A four-day trial that included cell phone records and blood evidence ended with the conviction of a Mulberry Grove charged with the 2017 murder of a rural Brownstown man.
A Fayette County jury deliberated about four hours before returning guilty verdicts in the David Leroy Bright trial on Friday evening.
The case went to the jury shortly after 4 p.m. on Friday, after no defense testimony and Bright’s decision not to testify on his own behalf.
Bright, 71, was found guilty of murdering James Skinner in Skinner’s home in rural Brownstown in September 2017.
A sentencing hearing for Bright, who was charged with two counts of murder in January 2018, has been set for Nov. 10. Murder is a Class M felony punishable by up to 60 years in prison, with a life sentence possible with certain factors present.
Bright, who has been incarcerated in the Fayette County Jail since his arrest on $1-million bond, will remain in jail until being sentenced by Judge Kimberly G. Koester.
Last Wednesday’s proceedings included testimony from Illinois State Police Sgt. Andrew Smith, who said that phone records showed 12 missed calls to Skinner from Bright on the day of the murder.
Under examination by Fayette County State’s Attorney Joshua Morrison, Smith said that Bright’s phone records showed that his cell phone pinged on towers south of Bluff City, in Florissant, Mo., and in Germantown on the day of the murder.
Smith said those records show that Bright’s phone was near Skinner’s residence at the time of this death.
Under cross-examination by Bright’s attorney, Public Defender William Starnes, Smith said he could not say what triggers cell phone pings, and clarified that data on a map presented as evidence shows only the places on which the phone pinged, not how many times at each location.
Holly Finney, an ISP master sergeant who was a sergeant investigating the murder, testified that she interviewed Bright at the Greenville Police Department, and that Melissa Watkins had driven Bright there in his van.
Finney said that Watkins gave her consent to search the van, and that during that search, she found stains that appeared to be blood in the van.
Also, there was a basket with laundry, including a pair of jeans that had stains later determined to be blood.
On Thursday, Bridget Howard testified about taking photos while the van was at the Greenville Police Department and also after it was towed to Vandalia.
Howard testified about photos that showed stains on the back of the front seat and on the middle seat of the van, and also on clothing in the laundry basket.
She testified that “presumptive tests” performed on those stains indicated they were blood.
Sergeant Dewayne Morris testified about his bloodstain pattern analysis of the crime scene, saying that he was initially told that Skinner had sustained gunshot wounds.
Because of that, Morris said, he cleared the room of everything in his search for shell casings.
Morris testified that he realized that Skinner was not a gunshot victim when he saw “cast off” blood in the room.
He said that he walked throughout the residence in a search for a possible weapon, and did not find anything.
It was during a search outside of the residence that a sledgehammer was found in weeds beside the driveway.
On the sledgehammer, Morris testified, were bloodstains and hair.
The prosecution’s case also included an interview of Bright at the Greenville Police Department four days after the murder.
State police agents Andrew Smith and Scott Rhodes conducted that interview, during which Bright initially said he did not leave home on the day of the murder.
Asked if he knew how Skinner had died, Bright said, “He got hit.”
Bright admitted that he was at the Skinner home on the day of the murder, but said he was only there for several seconds and that Skinner’s truck was not there.
Asked if they would find DNA on anything at the Skinner residence, Bright said, “I hope not,” saying it could be there from a previous visit.
Asked if he killed Skinner, Bright said, “I did not.”
During cross-examination, Starnes said to Smith, “You’ve already decided this outcome, correct?”
Starnes contended that the agents tried to get Bright to confess by telling him that Melissa Watkins was being questioned in another room, using what he termed “prisoner dilemma.”
Testimony showed that Bright had purchased a new phone on the day of the murder, and he said he could not remember the phone number for his old phone.
Watkins testified that she asked Bright to borrow $20 from Skinner, and that Bright called her on the morning of the murder, saying that he had money, so they could go to St. Louis to watch protestors.
On the trip to St. Louis, she said, Bright was “hysterically crying the whole way,” but wouldn’t say why.’
Continuing to ask him why he was crying, Watkins said that he told her, “The less you know, the better.”
That day, Watkins said, they went shopping, when Bright got a new phone, and also he pointed out that he had bought a pair of shoes. His old pair, Watkins said, were purchased only several days before.
