Did his girlfriend know too much?
Leah Avril, 18, was full of life. A beloved little sister, daughter. A popular cheerleader who’d just graduated high school and been awarded a scholarship to college.
‘Everyone who ever met Leah, loved her,’ family said.
Beautiful, too, she worked as a part-time model in Sevier County, Tennessee. And she’d just started dating Jacob Stanton, 21.
But on 17 November 2009, Stanton shot her in the chest as she lay in bed.
‘I didn’t think the gun was loaded. I was putting it away and it accidentally went off,’ he was recorded telling the ambulance dispatcher.
Leah was airlifted to hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival.
Detectives found the .45 caliber handgun in a cardboard box in Stanton’s bedroom closet.
Stanton still protested his innocence. But he was charged with second-degree murder, held on remand.
A year on, the charge was upgraded to first-degree murder.
The authorities said they had new evidence, but wouldn’t disclose what.
Yet it was over two years before the case got to court.
‘I’m holding on to the thought of the day we get justice,’ said Leah’s mother Shirley.
In April 2012, Jacob Stanton went on trial at Sevier County Court.
The prosecution’s case was that Stanton murdered his girlfriend in cold blood when she tried to break up with him.
A friend testified that he’d called Stanton that evening when Stanton had failed to show for dinner.
‘Nobody said “hello” but, somehow, the phone was turned on,’ the friend told the jury.
‘At first, it was chaotic, a lot of screaming. I could hear Jake’s and Leah’s voices, and I could hear Leah screaming how it hurt really bad, and I could hear Jake screaming, “Get something to wrap it up!”. I could hear Leah screaming she didn’t want to die,’ the friend testified.
He went on to say that when he called back a few minutes later, Stanton answered. Crying, sounding distraught.
‘He said, “I just shot Leah. I lifted the gun up and it went off. She’s still breathing. I have to go.”’
The recording of Stanton’s emergency call was played to the jury. He could be heard talking to still-conscious Leah.
Neighbours said Stanton had shouted from his flat that his gun had accidentally gone off.
Two of them had dashed in, found Leah on a bed with a gunshot wound to the chest.
One neighbour said that when Stanton tried to use a towel to apply pressure to the wound, Leah pushed him away.
‘She looked frustrated and angry. She pushed him away,’ he said. ‘She didn’t say much. He tried to talk to her again and she did the same thing.’
When paramedics arrived, Leah was still conscious.
Giving evidence, a medical technician said Leah had uttered the word ‘accident’ when he’d asked what had happened.
He also heard Leah say what sounded like ‘Jake Stan-’ when asked who the shooter was.
By the time police arrived, Stanton was outside, while his neighbours helped Leah.
One officer said Leah seemed to be in a lot of pain.
‘The next thing she said was, “I want my momma. Please call my momma,”’ he told the jury.
Forensic expert Dr Steven Cogswell, who performed Leah’s autopsy, said the bullet struck her at a downwards 45-degree angle before it stopped just underneath the skin of her lower back.
‘This, to me, was a deliberate, volitional pulling of the trigger,’ he said.
The prosecution case also hung on the evidence of another inmate, William Lennox, who’d been in custody with Stanton the evening after the shooting.
Lennox said Stanton was involved with drugs.
He claimed Stanton had confessed he’d lost it, shot Leah when she tried to end their relationship.
‘He said he didn’t mean to do it. He said they’d been at the apartment, got into a confrontation as she wasn’t happy and wanted to leave him, and he didn’t want her to leave,’ Lennox said.
‘Stanton kept her against her will with violence, verbal, and told her she knew too much for him to let her go easily. He told her she knew too much about their drug activity,’ Lennox said.
But the defence said Lennox planned to implicate Stanton to strike a deal with prosecutors over his own sentence.
Another inmate had been due to give similar evidence, but recanted his statement when he took the stand.
Defence lawyer Joseph Baker called it a ‘tragic and senseless accident’. He said there was no evidence Stanton murdered Leah in cold blood.
‘If you mean to kill somebody, you don’t take a weapon, discharge it once, call 911 and wait,’ he said.
He called the very idea ‘ridiculous’. But it was all down to the jury to decide…
Stanton was found guilty, but for second-degree murder, not first-degree. After deliberating for six hours, the jury found Jacob Stanton guilty of the lesser charge.
Judge Rex Henry Ogle jailed him for the maximum term of 25 years after the three-hour hearing.
Stanton’s legal team requested a retrial, but the appeal was thrown out.
‘There was more than sufficient evidence to justify the verdict,’ Judge Ogle said.
Leah’s sister Amy said she wished he’d just let her family move on.
‘He should be happy he only got 25 years,’ she said.