Eric Abshire Sentenced to Life in Prison

By: Chris Stover Email
By: Chris Stover Email

Timeline of Events 

November 3, 2006 - Justine Abshire found dead on Taylorsville Road.

July 30, 2008 - ABC Prime-time Special, Justice for Justine, airs on ABC16.

December 17, 2010 - Eric Abshire arrested and charged with Justine's murder.

February 10, 2011- Eric Abshire denied bond due to violent past.

October 12, 2011 - Murder Trial begins.

October 19, 2011 - Trial delayed due to bomb threat at Orange County courthouse.

October 25, 2011 - 2:30pm - Closing arguments end and jury begins deliberations.

October 25, 2011 - 4:30pm - Jury finds Eric Abshire guilty of first-degree murder, recommends sentence of life in prison.

January 12, 2012

Eric Abshire will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Judge Daniel Bouton delivered the sentenced Thursday afternoon in Orange County Circuit Court, agreeing with the jury's recommendation of life in prison. That was the maximum possible sentence.

"I felt very strongly that the decision we made as being guilty was the right decision and I wanted to see that that was upheld," said trial juror, Michelle Hooper.

Family members from both sides were in the courtroom. Eric Abshire's oldest daughter had a written statement read that, in part, said "may god one day allow us to see the truth". Heidi Swartz, Justine's mother, had to leave the room for part of the hearing, but said she had lost her peace of mind.

"He deserves it, he deserves every bit of it," she exclaimed. "The sad thing is it really doesn't change anything at all. Justine, as I said, is gone. She's never coming back."

The ruling comes almost three months after a jury found Abshire guilty of first-degree in the death of his wife of five months, Justine Swartz Abshire.

"I think the wound may form a scab but it's always there. There will always be scars no matter what," said Heidi Swartz.

"I feel like the evidence was not investigated as fully as it should have been. [The jurors] were given a lot of other things to look at that to my knowledge were never checked out," said Edward Abshire, Eric's father.

October 26, 2011

The Swartz family has called the Town of Orange their home for the past two weeks, as their former son-in-law, Eric Abshire, stood trial in the death of their daughter, Justine Swartz Abshire.

One day after Eric Abshire was found guilty of killing his wife of five months, emotions still ran high for Steve and Heidi Swartz.

"I just hope that now that justice has been done that everyone can begin to look forward," said Justine's father.

Heidi Swartz sat in the front row of the Orange County Courthouse for every grueling hour of the 10-day trial, looking across the room to the man she believed had taken her daughter's life.

"He didn't look at me at all the last two days, and I noticed the last few days of the trial he stopped making eye contact with the jury," she told CBS19 Wednesday, one day after the verdict.

After two hours of deliberations Tuesday afternoon, the jury found Abshire, 36, guilty of first-degree murder and recommended to Judge Daniel Bouton a sentence of life in prison.

A memorial still sits on Taylorsville Road where Justine Swartz Abshire's body was found in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2006. The family visited that memorial Wednesday morning.

"I felt a little peace when I was there," said Heidi Swartz. "I have this little ritual where I touch every stone that was there, and I didn't do that today, I didn't have to. It felt really good."

The Swartz family believes their daughter's legacy will inspire other women trapped in abusive relationships to escape the violence.

"If one young woman can, by seeing what happened to Justine, escape from that, then Justine wouldn't have died in vain," her mother explained.

Now, Steve and Heidi Swartz can leave Orange County knowing there has been "Justice for Justine."

October 25, 2011

After two hours of deliberations, a 12-member jury returned to the Orange County courtroom around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday with a verdict in the ten-day murder trial of Eric Abshire.

The jury found Abshire, 36, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Justine Abshire. Her lifeless body was found on Taylorsville Road in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2006.

Before sentencing deliberations Justine's mother, Heidi Swartz, took the stand. She said the devastation of her daughter's death has caused her to lose her business and her home.

During the verdict Justine Abshire's family had an emotional reaction.

"They seem very relieved. I mean, it's been a very long haul for them. And it's been very intense," said Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler.

