TAYLOR COUNTY—Nearly four months after being found guilty of the first-degree murder of his wife, John Michael Hess was back before Judge Alan D. Moats to request a new trial.
During the three-day trial, the defendant was represented by Scott Shough and Tyler Reseter, who would make the argument that their client had suffered from a diminished capacity, in an attempt to have the charge dropped to second-degree murder.
In total, Taylor County Prosecuting Attorney John Bord and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Claire Niehaus called eight witnesses to the stand.
After testimony was heard from both sides, the jury was sent into deliberation. In just 36 minutes, Hess was found guilty of murder in the first-degree, and in another quick deliberation of just 10 minutes, the jury came to a unanimous decision—John Michael Hess would be shown no mercy and would spend the remainder of his life behind bars.
Recently, Reseter filed post-trial motions, seeking a new trial for his client.
He told the court that his client had sought to have an additional psychiatric evaluation before the trial, citing that Hess had suffered from a bi-polar disorder, as well as schizophrenia. He was even being medically treated for his condition.
“In November 2019, Mr. Hess informed the jail that the drugs were causing more harm than good, and he refused to take them any longer,” Reseter revealed. “After a change was noticed in the defendant, a motion was filed for an additional mental competency evaluation, and it was ultimately denied by the court.”
It was reported that the request was denied, because the court had already requested, received and reviewed Hess’s medical records, and he had already undergone two prior competency evaluations.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Claire Niehaus refuted the acceptance of the motion, citing that numerous witnesses were called during a pretrial hearing to testify in the nature of the behavior of Hess due to his own decision to stop taking his medication.
“Those witnesses testified under oath that they did not observe any evidence that would give cause to question the defendant’s competency,” she voiced. “Your client doesn’t get to knowingly and willfully stop taking medication to try and alter the outcome of his trial or to postpone it any further.”
As another basis for a new trial, Reseter filed a motion pertaining to the entry of certain photos into evidence that were what they considered overly gruesome.
“Those photos could have been and should have been excluded from evidence due to West Virginia’s Rules of Evidence, more specifically rules 403 and 401, as they pertain to relevance,” he explained.
Rule 401 defines what the court could deem as relevant evidence. The rule states, “Evidence is relevant if:(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and(b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.”
Whereas Rule 403 focuses on the exclusion on relevant evidence, stating “The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”
Reseter reiterated that the specific photos in question were used to as a means to draw sympathy from the jurors from the grotesque photos of the victim following the shooting.
Niehaus again countered the defense attorney’s motion, stating that the pictures had been entered into evidence as a means to show malice and pre-meditation, two specific requirements to the first-degree murder charge.
“The photos in question were not irrelevant, and it should be noted that any deceased body is going to be difficult to see,” she argued. “The state would assert that the pictures were not used to mislead the jurors and were, in fact, not published during the trial, but were included in the evidence for the jury to look over when deliberating.”
She said that it is her belief that the pictures very well might not have to come in to play due to the fact that the jury deliberated for 36 minutes, and the amount of evidence to consider was extensive.
After hearing arguments from both sides, Moats weighed in on the motions, which were ultimately denied.
“In regard to Mr. Hess’s competency, during a pretrial hearing, no witnesses testified to a change in his behavior that would cause concern that he was not mentally competent to stand trial. That couple with the competency evaluations that had been performed, is the reason your first motion is being denied,” voiced Moats.
He expressed that the photos used during the trial were not prejudicial, but rather they possess a probate of value regarding the case.
“Mr. Hess gave an extended video statement and the pictures in question had a direct bearing because of those statements. The photos were indeed used to show malice and pre-meditation and were relevant to the proceedings,” said Moats. “Therefore, for these reasons, your request for a new trial has been denied.”