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Amherst court tentatively plans to hold jury trial March 1, murder case to follow weeks later
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Amherst court tentatively plans to hold jury trial March 1, murder case to follow weeks later

Amherst Circuit Court tentatively is edging closer to having a jury trial March 1, which would be the court’s first such proceeding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A jury trial for another case — that of Justin Jay Sales, who is charged with first-degree murder in connection with a 2019 shooting — is planned for March 29. If a jury is seated next month in that case, it would mark exactly five years since the last time an Amherst jury was seated for a murder charge.

Judge Michael Garrett said Wednesday during Sales’ pre-trial hearing he is monitoring the latest COVID-19 case figures to determine if jury trials can proceed. If given the go-ahead March 1, it would mark the first time in more than a year a jury has been seated in Amherst County.

Sales, 19, also is charged with aggravated malicious wounding and two counts of use of a firearm in commission of a felony. The charges date back to June 25, 2019, when Doris Puleio, 92, was found dead and her daughter, Trudy Ann Goetz, was injured at a house on Bobwhite Road.

Puleio had been shot in the torso and left arm, while Goetz suffered two piercing gunshot wounds to the torso and one that grazed her chest, prosecutors have said. Shell casings at the scene led investigators back to a handgun that Sales’ girlfriend had bought for his friend, Takota Cash, in March, according to evidence presented at Sales’ previous court hearings.

Cash testified at a previous hearing to loaning Sales the gun a week prior to the shooting for what Cash assumed would be a robbery, and getting the gun back on July 1, 2019 with four rounds left out of 15 Sales had loaded it with. Cash said Sales told him he’d fired the gun in his yard.

Sales has been in custody since his arrest a few weeks after the shooting and was denied a bond request in November.

Prosecutors intend to introduce photos, Facebook and phone records as part of evidence in the case, according to court documents and statements in court. Scott De Bruin, Sales’ attorney, said at a pre-trial hearing Wednesday he does not object to four photographs as evidence as long as prosecutors can link the firearm to a particular offense. De Bruin said his client is not in any of the four photos.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Amber Drumheller said during Sales’ hearing Wednesday it would be good to have one more jury trial after the March 1 case to work out the multi-layered process with safety measures in place.

The trial set for March 1, which is unrelated to Sales’ case, is for defendant Joel Matthew Wright, who is accused of aggravated malicious wounding and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. The charges stem from a July 2018 shooting in the parking lot of a Madison Heights business that left a man with severe injuries.

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