toward the wrong person ... I desperately wished I would have taken a second to think about what I would do next."

LeBrun said at a May hearing that the new evidence showed that Shull's characterization of the killing was "baloney."

Shull also said Monday he was prompted to go to his wife's house on the morning of the killing after discovering his wife had taken his iPad.

"My iPad was my only entertainment in my house, and it was very important to me," he said.

Shull choked back tears while pleading guilty on Monday, confirming his plea only after a long pause and heavy sigh.

A jury found Shull guilty of first-degree murder in 2015, handing him a mandatory life sentence. However, the Supreme Court ruled the jury instructions had been flawed, as they did not require jurors to explicitly consider whether the killing had occurred in a "sudden heat of passion."

The court had previously ruled in 1995 that when prosecutors prove "premeditated malice" -- as they did in Shull's case -- they also inherently disprove the defense of sudden heat of passion.

Young has asked that, before he issues a new sentence, Shull's pre-sentence investigation be updated with information about the convict's conduct in the state penitentiary.

Shull has been remanded back to the state penitentiary pending sentencing and will be held without bond.

Shull's "open plea" means his sentencing hearing will be among Fremont County's longest in recent years. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are expecting to bring multiple witnesses to testify.

Shull's attorney, Jon Gerard, asked that the sentencing not be scheduled for eight to 12 weeks to allow time to prepare.

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2017-10-18

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