After deliberating about four hours Friday, a Hamilton County jury found a 45-year-old Michigan man not guilty of strangling his ex-girlfriend and dumping her body in a garbage can in 2000.
Jurors returned their verdict in the first-degree murder trial of Jason Sanford around 8:30 p.m. in Hamilton County Criminal Court. Their verdict means Sanford will not be tried again for the June 2000 homicide of Sarah Davis Perry, since the statute of limitations has expired on every other lesser-included murder charge.
"We just appreciate the time the jury spent on it," said one of Sanford's defense attorneys, Johnny Houston. "We know it was a difficult case for everyone."
District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said he also appreciated the jury's service but respectfully disagreed with its verdict.
At stake was closure for Perry's family and a life sentence for Sanford, who was indicted in August 2016 after Pinkston's cold-case unit reopened the June 2000 homicide. Prosecutors said Sanford, considered a suspect in 2000, told his cousin that he'd killed Perry and fled to Michigan on June 15, 2000, the same day Perry's body was discovered in a creek near her duplex in East Ridge.
Throughout the trial prosecutors said Sanford and Perry had a drug-addled and violent relationship. They pointed to a 1999 conviction for assault that left Perry bruised and a medical examiner's testimony that Perry had been strangled from behind with a binding object, such as a belt. As for the motivation, prosecutors pointed to an interview Sanford's cousin gave to investigators in which he said Sanford grew angry after Perry returned home from visitng a drug dealer without crack cocaine and killed her. Prosecutors also said Sanford lied to investigators in 2016 about the day he left Chattanooga, adding that one of Perry's neighbors could place him at her apartment the night before her body was discovered.
But Sanford's defense attorneys, Houston and Amanda Dunn, said the state's witnesses weren't credible and its evidence unfounded. For instance, Houston told jurors during closing arguments, the witness who said she saw Sanford at Perry's house on the evening of June 14, 2000, didn't actually see him, but only heard banging in the duplex the day before, when Perry was alive.
The defense said Sanford started making arrangemens to return to Michigan, where he had family, after Perry got out of a psychiatric hospital on June 13, 2000, and wanted to meet up with a drug dealer. After that, the state couldn't place him and Perry in the same place, Houston said, and his DNA wasn't found on objects that prosecutors said may have been used in the murder.
Sanford told investigators that he left Chattanooga two days before he did because his memory was bad, defense attorneys said. But investigators viewed these mistakes as lies because they'd already made up their minds and were relying on statements that Sanford's cousin gave to law enforcement in 2000, 2001 and 2016, Houston said in his closing argument.
That cousin, Michel Penterics, who has since died from a terminal illness, said he wasn't involved in Perry's homicide when attorneys deposed him in 2017. But Houston said Penterics faced possible prosecution, too, and gave multiple inconsistent statements to investigators who asked leading questions.
In the final closing argument to jurors, prosecutor Pinkston said some witnesses weren't going to be perfect in a cold-case prosecution. He urged jurors to look at all of the evidence and said Perry wasn't murdered by a stranger: "The same person who strangles you from behind is the same person you're in a rocky relationship with."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.