This story was updated at 6:06 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, with more information.
ATHENS, Tenn. — The state rested its case Tuesday afternoon in the trial of 19-year-old Joseph Wielzen, who is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated rape in the 2017 slaying of 18-year-old Kelsey N. Burnette.
Wielzen, 17 at the time of the crime, is being tried as an adult in McMinn County Criminal Court.
Jury selection began Nov. 12 in the case, which is now in its second week of testimony, with more defense witnesses expected to take the stand Wednesday morning. The trial resumed Tuesday after jurors were allowed to rest Sunday and Monday after court action Saturday.
But it was nearly two hours after the state rested Tuesday before the defense started calling witnesses.
One of Wielzen's attorneys, Bill Brown, made a motion for acquittal based on what he said was a lack of evidence that his client did anything wrong at all. Criminal Judge Sandra Donaghy allowed Brown and District Attorney General Stephen Crump to make their respective arguments, then she studiously went through portions of the testimony from the last few days, reading excerpts aloud, eventually ruling against the motion for acquittal.
The first defense witnesses called were members of the family who lives next door to the crime scene where Wielzen, Burnette and others were having a party the night of June 30, 2017.
Troy Bradford Jr. testified that he and his wife were aware of the party next door attended by Wielzen, Burnette, Burnette's boyfriend, Nick Rose, and another neighbor, Austin Burke. Rose and Burke are two of the state's main witnesses in the case, both testifying last week.
Bradford testified that he, his wife and others went outside the home several times during the evening to smoke and saw nothing out of place at the neighbor's home.
Bradford and his wife said the teens asked to come over to the Bradford home but they refused because the teens were drinking under age. Bradford's 12-year-old stepdaughter testified that she saw a young woman with red hair pacing back and forth near a neighboring church. The red-haired woman had a phone and cigarettes in her hand and it was about 7:30-8 a.m on July 1, 2017. The Bradfords testified that when they got up late that morning, Rose and Burke were "frantically" looking for Burnette.
The last witness of the day Tuesday was dismissed from the stand at about 3:30 p.m. and remaining defense witnesses were not present to testify, so Donaghy decided to dismiss jurors and discuss the charge documents — which contain the specific laws that apply to the case — with Crump and Wielzen's team of Bill and Andy Brown. The charge document will be used by jurors during deliberations at the conclusion of the trial.
The fifth day of the trial started Tuesday with testimony from Dr. Darinka Mileusnic, the physician who performed the autopsy of Burnette's body. The pathologist said the body was in an advanced state of decomposition when the autopsy was performed.
Burnette was sexually assaulted and then beaten so viciously with a baseball bat it shattered her skull into multiple fragments and left paint from the bat embedded in her skull, Mileusnic testified.
Mileusnic testified under direct examination by Crump that Burnette died of blunt-force trauma to her head that crushed her skull — part of it reduced to "smithereens" that could not be recovered — and that the blows were hard enough to have caused paint transfer from the alleged murder weapon, a baseball bat, to Burnette's skull.
Mileusnic also testified Burnette had injuries from sexual assault, evidenced by bruising and a hair and grass found on her cervix. She also had a stab wound to her left forearm.
Wielzen's attorneys during cross examination attacked the autopsy report and Mileusnic's conclusions about sexual assault. Mileusnic testified that there was no DNA evidence retrieved during the autopsy.
The defense challenged Mileusnic's authority to determine whether a woman has been raped based on the injuries, and suggested Burnette's injuries and the foreign matter found inside her might have come from "aggressive sex" that was consensual. Defense attorneys also suggested there was no certainty about when those injuries happened.
The trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.