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Berkeley County jury convicts Fielder of murdering ex-wife

November 14, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

Stephen R. Fielder's testimony that the death of his ex-wife was an accident and not murder didn't sway the jury seated for the 59-year-old Bunker Hill, W.Va., attorney's murder trial in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

On Wednesday morning, the panel of eight men and four women notified a court security officer that they had reached a verdict after about 2 1/2 hours of deliberations that began Tuesday evening. They found Fielder guilty of murder in the first degree in the August 2006 death of Debra Ann Fielder.

The jury did not attach mercy ? or the opportunity for parole ? to their verdict, which was read aloud by a deputy circuit clerk at about 10:30 a.m., after 23rd Judicial Circuit judge David H. Sanders reviewed the one-page form.

Fielder showed little reaction and said nothing before being ushered out of the courtroom by a security officer. Although the jury's verdict automatically carries a state-mandated life sentence, Sanders scheduled a hearing on Dec. 10 to formally pronounce the terms of the sentence and to consider post-trial motions.

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"Admittedly, this was a very unusual and interesting case," Sanders told jurors after thanking them for their service in the trial, which spanned more than a week.

Jurors were shown graphic photographs that depicted the 47-year-old victim's dismembered and partially decomposed remains, which were put into three pieces of luggage and dumped into Back Creek near the community of Shanghai, W.Va.

"It's definitely the most gruesome disposition of a body that I've ever seen," said Prosecuting Attorney Pamela J. Games-Neely.

"We really pared down the gory stuff (for the trial)."

The defense's objections to the photographs being shown to the jury are expected come up in an appeal to be filed by Fielder's attorney, B. Craig Manford.

"I'm hoping they (jurors) were not swayed by the emotional aspects of it," said Manford, who had urged the jury in his closing argument to focus on evidence presented concerning Debra Ann Fielder's death and not on the manner of the body's disposal.

"You've got to get over the dismemberment deal," Manford told the jury Tuesday.

In addition to the images of disfigured and traumatized flesh, jurors also were shown photographs of Stephen Fielder's prairie dog, Max, which authorities believe likely caused bite marks on the victim's left ear and two fingers.

On the witness stand Tuesday, Stephen Fielder said his beloved pet was a vegetarian and would never eat meat.

Fielder testified that while incarcerated and awaiting trial, he had come to the conclusion that his ex-wife was on methamphetamine and had plotted to have a family protective order served on him as a means of forcing him out of his own house at 9280 Winchester Ave.

Three days after Aug. 11, 2006, the day Stephen Fielder said she threatened to lock him out and then fell down the steps, he was recorded by surveillance video cameras installed at Wal-Mart in Martinsburg purchasing gym weights and red, American Tourister luggage.

Games-Neely said Wednesday that the surveillance video recording of Fielder's purchase, a vital part of the state's case, was about to be "written over" by Wal-Mart's system and lost within a day or so after it was found.

Investigators recovered the video only after West Virginia State Police Cpl. Brian Bean decided to try to track the origin of the luggage through a UPC code still attached.

"It was on a whim that he did it," Games-Neely said.

She credited the luggage company with helping investigators in their effort to identify the victim, which she said almost seemed to have involved "divine intervention."

"Without the bar-code, she would still be the lady in the water."

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