A man charged with using an axe to hack a mother and her daughter to death told authorities he cannot remember any details of the grisly killings at Pikeville, but Robert Joe Whittenburg said he concluded "it had to be me."
Whittenburg, 47, faces two counts of first-degree murder in the killing of 46-year-old Deanna Lawrence and her 24-year-old daughter (and his girlfriend) Dedra Lawrence. Police found the deceased women lying in a pool of blood on Nov. 30, 2017. Whittenburg was indicted in 2018.
The trial, which was moved to Winchester, got underway Tuesday afternoon after the jury was picked that morning.
Toward the end of the day, the prosecution played a recorded TBI interview from a few days after the events occurred. In this recording, Whittenburg recounted what he remembered from that night. He said he remembered getting into an argument with Dedra, and then blacking out until he woke up and saw both women dead.
“I don’t remember. I just don’t remember,” a recorded Whittenburg said about what happened after he was punched. “I don’t remember anything until I’m standing there and Deanna is over here dead and Dedra is over here dead. I realized it had to be me.”
Prosecutor Steven Strain in anopening statement argued that Whittenburg murdered both women with his fireman’s axe, and he emphasized the grisly nature of their death.
“The kitchen floor was so slick with blood the police had to hold on to each other as they moved,” prosecutor Strain said. “All of the chop wounds were on Deanna’s back, and one went so deep it severed the brain stem.”
He told the jurors that there was a note from Whittenburg that said “I loved her so much” and signed “Joe” placed on one of the victims. He said that Jeff Seals, Deanna Lawrence’s boyfriend, had to break into the house to get back in, and that the two deceased and Whittenburg were the only people found in the house.
Meanwhile, attorney Sam Hudson stressed that the prosecution will have to prove that there was premeditation to justify the first-degree murder charges, and he told the jury that there is “no proof” that he was present. He spoke about Deanna’s history of violence against Whittenburg and her alleged drug use.
“The proof will show he was beyond in love with her, that he came home from work to Deanna and Dedra, that there was an argument,” attorney Hudson said, “and that there was an ashtray thrown at him and he got punched in the face. We don’t know what happened after that.”
He said his client has no memory of what happened after the fight started, and when he woke up to the sight of the two women dead on the floor he did not remember writing the note. Hudson said Whittenburg was so distraught that he tried to commit suicide.
The attorney said, “He didn’t admit he did anything. He says to the TBI agent 'I’m so confused, it must have been me.' He doesn’t try to run away either. He’s so distressed that he tries to take his own life.”
He said the jury could acquit the defendant after considering the evidence. He also said that at the very least, he asked them to consider voluntary manslaughter, with attention paid to the fight that preceded the events of that night.
Jeff Seals said he had come home around 7 p.m., and had not been able to get in touch with either Lawrence or the defendant. He told the prosecutor that he sat on the porch for an hour, and then began walking around the house and knocking on doors and windows. When he knocked on one window perched above the air conditioning unit, the window broke and he went inside.
“His face was blue, and I shook him and he didn’t move, and I knew something was horribly wrong,” Seals said about what he saw when he entered the residence and spotted an unconscious Whittenburg surrounded by bloody rags in the bed. “I saw Dedra’s body and I knew she was gone.”
He said he ran outside of the house in a panic, but realized Deanna was probably still in the house and went back inside. He saw her body in the living room floor and described the scene as “overwhelming.”
Seals said he called 9-1-1 and police arrived shortly thereafter. He told prosecutor David Shinn that Whittenburg would sometimes become so frustrated with how Dedra Lawrence treated him that he would sometime say “Jeff, I’m going to kill her.” During cross-examination, Seals told him that he did not actually believe Whittenburg was being serious.
“Those two women could push every button you had to get a reaction, couldn’t they?” asked attorney Hudson, to which Seals responded “Yes sir.”
Seals told the defense attorney that there was no way to know that Whittenburg was the one who killed the two women. However, he told the prosecutor that after he spoke with police, he believed Whittenburg did it because of how Deanna Lawrence was dressed when she was found. He said Deanna would not have been walking around the home in a bra if Whittenburg was there.
Neighbor Bruce Brouker said he knew Whittenburg as a generally pleasant person, and that he would occasionally lend him money. He said he went to a Bible study the night the killings happened and that the home next to his was unusually dark and silent. He said he heard Seals banging around Whittenburg’s residence, and that police soon showed up.
An officer who responded to the scene said Seals ran out to him crying and screaming “They’re all dead!” The officer said he and his partner had to hold onto one another to avoid slipping on the bloody floors inside, and they saw both women deceased. He said the two officers believed Whittenburg was also dead.
“When I got in there, I saw he was actually taking shallow breaths, but he was not conscious,” the officer said, telling the court that EMS took Whittenburg to the hospital afterward.
TBI forensic scientist Jennifer Spivey examined the axe and note, both of which were present in the courtroom. She did not find any prints on either item, but also said this is not common.
“There are several reasons you may not find fingerprints, like environmental factors or too much or little handling,” Ms. Spivey said, telling the jury that fingerprints are not as common as shows like CSI make them seem.. “It is not uncommon to not find fingerprints.”
During the section of the first day where the prosecution played the recording while the agent who had interviewed him sat in the witness booth, the jury heard Whittenburg say that he did not remember writing the note.
“It had to have been me, because there was nobody else,” Whittenburg said. “I’ve never done anything where I can’t remember. I keep playing it in my head over and over and over trying to remember, and I can’t.. It blacks out, stops and starts in the same spot.”
He also said he was so distraught that he tried to cut his arm off, and then drain himself, and then eventually took multiple kinds of pills to overdose.
“I laid down and was jerking and shaking, and I was hoping to die before anyone found me,” a recorded Whittenburg said. “And then I woke up in the hospital. ”
On Tuesday morning, attorneys spent several hours questioning a large pool of potential jurors in front of Judge Thomas Graham. Starting at around 9:30, the two attorneys whittled down the pool of 30-something potential jurors to the official 13.
These jurors will be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last around three days. After an hour and a half break for lunch, the trial began in earnest.
The trial resumes on Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.