After reading the verdict, the jury returned to the private room to deliberate on a sentence for the Orange County man. They returned and recommended the maximum penalty of life in prison.

Eric Abshire's Attorney, Charles Weber did not comment on his client's reaction, but responded to the jury's verdict.

"I have the utmost respect for jurors. Whether I agree with the verdict or not is irrelevant. They rendered it according to their conscience, and that's what our system is about," he said.

The death penalty is not an option in this case due to the fact that Abshire was not charged with capital murder.

Formal sentencing has been scheduled for Jan. 12, 2012.

October 25, 2011

Eric Abshire's fate will soon belong to a 12-member jury. Tuesday morning, both the prosecution and defense presented closing arguments in the murder trial.

The 36-year-old is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Justine Abshire. Her lifeless body was found on Taylorsville road in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2006.

The prosecution has argued that Eric Abshire is responsible for killing his wife, then 27 years of age, and staging a hit-and-run scene as the cause of her death.

In closing statements, the prosecution argued Eric Abshire did not care for his wife, saying, "She was a financial resource to use up". They also called the defendant a "very clever person" who they argued planned the death of his wife "very carefully".

The prosecution also pointed out that while phone records show Eric Abshire used his cell phone 150 times the night before his wife's death, the accused murderer still claims he forgot he had his phone when he found her body, which is why he didn't immediately call 9-1-1.

The defense contends Justine Abshire was killed in a hit-and-run incident. When speaking on the prosecution's story of what happened, Abshire's attorney, Charles Weber, told the jury, "Eric Abshire's liberty is at stake. It's easy to get a theory early on and miss important clues that don't support what actually happened."

Weber argued that the forensic pathologist who testified as a defense witness told a coherent story that discredited the "incomplete" autopsy results presented by the prosecution.

Weber continued, "Considering the physical and medical evidence, [the Commonwealth] has not excluded every reasonable theory as to how Justine Abshire died. You don't have to prove motive, means or opportunity, just that Eric Abshire [killed his wife]. The Commonwealth did not do that and that is not enough to find him guilty."

Weber concluded by reminding the jury that suspicion of probability of guilt is not enough for a conviction.

After returning from recess at 1:30 p.m., the prosecution will have 55 minutes to refute the defense's closing statements.

Following the rebuttal period, the case will be handed over the the jury. We will update this story as soon as there is a verdict.

October 24, 2011

Testimony resumed Monday morning in the Eric Abshire murder trial. After calling two more witnesses, the defense rested its case.

Eric Abshire, 36, is accused of killing his wife Justine Abshire, then 27. He has pleaded not guilty and claims he found her dead on Taylorsville Road in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2006, the victim of an apparent hit-and-run.

Mike Jones, a special agent with the Virginia State Police, was called to the stand in an attempt to corroborate Abshire's alibi.

Jones showed the jury a video of a man leaving the same All-American Storage unit where Eric Abshire parked his motorcycle. The man in the video also had a motorcycle. The special agent could not verify it was Abshire, however the man left the storage unit in Stanardsville shortly after midnight on Nov. 3, around the same time Eric Abshire claims he got his motorcycle to go for a ride.

The prosecution then announced they would call five rebuttal witnesses to testify.

Dr. Frances Field, a medical examiner who oversaw Justine Abshire's autopsy, was the first to testify to refute defense testimony given by Dr. Jonathan Arden, who disagreed with the official cause of death of blunt force trauma.

Last Friday, Dr. Arden testified that a neck injury that impacted the spinal cord and brainstem, consistent with a hit-and-run accident, killed Justine Abshire.

Monday, Dr. Field, citing a professional difference of opinion, stated, "In my medical opinion, this person was not struck by a car while standing."

Dr. Field further disagreed with Dr. Arden's testimony, claiming injuries to Justine Abshire's spleen, liver and lungs were lethal, thus standing by blunt force trauma as the cause of death. She also said there was no bleeding or other evidence to indicate a spinal injury.

The jury left the courtroom around 2 p.m. Monday afternoon and will return at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning to hear closing arguments and begin deliberations.

