Alabama man sentenced to life in prison in wife's 1997 cold-case murder

Barry Van Whitton, 46, formerly of Section, Ala., was convicted of murder in the slaying of his first wife, Michelle Townson Whitton, in 1997.

SCOTTSBORO, Ala. - A man convicted in September of the 1997 Jackson County slaying of his first wife was sentenced to life in prison Thursday after a hearing before Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Graham.

Dressed in a tan Jackson County Jail jumpsuit and shackled hand and foot, Barry Van Whitton, 46, formerly of Section, did not react as Graham announced the sentence in the murder of 28-year-old Michelle Townson Whitton. Whitton also must pay a total of $30,000 in fines and victim compensation ordered by Graham.

Several members of Michelle Whitton's family in the gallery wept.

Assistant District Attorney Leigh Gwathney read an Oct. 13 letter into the court record that was written by Joyce Smart, Michelle Whitton's mother.

"'I never imagined Michelle would grow up to be murdered,'" the letter read. Smart pointed to weeks, months and years of emotional agony as she tried to move through life without justice for her daughter. She noted Michelle would have been 46 years old on Wednesday, had she lived.

"It will only be over for me when I die," Smart's letter said.

Whitton was convicted Sept. 24 after nearly two weeks of jury selection and testimony. The jury deliberated only about two hours before finding him guilty.

The nearly 18-year-old cold case was prosecuted by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange's office in Montgomery.

In a news conference on the Jackson County Courthouse steps after the sentencing, Strange said, "Today justice was served on a convicted murderer who will finally pay for a heinous crime he committed almost 18 years ago."

photo Barry Van Whitton faces trial in Scottsboro, Ala., on murder charges filed in the 1997 beating death of his then-28-year-old wife, Michelle Townson Whitton.

Strange and Gwathney thanked local authorities for their help and state cold case agents for their perseverance. Then Strange alluded to a dark question that still looms in Whitton's past.

"I hope that this conviction will potentially lead to more evidence that may lead us to solve other crimes that Mr. Whitton may have been involved in," Strange said. "And I am hoping now that he has been put away that others may come forward with information that they know."

Whitton also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his second wife, Kimberly Compton Whitton, 36, and her 11-year-old daughter, Haleigh Brean Culwell.

Kimberly was last seen alive on June 2, 2007, when she left work at a Scottsboro nursing home. It is unclear when Haleigh was last seen.

Whitton was arrested on federal weapons charges during a 2007 search for the missing mother and daughter at his 40-acre farm in Section. Authorities found five weapons during the search. Whitton had convictions at the time for receiving stolen property, resulting in the federal violations. He was still serving time on the federal charge when the murder charge was leveled against him in Michelle Whitton's slaying.

There had been very little public movement in the case until Whitton was indicted for his first wife's murder in December 2014 and formally charged in January while serving federal time.

Prosecutors told jurors in closing arguments at the end of the September trial that only one person had the motivation and opportunity to kill Michelle Whitton, who, according to state testimony, was planning to divorce her husband.

Testimony under state questioning showed Whitton manipulated people and versions of events to suit his needs, prosecutors told jurors. Gwathney maintained that Whitton had dug the shallow grave in the days or weeks leading up to the slaying with the idea already of burying his wife in "his favorite spot" on property he'd been run off of a number of times over the years.

Whitton's defense lawyers, Gerald Paulk and Jake Watson, argued that the victim was seen the day prosecutors say the slaying occurred and that the timeline of events and other elements of the case didn't match up.

But Gwathney said those people testifying during Whitton's defense who claimed to have seen Michelle Whitton that Sunday actually saw her on Saturday, when she was wearing the clothes found with her when her body was discovered Jan. 20, 1998, in a shallow grave in neighboring DeKalb County.

Holding a shotgun before jurors, Gwathney said Whitton repeatedly bludgeoned the victim in the back of the head with the butt or barrel of the weapon. Then, to make sure he had killed her, Whitton cut her face, throat and stabbed her in the chest, she said.

Joyce Smart's husband, Paul, remarked in the hallway outside the courtroom after the hearing, "It's been a long time coming - 18 years."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or Benton or or 423-757-6569.