Man sentenced to life in prison for rape, murder of McMinn County woman; victim's parents take the stand

Parents of slain woman testify at sentencing that she was family's 'protector'

Staff photo by Ben Benton / Joseph Wielzen, on trial in McMinn County, Tenn., for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Kelsey N. Burnette in 2017, sits at the defense table Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in McMinn County Criminal Court.
Staff photo by Ben Benton / Joseph Wielzen, on trial in McMinn County, Tenn., for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Kelsey N. Burnette in 2017, sits at the defense table Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in McMinn County Criminal Court.

ATHENS, Tenn. - The man convicted in the 2017 rape and murder of 18-year-old Kelsey N. Burnette in McMinn County, Tennessee, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In Tennessee, a life sentence with parole is 51 years, but in Joseph Wielzen's case, he won't be released, court officials said.

Jurors who convicted Wielzen on Wednesday were tasked Thursday with determining whether he will serve a life sentence with or without parole during a hearing in McMinn County Criminal Court before Judge Sandra Donaghy. Both the state and defense rested their cases by early Thursday afternoon.

David and Virginia "Sissy" Burnette, the parents of the victim, both said they were satisfied with the sentence and thankful to the prosecutors, investigators and "everybody who worked so hard."

"I'm happy with the decision," David Burnette said. "It's been a lot of stress on the family."

"We'll be able to sleep a little better now that this is over," Sissy Burnette said.

Wielzen's father, Perry Wielzen, declined comment.

Wielzen, 19, was convicted of first-degree felony murder and rape in Burnette's death. "Felony murder" is a count of murder that occurs during the commission of another felony crime, in this case, aggravated rape.

Usually the judge determines a life sentence, but officials from the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office sought enhanced sentencing - meaning no possibility of parole - so the jury weighed mitigating and enhancing factors in ordering Wielzen's sentence. The process is similar to the penalty phase of a capital murder case, officials say.

The state presented evidence on four enhancing factors: that the murder was especially heinous or cruel, it was committed to avoid arrest, it was committed while in the commission of another felony, and knowingly mutilating a body after death, according to District Attorney General Stephen Crump.

The defense was presenting evidence on five mitigating factors: the defendant has no significant criminal history, the victim was a participant in the defendant's conduct, the youth of the defendant, impairment of his judgment and any other mitigating factors arising at trial that apply, according to attorney Bill Brown.

On Thursday, the state put on just two witnesses - the victim's parents.

Under direct examination by Crump, Sissy Burnette said through tears that her daughter was the family's "backbone," and "protector."

"She had a unique giggle and when she'd start you couldn't help but giggle with her," Burnette said. The loss has left lingering scars, she said.

"Since we lost her, no one wants to talk about her memories," Sissy Burnette said. She told jurors that because of her daughter's murder, she'd never see her on her wedding day or when she became a mother. Kelsey Burnette was robbed of her dreams, Sissy Burnette said.

David Burnette testified his daughter was "kind" and "gentle" and would "give anyone the shirt off her back."

"She was very intelligent for as young as she was," he said. David Burnette said the loss has impacted the entire family and his marriage.

Wielzen's attorneys put on five witnesses to testify on mitigating factors, starting with Perry Wielzen, the defendant's father.

Perry Wielzen said his son was the caretaker in the family who was led astray by his mother after she became addicted to drugs and began doing drugs with her young son.

Eventually she left the family and now is imprisoned, according to testimony.

Perry Wielzen said he struggled to stay employed in Florida, and when he moved to Tennessee to get away from the drug problems he relied on Joseph Wielzen to care for his three siblings when the defendant was as young as 5 years old.

"Joseph was the one that basically had to pick up the slack in the house," Perry Wielzen said. "He was the one basically I had to rely on to help me, to be the man of the house."

"He had no childhood, basically," he said.

Perry Wielzen told jurors he'd never seen his son be abusive to women.

"Not once have I seen him disrespect any one of his female friends," he said. "Not once has he ever done something like that.

"I'm not just saying that because he's my son. I know who he is," Perry Wielzen said.

Joseph Wielzen's grandmother, Donna Hitchcock, testified that Wielzen suffered emotional stress from his mother's drug use and talked about Wielzen's mother using drugs when he was underage.

"He was lost. He was looking to fit in," Hitchcock testified. But she said she never knew Wielzen to be violent or aggressive toward women.

Two of Wielzen's acquaintances in Etowah testified under defense questioning about his helpful and caring demeanor and his role as a sometimes peacekeeper.

Last to take the stand for the defense was Tiffany Kile, the Department of Children's Services juvenile caseworker who handled Wielzen's cases as a minor. She testified about his juvenile record of burglary, theft and vandalism arrests, disorderly conduct at school and how he violated his juvenile probation because he tested positive for marijuana.

Kile said Wielzen was always respectful and that she got to know him well. But Kile saw something in Wielzen she thought could be saved.

"He was a good kid," Kile testified, breaking down. "He didn't trust anyone."

When asked whether Wielzen was a good candidate for parole, Kile said, "He absolutely could be rehabilitated."

Wielzen was tried as an adult after his charges were transferred from juvenile court in September 2018. Because of the transfer, the state couldn't seek the death penalty but could seek the longest sentence possible under state law, prosecutors said. He was arrested in June 2018 and indicted on the charges in July.

After her disappearance on June 30, 2017, or July 1, 2017, following a party at a home at 108 Athens Pike in Etowah, Tennessee, Burnette's body was found July 4 stuffed into a garbage can in a wooded area in downtown Etowah. She was reported missing by her family on July 1, 2017.

According to trial testimony, she had been beaten with a baseball bat so viciously that red paint from the bat was embedded in her skull.

Brown said the verdict and sentence would be appealed.

A sentencing hearing on Wielzen's aggravated rape conviction is set for March 20, 2020.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at

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