October 21, 2011

Eric Abshire has always said his wife, Justine, died by hit-and-run on Nov. 3, 2006, on Taylorsville Road in Orange County.

In the defense's first day of witness testimony, a forensic pathologist testified that the scene is entirely possible. Dr. Jonathan Arden disputed the medical examiner's original cause of death for Justine Abshire of blunt force trauma. Arden says the lack of blood at the scene and the minor injuries to Justine Abshire's organs contradict those claims.

Instead, Arden said a neck injury that impacted the brain stem and spinal cord is the more likely cause of death. This injury would kill the victim quickly and account for a lack of blood at the scene.

Furthermore, Arden said these injuries are consistent with a pedestrian hit-and-run scene.

In cross examination, prosecutors took aim at Arden's fees. Arden testified he charges $400 per hour, in addition to a $4,000 trial appearance fee. Prosecutors allege a more-than $7,000 payment is motivation to provide his testimony.

As the defense tries to poke holes in the prosecutors' case, there's still no word if Eric Abshire himself will testify on his own behalf.

The defense, though, is suggesting other potential suspects in Justine Abshire's death.

Betsy Lamb lives near Taylorsville Road. She said her former neighbors, the Brittons, were always noisy and had many loud cars. She said one of them had a broken headlight the weekend after Justine Abshire's body was found.

Another witness, Chris Carver, said his brother-in-law's car had front-end damage. He found what he thought was a human hair on the front of the car. One month later, that car caught on fire, and Carver reported what he found to police.

Also on Friday, one of the jurors was excused because of a sudden death of a close family member. Thirteen jury members are hearing the case, and one of them, who has not yet been chosen, is still an alternate.

Court is in recess for the weekend and will be back in session Monday morning.

October 20, 2011

The prosecution rested its case in the Eric Abshire Murder trial on Thursday. A girlfriend claimed she slept with Eric Abshire both before his marriage to Justine Abshire and in the days between her death and funeral.

Eric Abshire is accused of killing Justine Abshire, then 27 years old. He has pleaded not guilty, and claims he found her dead on Taylorsville Road in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2006.

Amanda Morris told Judge Daniel Bouton she slept with Eric Abshire 30 days before his wedding to Justine Abshire. She also said she slept with him three days after Justine's death, as well as before her funeral. During that time, in November of 2006, Morris was dating Eric Abshire's best friend Lee Greene.

The jury was not allowed to hear the testimony; Judge Bouton claimed it was outside of the scope of the case. He said it could make the jury too prejudiced against Eric Abshire, and potentially sway their thoughts on the accusation of murder.

Prosecutors argued that it was important because it showed Eric Abshire was not upset by the death of his wife.

A handwriting analyst also testified on Thursday. Howard Moore said it was impossible that Justine Abshire signed off on paperwork both to purchase and to make Eric Abshire the beneficiary of a $1 million policy on a dump truck.

Witnesses testified Wednesday, saying Justine Abshire did not know about the dump truck or the policy.

Justine Abshire's father, Steve Swartz also took the stand Thursday. He recalled a phone conversation Eric Abshire had with him, about Eric's concerns when police started investigating him.

Upon hiring an attorney, Eric Abshire said "They could never find me guilty".

Court will resume Friday morning, as the defense begins to make its case in the murder trial of Eric Abshire.

October 19, 2011

The Eric Abshire murder trial was put on hold Wednesday afternoon following a bomb threat at the Orange County Circuit Courthouse.

The courthouse was evacuated around 2 p.m. as a precaution. Officials expect the trial will resume Thursday morning.

Before the courthouse was evacuated, testimony in the Eric Abshire murder trial centered on the auto insurance policies that Eric Abshire was a beneficiary of.

He was a beneficiary of three separate policies, giving him a total of more than $1 million should something happen to Justine Abshire in a car crash with an unknown motorist.

Two auto insurance agents took the stand, explaining that Eric Abshire was a beneficiary with both policies.

A third agent also testified saying that Eric Abshire had purchased a dump truck for his company in March of 2006. He bought it with Justine's name, but used her maiden name Justine Swartz. The agent also said that Eric Abshire faxed all of the paperwork, and that Eric Abshire was the beneficiary for $1 million on that dump truck.

