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West guilty in woman's 1999 death

March 20, 2003|By CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Despite inconsistencies in the testimony of two witnesses, a Berkeley County jury on Wednesday night found Keyston J. West guilty of first-degree murder.

Jurors deliberated for nearly two hours. Today, the same jury panel will decide whether to grant mercy, which means West would be eligible for parole after 15 years.

West, 26, was charged in the 1999 beating death of Vatressa Miller, 20.

"Relief," is how Roxanne Crist, Miller's mother, described her feelings after the trial. She and her husband Michael, who has helped raise Miller since she was 1 year old, were present for the two-day trial.

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Miller was a "beautiful redhead. She loved her handicapped brother. She loved to read. There were little things, a lot of little things," Crist said.

Especially difficult for the couple, Crist said, was watching testimony of Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution. Owsley showed jurors slide photographs of Miller's decomposed body, along with photographs of injuries to her skull.

"She was my child and I'm going to see it all the way through," Crist said.

One of West's court-appointed attorneys, Paul Lane, said he was surprised and disappointed with the verdict. West has maintained that he did not do anything to cause Miller's death, Lane said.

At trial, Lane did not call any witnesses to the stand and West did not testify.

The first person who testified Wednesday was Casey Holt, 28, who said that in July 1999 she drove a group of five to a secluded, wooded spot in the Grey Stone on the Opequon subdivision, east of Martinsburg. With her, Holt said, were West, Andrew "Sway" Jackson, the victim and Vernel Newell.

Newell, 32, testified a day earlier. Several inconsistencies were obvious when her testimony was compared to Holt's.

Newell was adamant that before going to the murder scene, the group stopped at a Sheetz store in Martinsburg to buy cigars. Holt said no such trip to the convenience store took place.

Newell said that Holt repeatedly hit the victim with a piece of wood, identified as an ax handle by investigators. Holt said she had never seen that piece of wood before her trial and had not wielded it.

Holt said Newell may have kicked the victim, but never hit her. Newell said that she was the first to hit Miller, punching her in the face.

"One of the two is lying," Lane told jurors in his closing statement. Or "both are lying."

In her closing statement, Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely emphasized that Holt and Newell agreed on one point: West picked up a log found at the scene and hit Miller with it as she was on the ground, attempting to protect her head.

Both Newell and Holt worked out plea bargains, with the condition that each testify against others charged with killing Miller.

Either woman could have said anything on the stand over the last two days, Games-Neely said in her closing statement, and not have faced prosecution for Miller's death. Instead, she said, they told the truth, but may not have remembered or seen certain events.

The entire truth -- as far as the sequence of events after the five left a party together -- may forever remain a mystery, known only to "four people who are alive on this earth," Games-Neely said.

Miller's body was found on Aug. 10, 1999, three weeks after police believe she was killed.

Owsley, the Smithsonian scientist, the log, not the ax handle, more likely caused the fatal blow.

Police contend that Miller was killed because the others falsely believed she was providing police with information about their drug activities. West was tried and convicted of several related drug charges in U.S. District Court last year and ordered to serve two life sentences.

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