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Juror in Leigha Ackerson murder trial diagnosed with COVID-19

With end of trial in sight, the jury and judge decide to press onward

Leigha Ackerson stands accused of murdering Catherine Kelley in her home near Edwards.
Daily file photo

EAGLE — One of the jurors in Leigha Ackerson’s first-degree murder trial was not in court Monday after being diagnosed with COVID-19 over the weekend. 

The rest of the jury and Judge Paul R. Dunkelman decided to move forward to try to complete the trial. It has lasted for 11 days but is expected to conclude Tuesday with closing arguments from prosecutors and Ackerson’s court-appointed defense attorneys.

Judge Dunkelman told the jury Monday morning that Eagle County health officials “are comfortable with us moving forward as long as we continue to follow (coronavirus) protocols. They are not giving a recommendation to me to shut things down.”

In deciding to move forward, several jurors requested rapid-result coronavirus tests to help put them at ease about possible infection — something that county officials and medical providers have agreed to, Dunkelman said.

The worsening coronavirus pandemic has had a significant presence throughout Ackerson’s murder trial. Everyone has been wearing masks throughout the proceedings and there are clear plastic dividers between each juror and attorney. Public attendance has also been limited to meet social distancing requirements.

All the evidence now in

On Monday, prosecutors called several rebuttal witnesses, including Dr. Joshua Hatfield, a forensic psychologist who previously worked for the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. 

Hatfield said he assessed Ackerson in April 2019 at the court’s request to determine if she was suffering from mental conditions in January 2018 when she and her husband, Jacob White, allegedly broke into Catherine Kelley’s home near Edwards and murdered Kelley.

According to Hatfield’s testimony, Ackerson recounted to him a lengthy list of emotional and physical abuse by her husband. Ackerson told him White hit her, choked her, threatened her with a knife multiple times, killed their cats, abused and threatened their dog, sexually abused her, threatened to kill her brother, forced her to quit her job, controlled her finances, clothing and food and drugged her with marijuana.

Ackerson also told Hatfield her husband suffered from mental problems, including multiple personalities, and that he took her to Colorado to “live off the land” with seriously inadequate provisions, and that it was White who broke into Kelley’s home and killed Kelley.

“Her account to me was more of a passive role, that she witnessed her husband do these things to the victim, and that she didn’t physically engage but she had witnessed it,” Hatfield told the jury.

Hatfield also testified, however, about reports from Jacob White’s family that Ackerson was the controlling one in their marriage. 

“I remember some quote, someone said she could snap her fingers to dictate (his) behavior like a dog, that was the terminology to some extent,” Hatfield told the jury.

In forming his opinion on mental conditions, Hatfield said the biggest difficulty was all the conflicting information — from Ackerson and her family, from White’s family, and from the testimony of Ackerson’s temporary cellmate, Heather Sellers

Hatfield said he ultimately based his mental conditions opinion on Ackerson’s “exculpatory” account to him — that she was under duress, being pressured to follow along with White, and that no mental condition influenced her behavior to commit the crimes because of her account that she did not participate in them.

Prosecutors also called Dr. Jackie Grimmett, a forensic psychologist. 

Grimmett testified about alleged testing and scoring inadequacies and questionable interpretations she found in defense witness Dr. Brenna Tindall’s determination that Ackerson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that trauma bonding and Stockholm Syndrome possibly played a part in why Ackerson didn’t leave White, report his crimes, try to escape, or seek help.

Defense attorney Jennifer Henslee asked Grimmett if White controlling Ackerson’s food and how she dressed, hitting her and breaking her nose, pushing, slapping and tackling her, shoving his hand into her mouth to keep her from talking, raping her, murdering her cats in front of her with a hammer, beating her dog, and strangling and mutilating Kelley in front of her could all cause trauma symptoms.

“They could,” Grimmett replied

“To reach that conclusion, do you have to assume all those things Leigha Ackerson said are true?” countered Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan.

“They would need to be true to result in trauma,” Grimmett said.

White has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary for his role in Kelley’s killing and was sentenced to 68 years in prison.

Ackerson is charged with first-degree murder, burglary, aggravated robbery, felony murder, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to commit murder, burglary and robbery. She faces life in prison.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys plan to end the trial with closing arguments Tuesday morning. The case will then be turned over to the jury for deliberation and a verdict.


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