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Charge reduced in W.Va. shooting death

February 08, 2000

John Michael WeaverBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A Jefferson County man initially charged with murder in the shooting of his friend last week was bound over to the next term of the grand jury Tuesday on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

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The action came after a state police trooper testified in Jefferson County Magistrate Court that several witnesses believed John Michael Weaver accidentally shot Earl Payton, 54.

Weaver, who has lung cancer and had to use a respirator to breathe during the hearing, was released on $20,000 bond after the hearing.


Because of his health problems, Magistrate Katherine Santucci said she would like to have Weaver released from the Eastern Regional Jail if possible.

Payton died last Monday after being shot in the chest at Weaver's house in the Orchard Hills subdivision near Ranson, W.Va.

Although it was not clear what led to the shooting, it may have stemmed from an argument over $10 which Payton owed Weaver, Trooper Aaron Zaltzman testified.

In a statement to police, Weaver said he fired a gun into the floor in front of Payton but was "just joking around."

Weaver told police he thought there were only two bullets in the gun, according to court records. He cleared the gun but it fired a second time, police said.

Weaver was overcome with emotion following the hearing Tuesday. Zaltzman testified that Weaver told him the incident was "dumb playing on my part" and said, "I will pay for it for the rest of my life."

Part of Tuesday's testimony revolved around what could have happened when Weaver's gun fired. Although Zaltzman said he is not a firearms expert, he said he has never witnessed a situation in which a pistol accidentally discharged while being cleared.

If it were determined that the gun is faulty and could accidentally fire, charges could be reduced further, said Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael D. Thompson.

Conviction on a felony charge of voluntary manslaughter carries a punishment of 3 to 15 years in prison. Conviction on a murder charge can result in a life sentence.

After the shooting, Zaltzman said he interviewed a relative of Weaver who believed the shooting was an accident. William Weaver said John Weaver, 52, of 320 Orchard Drive, walked into the room where Payton was sitting and showed him a gun.

Payton told Weaver not to joke around with the gun, William Weaver told police.

Another witness said Weaver and Payton were "trashing each other" teasingly, according to Sgt. Mark Johnston of the Charles Town Police Department.

"I thought I'd mess with him. I was just playing," John Weaver said in his statement to police.

A Raven .25-caliber handgun was found at the scene.

Payton grew up in Berryville, Va., and worked as a dump truck driver until about two years ago when health problems forced him to quit, family members said. He had just moved to Winchester, Va. to live with a girlfriend, according to his sister.

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