She testified that she hung out with Bright because “he had no friends,” and that he would give her money when she needed it.
Watkins said that Bright told her he went to Skinner’s that morning, but “he said he couldn’t find him.”
Asked about the laundry in his van, Watkins said she did Bright’s laundry often. With the load in the van, she testified, Bright told her to “hurry up and wash it. He really needed it done.
Watkins was mentioned as an ex-girlfriend of Skinner, and Starnes pressed her on her interview with police about whether she just “put up with him” only to get money.
She suggested that Bright was jealous of Skinner because they had had a relationship. “He (Bright) didn’t want anyone helping me.”
Under re-direct examination, Watkins said she kept asking Bright why he was crying. “I just had a feeling something wasn’t right,” she said.
Watkins talked about a night several days before the murder when both Skinner and Bright stayed with her overnight.
She said that Bright would “go out to the bathroom at least 30 times,” with her believing that he was just checking to see if she was with Skinner.
Evidence also included overhear tapes that Watkins agreed to do, during which she repeatedly kept asking Bright whether he killed Skinner.
Bright said he remembered knocking on Skinner’s door that day, but nothing else, and pressed to admit to the murder, he said, “To the best of my knowledge, I did not do it.”
During their conversation, Bright, while continuing to deny killing Skinner, said, “I’m going to jail. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to prison.
“I’ve done accepted it. Somebody’s got to pay for it,” Bright said.
“I did not do it – that’s the honest-to-God truth,” Bright said.
Lindell Moore and Brian Long, state police forensic specialists, testified about the processing of the sledgehammer said to be the murder weapon.
Aaron Small of the ISP forensic science lab testified that DNA testing on Bright’s pants in the laundry basket matched Skinner.
Carla White testified that Bright rented from her father-in-law, who lived at her residence, and that on Oct. 17, Bright came to the residence and asked them to “look after his things … because he would be leaving for a while.
She said he told her that “people were accusing him of things he didn’t do.”
Melvin Dean Skinner, Jim Skinner’s brother, testified that he would drive by his brother’s house after the murder to see if the investigation was still under way.
Two days after the murder, Skinner said, he saw a white van backing out of the driveway, and that he followed the van to a residence north of Mulberry Grove.
Skinner said he approached Bright and asked what he was doing at Jim Skinner’s house.
He said that he went to the Bright residence a second time, this time with an officer.
During that visit, Skinner said, “a couple of times he said he was sorry” and that Bright told him that he was “the last person to see him (Jim Skinner) alive.”
In his closing argument, Morrison told the jury about the blood on Bright’s pants and that he was in a hurry to have Watkins launder them.
He talked about Bright crying hysterically on the day of the murder, and that he had replaced a new pair of shoes that day, saying that he would not have gotten rid of his shoes “unless he thought they might have something on them.”
About Sheriff Chris Smith’s testimony on going to Mississippi to pick up Bright, Morrison said. “Why on earth would he go there unless he was running from police.”
The DNA evidence, Morrison said, “is devastating. There is no way that was not Jim’s DNA on those pants.
“At least one spot contained Jim’s blood, and there was no explanation for that unless he was there when Jim died,” Morrison said.
In his closing, Starnes said that with three spots of blood, police were unable to exclude Skinner’s son.
“That is the beginning of reasonable doubt,” Starnes said.
About the interview with Bright, Starnes said, “They got nothing on him … in 10 hours of conversation with him.”
Starnes said that “in order to make this work, they (police) have to plant evidence.”
On the spot of blood on Bright’s pants, Starnes said, “the only way it got there was it was planted.”
There was no blood evidence in his van, Starnes said.
He told jurors that in his opening statement that they would hear a story that’s “hard to believe.
“Here we are – one spot (of blood) on the jeans,” Starnes said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
In the prosecution’s rebuttal closing, Assistant State’s Attorney David Sternau said that phone records show Bright being at the Skinner home at the time of the murder.
About Bright not being the murder but having Skinner’s blood on his pants, Sternau said, “You have to be the most unlucky man alive.”
On Starnes’ claim that Bright was being framed for the murder, Sternau said, “This is the real world,” saying that Watkins’ testimony about being with Bright on the day of the murder told the real story.