Wood County murder conviction upheld

PARKERSBURG – The West Virginia Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of a Washington County man for the 2010 murder of a Parkersburg resident.

The court unanimously affirmed Wood County Circuit Court Judge Robert Waters’ denial of a motion for acquittal or a new trial for John Eugene Anderson of New Matamoras. Anderson was 29 when he was convicted in January 2012 of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of 68-year-old Willard Rex Wright.

According to the decision issued by the court Monday, Anderson and his attorney, Joe Munoz of Parkersburg, appealed Waters’ March 2012 ruling, claiming the jury was tainted by the statements of a prospective juror and the criminal history of a witness and the victim were improperly withheld.

The 20-page decision addresses each of those claims and says the circuit court acted properly in each case.

“We were certainly pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the conviction,” Wood County Prosecuting Attorney Jason Wharton said. “We believed at the time that he had ruled appropriately and … now that the Supreme Court has had the opportunity to review the case, the court agreed with Judge Waters’ original decision during trial.”

Wright was a registered sex offender whose alleged inappropriate contact with his niece’s 4-year-old daughter on March 23, 2010, apparently led to his murder early the next morning. His niece was Anderson’s girlfriend, and witnesses testified that Anderson claimed he killed Wright to protect her daughter. Additionally, the original criminal complaint said Anderson told one individual he was going to go somewhere to stab someone and get money.

According to the decision, Waters granted the prosecution’s motion to prevent references to Wright’s sex offender status from being made during the trial, claiming it was irrelevant. The defense argued the status could be considered a “provocation” for the killing or establish motive for another suspect to have killed Wright.

The decision says the defense never argued a “‘self-defense’ or ‘heat-of-passion’-type defense” at trial, and that evidence at trial clearly linked the killing to the alleged contact with the girl. The decision also notes Anderson is a sex offender as well.

“(He) appears to argue simply that Mr. Wright’s sex offender status essentially ‘justified’ his murder. As such, the trial court correctly found the evidence in inadmissible,” it says.

Another argument focuses on witness James Claypool, who was being held in the Washington County Jail on federal charges at the same time as Anderson following Anderson’s arrest in 2010. Claypool, an enforcer for the Pagans Motorcycle Club, testified during Anderson’s trial that Anderson told him he’d killed a man who “had it coming.” He also said Anderson asked him about what type of evidence the police would look for and whether Claypool could make something happen to witnesses against him.

The defense challenged the fact that the prosecution had not included in the criminal history of Claypool it provided an agreement to plead guilty to a felony charge of obstructing justice with bodily injury in exchange for other counts being dropped. According to the decision, Claypool testified about his plea agreement in a 2010 preliminary hearing and at the trial.

The state Supreme Court also ruled the prosecution was under no obligation to provide the defense with a copy of a letter Claypool sent to his attorney about his conversation with Anderson, since it was not in the prosecution’s possession.

Finally, the higher court agreed with Waters’ denial of a defense motion for a mistrial after a prospective juror was overheard claiming that Anderson “just looks guilty, looks like my ex-husband,” the decision says. Waters questioned the jury pool, and two people admitted to hearing the remark, one of whom eventually went on to serve on the jury with no objection by the defense.