After more than five hours of deliberations, an Amherst County jury Thursday found a man guilty of assault and battery, a misdemeanor, in connection with a 2018 shooting in Madison Heights.
Joel Matthew Wright, 31, was charged with aggravated malicious wounding and using a firearm in commission of a malicious wounding in connection with the July 7, 2018, shooting at Sheetz in Madison Heights. He maintained his innocence during a two-day jury trial that concluded Thursday in Amherst County Circuit Court.
Wright said he acted in self-defense under fear of an attack from Justin Irvan, who was shot during an altercation outside the store. Aggravated malicious wounding, a Class 2 felony, carries a maximum sentence of life in prison while the misdemeanor was the least of four possible charges Wright could be convicted of with a maximum of a year behind bars.
The night of the shooting, Amherst County Sheriff’s deputies arrived shortly after 11 p.m. and found Irvan severely hurt from a gunshot wound to the upper leg, the sheriff’s office has said. Irvan was taken to the hospital with significant blood loss and he testified at an October 2018 preliminary hearing he was resuscitated on the way to the hospital. Irvan testified he spent three days in intensive care, was hospitalized for several weeks and nearly lost a leg.
Prosecutors said Wright, shortly after his arrest, confessed to shooting Irvan in the pelvic area with a .40-caliber weapon when he was moving away from Wright.
Irvan was intoxicated with a .29 blood alcohol content and had approached Wright at the gas pumps, according to prosecutors and testimony given in the case.
Wright testified he was walking out of the store to the parking lot when he heard “What’s up, dog?” from a vehicle Irvan and another man were in. The defendant testified he replied he was “no one’s dog” and Irvan came toward him, kicked him and swung at him; Wright withdrew a firearm he was legally permitted to carry in an effort to defend himself with his child in the vehicle.
“I didn’t want trouble. I had my daughter with me,” Wright said on the stand. “I asked him to back up and my hands were up. He was visibly upset that I said I was no one’s dog.”
Irvan testified during the jury trial he observed Wright pull out a pistol and the defendant ran in between two vehicles. Irvan said in court he was not carrying a weapon during what he described as a verbal argument.
“I don’t think I even touched him, to tell the truth,” Irvan testified of the encounter.
Wright fired a single time, left the scene and shortly after turned himself into police custody at another location.
The officer who arrested Wright testified to retrieving the firearm and the defendant asking him if surveillance video from the store was recovered because it would show he was attacked.
Investigator Clay Thompson testified he interviewed Wright while in custody the morning after the shooting and executed search warrants for gunshot residue on his hand and a DNA sample. Wright told Thompson that Irvan approached him at the gas pumps, Irvan lunged at him and Wright backed up during the scuffle, according to the recording.
Wright said during the interview with Thompson he doesn’t have anything to hide and Irvan approached him to start the scuffle, which he added the video would show.
Jessica Branham, Irvan’s former girlfriend, testified Irvan had been heavily drinking that day and gets a temper and is “mouthy and belligerent” when intoxicated. She testified Irvan exited the vehicle and went toward Wright cussing and yelling.
“It’s like he handpicked him. It’s like he wanted to start an argument,” Branham said. “... Justin was determined, I guess, that he wanted to fight.”
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Spencer Drake argued Wright fired too late in the exchange to claim self-defense. Even though Wright had pulled away from the scuffle, he still turned and fired at Irvan, which the commonwealth believes proves malice, a key element in the case.
“I know Justin Irvan is no saint, but he is a victim here,” Drake said of the seconds that led up to the shooting. “None of that justifies the defendant shooting Mr. Irvan that night ... he created separation and he committed a crime.”
Robert Goad III, Wright’s attorney, said the defendant was kicked, swung at and not the aggressor on the exchange and the video corroborates it.
“He was afraid. He didn’t know what to do,” Goad said of Wright’s state of mind.
Goad asked jurors to think about what they would do in that situation and said a person is legally allowed to defend themselves if believed to be under threat, which Wright did.
Goad argued if his client had malice he would have fired more than once.
“He used no more force than necessary to defend himself,” Goad said.
Wright had been released on bond for the past few years while awaiting trial and currently resides in the Newport News area, Goad said.
“Those few seconds that night changed his life for the last three years,” Goad said in court of the incident’s negative effects on his client.
After Wright was found guilty of the misdemeanor, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail, and the firearm is forfeited to the Amherst Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, said Adam Stanley, assistant prosecutor.
Since Wright was not convicted of aggravated malicious wounding or malicious wounding — which are felonies — the charge of use of a firearm — which requires a felony conviction along with it — did not come into play with the verdict, and the case concluded Thursday, Stanley said.
The trial marked the first time jurors had taken part in an Amherst Circuit Court criminal proceeding since September 2019 and was different from normal with mitigation measures in place during the pandemic.
Jurors sat in the gallery where they could be spaced further apart and access in and out of the courtroom was more tightly controlled by deputies. Jurors deliberated in the courtroom, a departure from the smaller room they usually are in to accommodate social distancing, and a screen was set up outside the courtroom to allow public viewing of the proceedings.