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Wise County prosecutor won't seek death penalty in two capital murder cases

Wise County prosecutor won't seek death penalty in two capital murder cases

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Wise County’s chief prosecutor won’t seek the death penalty against two men indicted in separate murder cases — one accused of strangling and stabbing his grandmother and the other of killing his cellmate — because the state is expected to abolish capital punishment.

Last Wednesday, a Wise County grand jury returned indictments against Rodney Jones, 54, and Joshua Blake Smith, 32.

Smith, a Big Stone Gap man, was originally indicted in November 2020 on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of his grandmother, Charlene Osborne, on Aug. 27, 2020.

“It qualifies for capital murder because the alleged murder was committed while he allegedly abducted Ms. Osborne,” county Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp said Thursday.

Smith told police that he strangled, smothered and repeatedly stabbed Osborne before asking someone to help “get rid of the body,” according to court records. Police were called to Osborne’s home on Albemarle Street in Big Stone Gap to check on the woman. There, police found Smith, who they said seemed fidgety and nervous.

Police officers eventually obtained a search warrant and found the woman’s body in the bedroom with multiple stab wounds. When Smith was taken into custody, a knife — that also appeared to have blood on it — was found on him, records show.

No motive has been released in the death.

Jones, an inmate at Red Onion State Prison, is accused of killing cellmate Antonio A. Jarrett at the Pound institution on July 3, 2020, Slemp said. The Virginia Department of Corrections said Jarrett died in an attack.

Jones is currently serving a life sentence without parole for first-degree murder of an acquaintance in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, records show. Jarrett had also been serving life without parole for first-degree murder.

Last July, a family member made a post on the Virginia Prison Justice Network Facebook page demanding answers for Jarrett’s death.

“Antonio Jarrett was brutally murder in VIRGINIA RED ONION STATE PRISON CUSTODY‼ ‼ ‼ WE WANT ANSWERS!!!!!!!! He was a father, a brother, a grandpa, and a friend of many after being locked up 20 years, 8 months at red onion and he’s no longer with us !!!!!! We DESERVE JUSTICE‼ ‼ ‼ ‼ ‼”

In Virginia, capital murder is the only crime that carries the possibility of the death penalty. Earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that would abolish the death penalty. Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign the legislation.

“Because of the legislative development, my office will not be seeking the death penalty in the cases against Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith,” Slemp said.

Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people in more than four centuries, more than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In modern times, Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Associated Press.

But executions have slowed in Virginia in recent years — the last inmate put to death was William Morva in 2017 — and no death sentences have been imposed in the state since 2011.

Only two men remain on death row. The bill would commute their sentences to life without parole.

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