Defense may claim self-defense in Vail Valley murder case; trial for first accused murderer begins Oct. 29 | VailDaily.com

Defense may claim self-defense in Vail Valley murder case; trial for first accused murderer begins Oct. 29

EAGLE — Defense attorney Erin Wilson said Jacob White might have been defending Leigha Ackerson, his wife and accomplice, from an attack by Catherine Kelley, whose Pilgrim Downs home they had allegedly broken into.

Under Colorado's Make My Day law, self-defense is not a legal consideration available to him, Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum said in a hearing Friday, Sept. 7.

"He was in Ms. Kelley's house with his accomplice, Ms. Ackerson, and they had no right to be there," McCollum said.

Fingernail DNA evidence

In Friday's hearing, Wilson asked District Court Judge Paul Dunkelman to throw out evidence of White's DNA under Kelley's fingernails. Wilson asserted that prosecutors acted improperly when they allowed Colorado Bureau of Investigation analysts to conduct tests on those fingernails in ways that made it impossible to test them further.

McCollum, lead prosecutor in this case with Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan, dismissed Wilson's assertion, saying it changes nothing about their case against White.

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"This is not the people's strongest piece of evidence. Of our top 10 pieces of evidence, I'd put this at No. 47," McCollum said.

Dunkelman will determine whether to let a jury hear that DNA evidence when White's trial begins Monday, Oct. 29. Ackerson's trial is scheduled for January.

Consumptive testing

Consumptive testing is when an item of evidence is consumed entirely while investigators are trying to identify the DNA of the person from which it came.

In this case, the DNA evidence came from fingernail clippings from Kelley's right hand.

Colorado Bureau of Investigation Analyst Kayleigh Matook, forensic DNA analyst in CBI's Grand Junction office, testified that fingernails are generally consumed when they're tested, unless a court orders otherwise.

Dr. Phillip Danielson, professor of molecular biology with a focus on forensic DNA analysis with the University of Denver, testified that fingernail clippings contained lots of female DNA, Kelley's and possibly another female, and a little male DNA.

DNA analysis tests for biological material, skin cells, blood and body fluids, Danielson said.

What is known so far

White and Ackerson brought a dog with them that night in January, according to their arrest affidavit.

It also appears that they hired an Uber to get away, according to police reports. A Pilgrim Downs property manager spotted an Uber driver waiting at the locked Pilgrim Downs gate. When the property manager questioned the driver, the driver told the property manager that he had been called to the gate to pick up two passengers, the arrested affidavit said.

The property manager also saw lights on in Kelley's home at a time of night when they would not normally be, according to the arrest affidavit.

The property manager went to Kelley's door, but got no response. He decided something was wrong and used the gate intercom to contact his house, asking his wife to call 911, according to the arrest affidavit. There is limited cell service in that area.

SYSTEMATIC SEARCH

Deputies arrived moments after the property manager called 911 and found a window broken on the ground level, along with other signs of forcible entry. They also found two sets of fresh footprints in the snow around the house.

Following those footprints away from Kelley's home, they spotted articles taken from the home strewn around the property. After quickly obtaining a search warrant to enter Kelley's home, deputies found her body inside.

Searchers found White and Ackerson, and the dog they brought with them, about 400 yards from Kelley's home, shivering and cold in single-digit temperatures.

Kelley had told friends and neighbors that she was looking for some help washing windows and other chores around her new home, in preparation for a housewarming party a few days later. Whether those helpers turned out to be White and Ackerson remains unknown.

Kelley had moved to Pilgrim Downs from Arrowhead to be closer to hiking trails, friends said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

The charges

Jacob White and Leigha Ackerson are accused of strangling Catherine Kelley to death and also planning and conspiring ahead of time to commit the murder. They each face eight felony charges for allegedly murdering Kelley, 74, while they were robbing her Pilgrim Downs home Wednesday, Jan. 24.

If they’re convicted, Colorado law requires them to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

They are both charged with:

1. Murder 1, after deliberation.

2. Murder 1, felony murder.

3. Conspiracy to commit murder 1.

4. Burglary 1, armed with weapons or explosives.

5. Aggravated robbery, with intent to kill, maim or wound.

6. Conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, with intent to kill, maim or wound.

7. Conspiracy to commit burglary 1 and assault.

8. Tampering with physical evidence.