BUCKHANNON - A relative who was allegedly wounded by a man on trial for murder took the stand Monday in Upshur County Circuit Court.
Howard Clarence Jenner, 28, of Tennessee, is facing one count of first-degree murder, a felony, in the death of his aunt, Beni Truax. Jenner also allegedly shot Beni Truax's husband, Sherman Truax, and is facing one count of attempted murder and one count of malicious wounding, both felonies, according to the indictment.
Both parties gave their opening statements to begin the murder trial Monday. Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney Jacob Reger called the matter "a very serious case" involving revenge. He said Jenner had animosity toward his aunt and uncle stemming from a dispute in 2009. Reger said in December 2011, Jenner came back to the Truax's residence with a rifle and shot Beni Truax twice, killing her. Jenner also shot Sherman Truax, who was seriously wounded and transported by helicopter to Morgantown for treatment and rehabilitation, Reger said.
"That is what the evidence is going to show in this case," Reger told the jury. "It's going to show that (the defendant) maliciously and pre-meditatively killed Beni Truax, and he maliciously and pre-meditatively attempted to kill and ended up maliciously wounding (Sherman Truax)."
Jenner's defense attorney, Harry Smith, told the jury to keep in mind Jenner is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
"If you have a reasonable doubt (in this case) then you need to find the defendant not guilty," he said. "Your role doesn't leave any room for speculation. The evidence will show that there is more than one area of reasonable doubt in this case and only you can determine what the facts are."
The state called its first witness, Sherman Truax, to the stand. Truax, a former Upshur County resident who now lives in Florida, said Jenner was his wife's nephew and had lived with them until a dispute in 2009. On Dec. 2, 2011, Sherman Truax said he was asleep in his chair when he "heard a loud bang" and by the time he had gotten up to see what it was he "heard another." He said he walked out to the deck to find his wife laying face down in the driveway with a "red spot on her back." He told the court he saw Jenner holding a gun.
"Was it clear that it was Jenner?" Reger asked.
"Yes," Sherman Truax replied. "He had on a black hoodie and he had a scruffy beard."
Sherman Truax said he heard another shot and didn't realize that he had been hit until he was back inside his house.
"Are you still suffering from the injury sustained from the incident?" Reger asked.
Sherman Truax said that, as a result of the wound, he had limited range of motion in his wrist and hand, is on pain medication and has had multiple surgeries to remove bone chips. He also has had tendons and arteries surgically re-attached, suffered nerve damage and had an "external fixator holding his hand and arm together while the bone grew back," he said.
"Have you had to undergo rehabilitation?" Reger asked.
"I still do it," Sherman Truax said. "I deal with it as I can."
"What kind of condition were you in?" Reger asked.
"I was frantic," Sherman Truax said. "I was running around. I was woozy, trying to stay conscious. I'd lost a lot of blood."
"Do you have any doubts as to who shot you?" Reger inquired.
"No," Sherman Truax replied. "It was as clear as I'm looking at you now."
Reger also called to the stand Lt. Mark Davis of the Upshur County Sheriff's Office, who he responded to the scene with a SWAT team. Davis said he took many photographs at the scene, including photos of the body of Beni Truax.
Deputy Ronnie Rolenson was called as a witness and testified that he conducted an interview with Jenner at the Upshur County Sheriff's Office that was partially recorded. The recording was played for the jury. In the recording, Jenner tells Rolenson and another officer that he fell asleep under a tree while hunting, and when he woke up, his gun was missing.
Jenner said in the recording he had come back to West Virginia to take a class to get his certification to work on oil rigs. He said he took a bus to Beckley and caught a cab to Buckhannon, where he stayed at the Baxa Motel through the duration of his class. Jenner told the officers during the interview that after he realized he was running out of money, he decided to buy a gun and stay in the woods, where he would live off the land until he got a job on an oil rig.
Jenner said in the interview that when police took him into custody, he was walking back from Buckhannon on Route 20 after trying to report his gun stolen to the Sheriff's Office, which he said was closed. Jenner also said during the interview that he and his mother were thrown out of the Truax residence in 2009 after he was accused of planting drugs. Jenner said, as a result of being thrown out, his mother had taken up with a man who Jenner said was abusing her. Jenner said in the interview that his aunt and uncle's actions upset him.
"We've been talking now for about 40 minutes, and you've never asked us why we have you here," one of the officers said in the recording. "Your stories aren't matching; your times aren't matching. I never mentioned a gun to you. You brought that up. You have some rage. I know you're afraid, but it's time to tell us what happened...(Sherman Truax and Beni Truax) put you and your mother out at the worst time in your life and you were (angry). You went up there to make it right."
In the interview, Jenner said he crossed onto the Truax property while he was hunting. He ran into Beni Truax, who had been feeding chickens, and he said she asked him what he was doing there. Then, Jenner said in the interview, Sherman Truax came out with a gun and shot at him. Jenner said he fired back in self-defense and somehow in the cross fire Beni Truax was shot twice. Jenner said he then ran up Hacker's Creek and on his way threw his gun in a mud hole.
Rolenson told the court there was a gap in the recording due to malfunctions with the electronic recorder used during the interview. During cross-examination, Smith addressed this issue, saying the recording wasn't working for 27 minutes of the interview.
"You didn't know the recording wasn't working for that 27 minutes?" Smith asked Rolenson.
"Correct," Rolenson said.
"Did you take notes (during the interview)?" Smith asked.
"No," Rolenson said.
Smith also said that at the time of the interview Jenner hadn't had anything to eat in two days except for a bag of chips, and asked Rolenson if that had any effect on Jenner's statement. Rolenson said it did not.
The trial is set to continue Tuesday at the Upshur County Courthouse.
Contact Chad Clem by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.