Earlier Wednesday, prosecutors presented the judge with documents containing Justine Abshire's signature. They are trying to prove Justine Abshire did not know about the dump truck or the policy.

October 18, 2011

The Eric Abshire murder trial resumed Tuesday with testimony centering on the defendant's cell phone records.

Allison Crawford, the accused murder's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his two children, testified that she saw Eric Abshire while he was visiting his sick mother at Martha Jefferson Hospital on Nov. 2, 2006, the night before Justine Abshire's death.

Later that night, in a phone conversation at 11:45 p.m., one of 43 between the two that day according to cell phone records from US Cellular, Crawford says Abshire told her “I think I made a mistake” in marrying Justine and asked if there was any chance the two could rekindle their relationship.

Crawford claims she said that wouldn't be possible because of his marriage.

Prosecutors then pointed out a gap in activity on Eric Abshire's cell phone from 12:08 a.m. to 1:19 a.m., following his conversation with his ex-girlfriend. However, Eric Abshire claims his wife called him at 1:19 a.m., saying her car was having problems. He says he found Justine's body on Taylorsville Road at 1:40 a.m.

In all, phone records show Eric Abshire's phone made 397 connections over the two day period of Nov. 2-3 in 2006. A connection means that a phone call was either dialed or received, however it does not mean a conversation took place. Phone connections still account for missed or dropped calls.

Defense attorneys reminded jurors that even though a phone call was dialed or received from Eric Abshire's phone, it does not mean that he himself was the person who made or took the call.

October 17, 2011

A key witness testified Monday as the prosecution continued its case in the Eric Abshire murder trial.

The scene where Justine Abshire's lifeless body was found in 2006 was initially thought to be a hit and run. Prosecutors say Eric Abshire framed a car accident scene to cover up the murder of his then 27-year-old wife. However, the 36-year-old Orange county man claims he is telling the truth.

That witness, Cecil Roebuck, took the stand as the prosecution explained how Justine Abshire's car ended up on Taylorsville Road the night she died. Roebuck says he was lost on the night of Nov. 2, 2006. It was when he pulled into a driveway to turn around that he says Eric Abshire waved him down.

Roebuck says Abshire, claiming his car was low on gas, asked that he follow the defendant to a gas station, but the car supposedly didn't make it far before running out of gas. Roebuck says Abshire pulled over on Taylorsville Road, where he says the defendant left the car, and Roebuck gave Abshire a ride home.

Roebuck claims he made the connection after seeing Eric Abshire on a network television report about the murder. However, the defense questioned his credibility, arguing Roebuck was facing a felony fraud charge in another case and was just seeking the $50,000 reward.

Justine Abshire's father, Steve, says his daughter and son-in-law had money issues as well. He testified that Eric Abshire approached him at the end of July 2006, four months before his wife's death, and asked for a $40,000 to $45,000 loan.

Friends of Justine Abshire also testified about the kind of person she was. They called her a "precious [kindergarten] teacher", "loved" and "the kind of teacher where you would want to have your child in her class."

Justine Abshire's best friend and fellow teacher was one of the witnesses who testified Monday. She attended couple's wedding in 2006, and said that in the weeks leading up to her death, Justine acted differently. She was reportedly "distant, didn't talk as much, didn't return phone calls".

On November 2, the day before Justine's death, her best friend said she came into lunch at school crying and carrying a box of tissues. She also had planned her school lesson plans for the next two months, which colleagues thought was abnormal.

October 14, 2011

On Friday, medical examiner Todd Luckasevic testified in Orange County Circuit Court in the afternoon, saying Justine Abshire's injuries were not consistent with her husband's story. She had 113 external injuries, mainly scrapes and bruises. Internally, she had multiple rib fractures, punctured lungs and cuts to her liver and spleen.

Luckasevic classified the official cause of death as blunt force trauma, which in his expert medical opinion is not consistent with injuries one would sustain from a hit-and-run accident. He also described injuries to Justine Abshire's head, neck, chin, left eye and inner lip, all things Luckasevic said are more common with strangulation.

