Jurors deliberating in Leigha Ackerson murder trial
Ackerson faces life in prison
EAGLE — Leigha Ackerson’s future is now in the hands of 12 jurors who have sat through nearly 12 full days of testimony and evidence in her first-degree murder trial.
The trial ended Tuesday afternoon with hour-long closing arguments by prosecutors and Ackerson’s court-appointed defense attorneys.
Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum pointed the jury to the testimony of Heather Sellers, a convicted felon who temporarily shared a cell with Ackerson in the Eagle County jail.
According to Sellers, Ackerson confessed to her details about the January 2018 murder of Catherine Kelley by her and her husband, Jacob White. Sellers said Ackerson told her that she and White had discussed how best to kill Kelley while they were hiding in a back bedroom of Kelley’s home after Kelley unexpectedly returned home and interrupted their cooking of a chicken to eat.
Ackerson at one point reportedly confessed to Sellers that she had told her husband to kill Kelley and pushed him to do it when it seemed like he was having second thoughts.
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Ackerson herself testified in the trial, and said that she had eaten nothing but a single boiled potato for several days after White took her out into the woods to try to live off the land in the middle of January.
McCollum pointed to the string of facts about Kelley’s murder and the crime scene that Sellers voluntarily relayed to law enforcement, facts that only someone involved with the murder could have known, she said.
“The detail within what Heather Sellers told you is phenomenal,” McCollum told the jury.
“It’s interesting because with all those details, and there are around 50 of them, the only details Leigha Ackerson said Heather Sellers lied about are the details that implicate Leigha Ackerson,” McCollum said.
“That’s convenient, that Healther Sellers got all the other details correct, but Heather Sellers is lying about every single thing that implicates the defendant.”
MccCollum argued the jury should return guilty verdicts on all charges Ackerson is facing, including first-degree murder after deliberation, first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder after deliberation, first-degree burglary, aggravated robbery, conspiracy to commit burglary and robbery, tampering with evidence, and first-degree criminal trespass.
Defense’s closing argument
Ackerson’s defense attorney, Amber St. Clair, said the trial is all about duress, and that the prosecution’s entire case hinges on the testimony of Sellers, “a professional liar going back 10 years, making her living at crimes of dishonesty to support her drug habit.”
“This prosecutor has even prosecuted (Sellers) for crimes of dishonesty, now they want you to believe her,” St. Clair told the jury, arguing that Ackerson was only present in Kelley’s house at the time of her murder by White because she was terrified of injury or death by White, “who beat her to a pulp.”
St. Clair pointed to what she called inaccuracies in Sellers’ testimony — arguing Sellers listened to Leigha Ackerson while the two were sharing a jail cell, and then twisted that story around to police to include Ackerson at a time when everyone in the jail was gossiping about the murder.
“Heather Sellers’ story about why Leigha Ackerson wanted to kill Catherine Kelley makes no sense and is completely contradicted from what she says … That (Leigha Ackerson) wanted to kill Catherine Kelley because she was starving, that Leigha Ackerson was pissed because she didn’t get to eat that chicken,” St. Clair said.
“But in the video (Heather Sellers) says they had the run of the house for days and that they would eat while they had the run of the house, and while the lady was gone they ate food and Greek yogurts and stuff out of the fridge,” St. Clair said.
“Then why in the world would Leigha Ackerson decide she’s so starving she needs to kill Catherine Kelley for the chicken?”
St. Clair described Ackerson as a young woman married to an irrational, delusional, abusive and manipulative husband who isolated her from friends and family, beat her, killed her cats, and threatened to kill her and her family members as he led her into the Colorado mountains in the middle of winter “to live off the land,” and then into Kelley’s home for warmth and shelter and food when that quickly failed.
“You must believe Heather Sellers or their case does not work,” St. Clair told the jury.
“They haven’t presented any evidence to prove that she wasn’t in that house because of duress. They have to prove she didn’t go in by threats of fear or violence by Jacob White, that she wasn’t abused and terrorized. They just want you to believe Heather Sellers and that’s it.”
St. Clair showed the jury pictures of Ackerson from 2015 and from the time of her arrest with White, asking how she had become an “emaciated waif of a human being.” She also questioned why White was not called by prosecutors to testify in Ackerson’s murder trial. White’s DNA was found on the rope used to strangle Kelley and a knife found stabbed into her eye after she was dead, and St. Clair noted that he was found to have injuries consistent with rope burns on his hands after arrest.
“The picture of his hands with the rope burns, the only people who presented that was the defense because they didn’t want you to see those pictures of that monster,” St. Clair said.
“Where is Jacob White? There’s nothing stopping him from telling you what he did,” St. Clair said, calling White a coward.
Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan reminded the jury that duress is not a legal defense to murder in the first degree after deliberation, and argued that Ackerson had plenty of opportunities to escape from White or call for help.
“Leigha Ackerson is just as guilty as Jacob White for this horrible and vicious crime to this innocent lady. We ask you to return guilty verdicts on all counts,” Kirwan told the jury.
White pleaded guilty to burglary and second-degree murder — a lesser charge than first-degree murder — for his role in Kelley’s killing. He was sentenced to 68 years in prison.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.