Brent P. England left the Vigo County Courthouse a free man Wednesday afternoon after spending almost a year behind bars in the Vigo County jail.
A 12-member jury rejected the prosecution’s claim that England killed his friend Jackie Lee “JB” Berry Jr. on Dec. 16, 2008, at a duplex on White Oak Lane on Terre Haute’s northwest side.
Berry’s body has never been found, and neither has a murder weapon. England was arrested March 6, 2009 at his parents’ home in West Union, Ill., and was charged with murder in Berry’s disappearance.
Family members and friends of both Berry and England waited anxiously during about four hours of jury deliberation, and the jury returned to a packed courtroom monitored by more than 20 uniformed and plainclothes police officers.
An outburst of emotion came from the Berry family when Judge Michael Lewis read the verdict.
“The devil’s gonna get you all,” uttered a man in the back of the courtroom in the direction of the England family.
“The Lord will take care of him come judgment day,” was the quiet statement of Connie Berry, mother of JB, as she got up to leave the courtroom.
“We’re pleased with the verdict,” defense attorney Joseph Etling said after the courtroom was nearly empty, “and we appreciate how attentive the jurors were in this case. They took their role very seriously, and that is a credit to the entire system.”
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rob Roberts, who presented much of the evidence in the case with the assistance of Deputy Prosecutor Chou-il Lee, expressed disappointment at the jury’s verdict.
“We knew when the charges were filed without a body being found that it was a hard case,” Roberts told the news media. He spoke for Prosecutor Terry Modesitt, who was not in the county at the time the verdict was returned. Modesitt had been present for closing arguments Wednesday morning, but did not handle any of the case before the jury.
The absence of a body to prove that Berry was murdered was a big obstacle to overcome, Roberts admitted during the press conference, but he emphasized he felt the circumstantial evidence was strong in the case.
“One of the things we had to address in jury selection was, could we find people who didn’t need a body to convict?” he said. The prosecution team felt it was the right time to move forward with the case in an effort to give the Berry family closure, he said, and in an effort to see justice was done for the missing man.
“At this point in time, we know we still have an unsolved homicide or missing-person case,” Roberts said.
He also responded to assertions that the exclusion of testimony from the state’s expert witness on blood spatter hindered the prosecution’s case.
“We didn’t have the spatter expert until shortly before the trial, so that didn’t change the strength of the case we thought we had,” Roberts said. Prior to the trial, the judge ruled in favor of a defense motion against that expert witness’s testimony on the grounds that the prosecution did not meet deadlines for sharing the expert’s information with the defense team.
Roberts commended the efforts of area law enforcement for the hours dedicated to the investigation. He also thanked the Berry family for its patience during the investigation and trial.
Jack Berry Sr. represented his family in a news conference, and said his family was disappointed by the jury’s decision.
“My reaction is, the jury don’t know what the heck is going on,” Berry said. “I guess life will have to go on. I thought the evidence was overwhelming, myself.”
Berry said he did not know what the next step for his family will be. He said he was hoping for some closure Wednesday, but the absence of his son prevents that.
“I was worried we wouldn’t get closure even if he was found guilty,” he said.
As to what happened to his son, who has not contacted family members or friends since the day he went missing, Berry said he still feels England is responsible for his son’s disappearance.
“I really believe in my heart that he had some help disposing of him,” the father said.
Berry also responded to assertions by the defense team that JB was not a good father to his young son, who lives in Clinton with the boy’s mother.
“JB was an excellent father from the time he found out he [his son] was really his until the time he left,” Berry said. “He even changed diapers when he had him. That’s something I’d never thought he’d do.”
As for his grandson, Berry said he will leave it up to the boy’s mother to tell him that the jury had found England not-guilty of murder.
“It would be hard for me to tell him anything like that,” Berry said.
After six days of testimony, Roberts and Etling both gave their closing arguments to the jury Wednesday morning.
Roberts said that as investigators pursued their missing-person case, they followed the evidence to England. They knew that Berry was going to England’s home on the day he disappeared, that his van was found a few days later a couple of blocks from England’s home, and that Berry’s blood was found in the trunk of England’s car and on a box in England’s garage.
Etling countered that the investigation was anything but thorough, and that numerous leads implicating other people in JB Berry’s disappearance were not followed up on by investigators.
The jury returned to the courtroom with their verdict about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
England was released from police custody at the Vigo County jail and left the county accompanied by his family. The England family declined comment when contacted later in the day.
Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or email@example.com.
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