It was during that part of the testimony that Justine Abshire's mother, Heidi Swartz, had to leave the courtroom, overcome with emotion.

A technician from an auto dealership testified Friday morning that there was nothing wrong with Justine Abshire's car on the night she disappeared. That appears to poke a hole in the defense's claim that she called her husband, saying her car had broken down on the country road where her body was found.

On Friday, prosecutors also began painting a picture of Eric Abshire's character. One of his friends told the jury the accused murderer showed him photos of a topless woman the morning after his wife's disappearance. The friend, Lee Green, testified that Eric Abshire told him shortly before his wife's death, "It may not have been the right decision to marry Justine."

Prosecutors have argued Eric Abshire's interest in other women was one of the motivations for the crime. A defense lawyer objected to the jury finding out about the topless photo, saying it was not relevant to the case.

October 13, 2011

The first day of testimony began in the Eric Abshire murder trial Thursday. In their opening statements, prosecutors and defense attorneys told a jury of ten women and four men (two of whom are alternates) what they can expect to hear in the days to come.

The defendant is accused of killing his wife, Justine Abshire, in 2006. He is charged with first-degree murder in her death. Prosecutors say Eric Abshire framed a car accident scene to cover up the murder of his then 27-year-old wife. However, the 36-year-old Orange county man claims he is not guilty.

Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler argued that the scene where Justine Abshire's body was found is suspicious, saying in her opening statement that "there is something not right about the situation."

Prosecutors told the jury that witnesses will say that the "hit and run is not consistent with the physical accident people saw" and that "love and money can lead to tragic consequences."

The defense reminded jurors of their sworn duty to uphold the law and reminded them that they may hear evidence that would make them "not love Mr. Abshire."

According to The Hook, prosecutors listed money and women as possible motives for the murder in a pretrial hearing on Oct. 6. The publication also reported prosecutors said Abshire had sexual relations with one woman in the days between his wife's death and funeral.

Heidi Swartz, the mother of Justine Abshire was first on the witness stand Thursday. She told jurors that Justine was "childlike" and "a little naive." She also vouched for the couples relationship, saying the two had been dating since 1999.

Members of the Greene County and Orange County sheriff's departments and a Virginia State Police trooper also testified. Eric Abshire has told police his wife called him at 1:19 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2006 to say her car had broken down, however the trooper testified that he started the car and drove it with no problems just hours later.

At one point during the day, some of Justine Abshire's family members left the courtroom after the jury was shown graphic photos of her lifeless body. Otherwise, many people, including Swartz, members of the jury and the defendant all seemed indifferent.

More witness will take the stand when testimony resumes on Friday, as prosecutors try to prove that love and money can lead to tragic circumstances. One person expected to testify is the medical examiner, who will likely comment on whether Justine Abshire's injuries are consistent with a hit and run accident.

October 12, 2011

The Eric Abshire murder trial began Wednesday with jury selection.

Prosecutors, defense lawyers and Judge Daniel Bouton questioned more than 100 potential jurors for hours in the circuit courtroom, attempting to find the an objective 14-person panel (12 jurors and two alternates) to sit in judgment of a man accused of killing his wife.

The parents of Justine Abshire, Steve and Heidi Swartz, and Eric Abshire were in attendance for the courtroom proceedings on Wednesday. Abshire sat quietly for most of the day, often consulting with his lawyer during the jury selection process.

Among the questions they and potential jurors heard were:

- Are you a victim of domestic abuse?

- How much information on this case have you received from media outlets?

- Will you be able to stay for the entire trial, which could take up to two weeks?

In a 2008 prime-time interview on ABC16, Eric Abshire told the country that he found his wife dead in the road, the apparent victim of a hit and run.

"I turned on Taylorsville Road, I saw something in the road which I assumed was an animal," he claimed. "As I got closer I realized it was Justine in the road."

Justine Abshire's family has spent the past five years speaking on their daughter's behalf and against their former son-in-law. They handed out bracelets to let everyone know they are actively seeking “Justice for Justine.”

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