Michael Newell kidnap, murder trial begins

October 20, 1998

Michael Newell trial beginsBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Security was tight and eyes were teary in Berkeley County Circuit Court on Monday when a Martinsburg man went on trial on charges of kidnapping and murdering his 7-year-old niece.

The child, Jessica Newell, was found dead after she disappeared from a Martinsburg bowling alley on Sept. 18, 1997.

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Wearing a patterned sweater and tan slacks, Michael Newell, 40, remained expressionless during most of the first day of testimony before a jury of four men and eight women.

Several witnesses, including Jessica's father, David Newell, some of the spectators and Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely let their emotions show.


David Newell, 34, broke down as he spoke about his last night with his child at the bowling alley, where he said the family went every Thursday for league bowling.

Newell, who said he checked on his daughter about every 15 minutes, said he last saw her standing near the front doors.

He said she told him that her Uncle Mike, his brother, said he was bringing her some baseball cards.

That was the last time he saw his daughter alive, David Newell said.

Michael Newell, of 2105 Winchester Ave., claims Jessica was alive and well when he left her in the parking lot of Pikeside Bowl after giving her some baseball cards.

While a string of witnesses placed the two at the bowling alley, only the 7-year-old Virginia girl who was playing with Jessica that night claimed to have seen her go outside and not return.

Games-Neely became choked up several times during her opening statement, in which she claimed all evidence pointed to Michael Newell during the intensive investigation.

She appeared to be almost in tears as she recited the lyrics of a song about how quickly children grow up.

A few minutes later, she held up a photograph of a smiling Jessica for the jury.

"You'll see no more of her in life," said Games-Neely, who said the evidence can tell what Jessica can't.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Aaron Amore cautioned jury members about letting their emotions color their decisions.

Amore, one of two public defenders representing Newell, likened the prosecution's circumstantial case to the witch trials in 17th-century Salem, Mass.

Testimony would show police ignored other possible leads in their zeal to pin the murder on his client, he said.

Games-Neely said the evidence she'd present would show Michael Newell had an unnatural love for his niece.

When Jessica protested his advances and screamed, her assailant struck her in the head, shattering her skull, Games-Neely contended.

The girl's body was left "for animals to feed on," she alleged.

"It's cold. It's callous. It's cruel," Games-Neely said.

Michael Newell's fingerprints were found inside a sealed plastic bag found near the spot where Jessica's body was found, she said.

The bag was inside a large trash bag containing the match for the single tennis shoe Jessica was wearing when her body was found, some Yankees baseball cards, a cigarette package of Newell's brand and an empty condom package, according to police.

Second-grader Tiffany Mays was the sole witness to testify of seeing Jessica leave the bowling alley with Newell.

When asked if she saw Jessica go to a car, Tiffany, who had just met Jessica that night, said she did. But then she couldn't remember the color of the car or whether Jessica got in.

Her memory was better right after the incident, her mother and grandparents later testified.

Tiffany's stepgrandmother, Anna Luttrell, testified that she asked Tiffany where the little girl she had been playing with had gone and was told that she left with her uncle.

Later that night, after getting a call from the bowling alley telling her Jessica was missing, she questioned the girl again and got more information, Luttrell said.

She said Tiffany told her she went outside with her "Uncle Mike" and got in to a red and white car.

Police disproved Newell's original alibi - that he went to play video lottery machines at Charles Town Races - through surveillance tapes.

Amore said his client was "very stupid" in making up an alibi to police because he didn't have a firm one to give.

The jury and four alternates, selected last week in Monongalia County, will be sequestered in a hotel for the length of the trial, expected to take two weeks.

The jurors were brought in from outside the county because the defense believed pre-trial publicity would have tainted local jurors.

Newell could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and felony murder charges in the girl's death.

West Virginia does not have a death penalty.

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