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Shull to prison at least 50 years

Nov 10, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Jeremiah Shull, who killed his estranged wife's lover in 2014, has received a sentence of 50 years to life imprisonment.

Shull pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in July, negating the need for a second trial after the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned his first conviction in February.

The 25-year-old's decision meant an "open plea," for which could he could have been sentenced to "any term of imprisonment deemed appropriate by the court," ranging from 20 years to life.

Before being sentenced Thursday, Shull said that in prison he had befriended a friend of his victim, Jacob Willenbrecht.

That friendship, Shull said, has "made me feel that much worse."

"Jacob was a good person with a big heart who'd help anyone - under different circumstances, we probably could have been friends," Shull said. "(His) family hit the nail on the head when they said what I did was horrible, cowardly and wrong. I don't want you guys to ever have to see me again."

Life sentence

Fremont County Attorney Pat LeBrun said the murder merited a life sentence for Shull - a result that would have been almost unheard of in Wyoming.

Willenbrecht's mother, Cindy Rowland, also asked for a life sentence.

"He doesn't deserve a light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "My son's destiny was stolen in a murderous, cowardly way. ... This has turned me into a person I never hoped to become. I am broken. There is no tape, no glue that can fix my brokenness."

When she heard the news of her son's death, Rowland said her heart "was chopped into 100 million pieces."

Before his conviction was overturned, a jury found Shull guilty of first-degree murder, meaning they believed the murder was premeditated.

His defense has argued, however, that Shull acted impulsively when he saw his wife in bed with another man.

Shull's public defender, Jon Gerard, said the incident was "the definition of heat of passion."

"Heat of passion causes physiological change, and it can happen to anyone, including every person in this courtroom," Gerard said.

He had argued a life sentence for second-degree murder would be inappropriate since comparable convictions in the state have sometimes earned sentences as low as 25-35 years imprisonment.

Long hearing

Shull's sentencing hearing was among Fremont County's longest in recent years.

Before Judge Norman Young made his decision, Willenbrecht's grandmothers and aunt joined Rowland in speaking. Shull's father, mother, brother, sisters, stepfather and grandparents also addressed the court.

Rowland described Shull as "a monster," while Shull's family said his capacity for the murder resulted from his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and inability to manage his emotions. His stepfather said that Shull was effectively "riding a bicycle with no brakes." Other family member said the incident "was completely out of character."

Gerard said that those two murderous minutes of Shull's life don't "define who he is." Since being imprisoned, Shull has been a model inmate, Gerard said. On a couple of occasions, Gerard said Shull had been attacked by Willenbrecht's friends, "maybe rightfully so."

"But he did not fight back," Gerard said.

Decision

As he announced his decision Thursday, Young said it was likely the murder was premeditated, but he was still unwilling to give a life sentence.

"The dilemma in this case is this: A great deal of what each person has said to me today is true," he said.

A balanced appreciation of both families' perspectives -- Shull's and Willenbrecht's -- challenged the impulse to condemn Shull to die in imprison.

It also challenged Young's own desire for a simplified perspective.

"We desire certainty - that it's black or white, or true or false, or good or evil," he said. "I think that helps understand an uncertain world. It makes it easier for me to deal with."

When he was 22, Shull stabbed Willenbrecht and slit the victim's throat as Willenbrecht slept in bed with Julie Cordell-Shull on Oct. 19, 2014.

Forensic evidence found 16 knife wounds had been inflicted.

The debate over whether the killing was "premeditated" dominated Shull's first trial.

"Since (humans) have existed as a community, there has been nothing as taboo as stabbing a man in the back," LeBrun said. "If you get to that point, you have offended our entire species."

Shull's first attorney, Sky Phifer, said Shull did not know Willenbrecht was sleeping at Cordell-Shull's house when Shull arrived.

Shull walked seven miles to his wife's house before killing Willenbrecht that night. Shull said the walk took him "a few hours."

Cordell-Shull

During the original trial, the jury also convicted Shull of aggravated assault and strangulation of a household member for stabbing and choking his wife during the attack.

Young also gave Shull four to five years in prison for the strangulation charge and eight to 10 years for the assault.

A jury found Shull guilty of first-degree murder in 2015, handing him a mandatory life sentence. However, the Supreme Court ruled the jury instructions had been flawed, as they did not require jurors to explicitly consider whether the killing had occurred in a "sudden heat of passion."

The court had previously ruled in 1995 that when prosecutors prove "premeditated malice" -- as they did in Shull's case -- they also inherently disprove the defense of sudden heat of passion.

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