COSTON FOUND GUILTY OF THREE AMENDED COUNTS
WHITE CO.---Danny Coston, 37, has been found guilty of three amended counts, two of them murder, in a stipulated bench trial today in front of Judge Tom Foster.
Coston was originally charged with five Counts of First Degree Murder in the August 26, 2012 shooting deaths of Jessica M. Evans, 17, of Norris City, and Jacob C. Wheeler, 22, originally of Centerville and who had just moved back to the area after being away in the military.
Coston was also charged with a count of Aggravated Criminal Sexual Assault for the rape of Evans; two counts of Aggravated Battery with a Firearm, and a count of Concealment of a Homicidal Death for hiding Wheeler's body across the county line in Wayne, north of Centerville. The two young people were having an overnight fishing and camping trip at the Little Wabash in Centerville Aug. 25-26 when they were murdered in cold blood, their campsite being stumbled upon by a drunken Coston, who told them he was looking for a spot to put his fishing boat in, and got annoyed when they wanted to be left alone and he wouldn't do it. During a ride Wheeler gave Coston back to his house (which was literally up the road from Coston's parents' home), Coston, riding in back of Wheeler's truck, banged on the cab and told Wheeler to pull over. When Wheeler did, Coston shot the young man, then dumped his body out, taking off with Evans. He sexually assaulted her, then shot her, put her body in the back of Wheeler's truck and drove it near a riverbank, went back to get Wheeler's body, put it in his own truck, and dumped it in the rural area of south Wayne County known as Pond Creek. He claims he threw away the weapon he used; the weapon has never been recovered.
Coston was jailed on August 31 after he lead investigators to Wheeler's body. The situation is particularly onerous because Coston went all week (between Aug 26-31, 2012) having committed the crimes, yet working and going along as though nothing happened, and allowing the public to believe for a short time that Wheeler had been the one to kill Evans, then disappear. However, Coston was discovered to have been the prime suspect after truck parts he broke off in his attempts to get to the riverbank were located in the vicinity of the campsite, and blood was subsequently found in the back of Coston's truck.
The case was set for jury selection to begin tomorrow, Tuesday, August 20, and the trial was expected to last all of this week and likely all of next week as well.
However, the "stipulated bench trial" (a trial by a judge, with facts read into the record as opposed to presentation of witnesses) that was agreed upon by the prosecution (lead by White County State's Attorney Denton Aud) and the defense (today represented by John Rogers of the Scott Rosenblum law firm out of St. Louis) actually took place today, when a motion hearing was scheduled as of last week. The motion to be heard was actually one for the bench trial. In it, Coston had agreed to waive his right to trial by jury, as well as to not have any witnesses take the stand. Instead, the state's case was read into the record by Aud, who covered the multiple witnesses' testimony (were they to have been present to give it) about the various pieces of evidence collected at the four crime scenes that encompassed the one event.
The defense's advantage in the stipulated bench trial was that essentially, Coston was charged with new counts. Instead of the five of First Degree Murder, he was charged with three amended counts: one count of First Degree Murder in Evans' death; one count of Second Degree Murder in Wheeler's death; and one count of Criminal Sexual Assault (not Aggravated; the amended charge lists only the assault. The aggravating factor was the weapon Coston was originally charged with using in the commission of that crime).
After the trial, Aud explained why Second Degree Murder, generally used in cases of a claim of "self-defense" (but wherein there was no real threat) was utilized in this instance: since the sentence Coston will be serving would have literally been doubled with two convictions of First Degree Murder, the prosecution agreed to reduce one of those counts to Second Degree, even though there was no manifestation of a self-defense claim. That way, upon conviction of Second Degree, they could ask for the four-year sentence that was attendant with that conviction...but keep a 50-year sentence that is attendant with the First Degree conviction.
The sexual assault conviction also carries a four-year sentence.
With Coston being given time served in the White County jail, he will be serving 53 years...essentially, a life sentence, as he likely won't make it to 90 while in DOC.
Coston seemed to weep silently as he sat, in street clothes and with no handcuffs on, at the defense table while Aud read the evidence against him. Occasionally, he would grab a tissue out of a box provided for him by his attorney and blow his nose. He seemed to display little emotion when going into and out of the courtroom, and none whatsoever when Judge Tom Foster read his verdict. The reading of the stipulated facts (which means both sides agree, simply put) into the record took from 1:48 p.m. to 3:38 p.m. Foster returned with his verdict of guilty on all three amended charges at 4:30 p.m.
Aud said that he had discussed at length with the families of the two young victims the option of a stipulated bench trial as opposed to a full jury trial. While Aud said he was completely prepared and somewhat anxious to get the jury trial underway, some members of the families were viewing it with apprehension. When the stipulated bench trial was presented as an option, the families of the victims were just fine with that, as long as any sentence Coston would receive would amount to life. It went off without a hitch, and he indeed will be spending natural life in prison.
Following the verdict, the family of Jacob Wheeler, though teary-eyed, seemed relieves, and Jane Wheeler said that she was looking forward to the September 17, 2013 sentencing date set for Coston today, because she "hasn't seen him in cuffs for awhile." (Coston is also expected to be wearing prison orange for that Sept. 17 court date.)
Harold Wheeler, Jacob's father, added that he was looking forward to a court hearing on Sept. 4...that of Coston's girlfriend and mother of his third child, Candice Brown. Brown was pregnant with the baby boy when the incidents that occurred a year ago happened. Brown is charged only with Obstruction of Justice for lying to authorities about Coston's whereabouts on the night in question. Several in White County can't shake the belief that Brown was more complicit in the crimes than with what she's charged...but to date, no new evidence has been submitted that indicates such a thing.
However, as stated in a previous post, there is no statute of limitations on murder. And if anyone else was with Coston that night; or if things didn't quite go the way he laid them out in his video-recorded confession on Aug. 31 last year, spending several years in a cell in DOC might get a man to thinking.
If anything along those lines transpires, we'll try to be the first to bring it to you. Thank you for reading, and keeping up with us on this case from the very outset. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Jacob and Jessi, and even those in the Coston family, who have had to endure much for their son...and come to the conclusion that he is now forced to accept full responsibility for what he's done.
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