Whitton found guilty of murdering wife in 1997 Jackson County, Ala., cold case

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. - It didn't take long for a jury to find Barry Van Whitton - charged in the 1997 slaying of his then-wife, Michelle - guilty of murder Thursday.

The panel of eight men and four women deliberated about two hours before reaching a verdict in the Jackson County, Ala., trial.

The 46-year-old former Section, Ala., resident will be sentenced later, according to presiding Judge John Graham.

Whitton, dressed in a gray button-up shirt with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, showed no emotion as the guilty verdict was read and jurors were polled individually. Thursday marked the 13th day of court action in the case.

Whitton was indicted in December 2014 and formally charged in January while serving a federal sentence for an unrelated weapons conviction. Jury selection in the trial began Sept. 9, and testimony began on Sept. 14. The state rested its case on Wednesday.

Prosecutors Leigh Gwathney and John Hensley told jurors in closing arguments Thursday morning that only one person had the motivation and opportunity to kill 28-year-old Michelle Whitton, who, according to state testimony, was planning to divorce her husband.

The state's attorneys told jurors that testimony showed Whitton manipulated people and versions of events to suit his needs. Gwathney maintained that Whitton had dug the shallow grave in the days or weeks leading up to the murder with the idea already of burying his wife in "his favorite spot" on property he'd been run off of a number of times.

photo Barry Van Whitton

Whitton's defense lawyers, Gerald Paulk and Jake Watson, pointed to testimony from neighbors and acquaintances of the couple who claimed they saw Michelle Whitton on the Sunday morning after prosecutors say the murder had already been committed.

Paulk said a wallet found in the same location as Michelle Whitton's car belonged to a suspect who authorities dismissed because it didn't fit their case. The wallet contained a receipt with an early December date and was found just a few feet from the car. The wallet belonged to Shane Bynum, whose family owned the land where Michelle Whitton's car was found. Bynum has since died.

Paulk told jurors that a gang of people that included Shane Bynum were potential suspects the state chose to ignore. He said investigators didn't want to consider other suspects "because they already decided they would pin it on Barry Whitton."

In the state's second closing remarks at the conclusion of trial testimony, Gwathney said those people 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 under a cliff in neighboring DeKalb County.

Gwathney said Whitton demonstrated his nature in the vicious attack. Holding a shotgun before jurors, Gwathney said he repeatedly bludgeoned Michelle 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, Gwathney told jurors. Michelle Whitton's family members began to weep in the gallery as the prosecutor spoke.

After the verdict was read, those family members left the courtroom and stood hugging each other and crying.

Graham said the sentencing date will be set later.

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 murder charges were leveled against him in Michelle Whitton's slaying.

Whitton netted two new felony charges in June after he allegedly threatened witnesses he expected to testify at his trial, according to officials with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. He also was charged with first-degree promoting prison contraband in another incident. Those cases are pending.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/Ben Benton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.