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Witness: Accused repeatedly beat victim with log

March 19, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

A witness who admits she participated in the fatal beating of Vatressa Miller in the summer of 1999 testified Tuesday that Keyston J. West "repeatedly beat" the woman with a log he had picked up near the crime scene.

West, 26, also known as "D-Man," is one of three people charged in connection with the death of 20-year-old Miller, whose body was found in a wooded area on Aug. 10, 1999. West's trial started Tuesday and could conclude today or Thursday.

The witness, Vernel Newell, testified that she and several other people took Miller to a secluded spot near Grey Stone on the Opequon and confronted her, believing she was providing police with information about their drug activities.

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Newell said she punched Miller in the face, but after that, West and Casey Michelle Holt, 28, started beating Miller with makeshift weapons.

Holt pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree murder and was sentenced to serve 13 years in prison. She is expected to testify against West today.

Newell also accepted a plea bargain in which she pleaded guilty to a drug charge in U.S. District Court, in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence and testimony against those accused of killing Miller, said Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely.

According to Newell, the beating happened on July 19, 1999. After the group arrived at the secluded spot, Holt pulled a small piece of wood, identified as an ax handle, from her pants. "She repeatedly kept beating her on the head," Newell testified.

Miller fell to her knees and then to the ground, blocking her face with her hands and arms when West picked up the log "and repeatedly beat her. And kept on beating her," Newell said.

West and Holt then dragged Miller into the woods, Newell said. "They checked to see if she was still breathing and she was. After that we just left her there," Newell said.

A jury panel of five men and eight women, including an alternate, is hearing the case. In his opening statement, Paul Lane, one of West's two attorneys, told jurors that Holt and Newell were responsible for the death.

"The two of them got away with murder," Lane said, adding later, "Casey Holt killed the victim."

Games-Neely argued in her opening remarks that after Newell punched the victim, the tense situation escalated into "a mob frenzy."

Wearing rubber gloves, Dr. Zia Sabet, a deputy chief medical examiner in Charleston, W.Va., examined both the log and ax handle, and testified that either weapon could have caused the fatal blow or blows to Miller's head.

Sabet was one of several witnesses who took the stand.

It took around three hours Tuesday morning to whittle a large jury pool down to 12, plus an alternate.

Along with Holt, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution who examined Miller's skeletal remains also is expected to testify today.

Already tried and convicted of related drug charges in federal court, West is serving two life sentences.

If convicted of first-degree murder in Circuit Court, West faces up to life in prison. West Virginia does not have the death penalty.

The final person charged in connection with Miller's death, Andrew "Sway" Jackson, 25, is expected to have a jury trial in May.

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