Ashton Berry, 51, was sentenced in Fauquier County Circuit Court Thursday morning to 35 years in prison for second-degree murder for killing his sister, Angie A. Walls, 53, on Sept. 1, 2018 by drowning her in a child’s swimming pool.
Judge Jeffrey Parker suspended all but 20 years, and stipulated that after his time was served, Berry would be under probation for an additional 10 years.
During the sentencing hearing, Public Defender Lorie O’Donnell and Senior Commonwealth’s Attorney Charles K. Peters presented very different pictures of life in the Warrenton home where Walls lived with her fiancé, Fred Dove, and cared for her brother.
O’Donnell tried to make the case that Berry, who suffered from physical and mental challenges, was verbally abused, malnourished and isolated from the outside world by his “controlling” sister.
Peters said that Walls was a good sister who – in Berry’s own words, “took Berry in when no one else would,” and who provided a clean, comfortable home for him under difficult circumstances.
Both attorneys agreed that the situation was stressful for everyone concerned and that Walls did not deserve her “horrific” death.
The day of the murder, Berry told police he and Walls were sitting at a table arguing when Walls threw something on the kitchen floor and then threw a bottle of Diet Coke off the back deck. Berry also accused Walls of “grabbing his Super Big Gulp cup.”
Berry said he then pushed Walls’ head under the water in the children’s pool on the back deck and “held it under the water until she was unresponsive,” the document said.
Berry told police he then returned to the house and stayed there “for a while” until he looked out the window and saw Walls moving, the affidavit said.
“He stated he put her head back into the children’s pool … and held it under the water” until she was unresponsive again, the affidavit said.
The case for leniency
O’Donnell called Jessica Compton, sentencing advocate, to present documentation relating to Berry’s health and social service records. Compton explained that Berry is legally blind. He lost the sight in one eye during a suicide attempt years ago -- one of 12 times he tried to kill himself. Berry has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. He is subject to seizures, as well as neurological and digestive issues.
Compton said that her research led her to believe that Berry was verbally abused by Walls, that she fed him nutritionally deficient meals and that because she had power of attorney, he did not have access to his disability stipend. Compton claimed that although Walls was required to keep records of money spent on Berry’s behalf, she failed to do so.
Compton further indicated that records show Berry’s prescriptions were not filled on schedule, and that he did not have access to a phone to call for a ride or to make medical appointments.
Compton referred to conversations with social service case workers, who said they had witnessed verbal abuse and maltreatment. “She would tell him that she wished he would kill himself,” said Compton, adding, “His only access to the outside world was through Angie.”
The troubled sibling relationship was dramatically illustrated when O’Donnell presented a video recording of a fight between the two that was recorded the day Walls was killed. O’Donnell said the recording was apparently taken by Walls to show Dove, who was not home at the time.
Walls could be heard in the recording yelling and swearing at Berry, who she called Leon. Walls was angry because Berry was “rocking” in his chair and in danger of breaking it. She can be heard several times yelling at him to stop rocking and to get out of the chair.
Walls also seemed to be angry that Berry had accused her of switching his medications. She denied that she manipulated his pills.
Walls yelled, “You’re the f---- mental case that shot yourself in the head.”
Throughout the encounter, Berry can be heard responding to his sister, persistently, but not loudly.
The case for a harsher sentence
Sentencing guidelines in the case called for five to 40 years behind bars. Peters urged Judge Parker to decide on the longest possible sentence.
Through the testimony of Wall’s fiancé Fred Dove and her 34-year-old son, Charles Beavers, Peters told the story of a loving woman who was caring for her 80-year-old father with dementia and her mentally and physically challenged brother.
Dove’s voice broke when he was shown photographs of Walls holding her grandson for the first time. She maintained a nursery in their home for the baby; she babysat him four times a week, said Dove.
Dove contradicted Compton by explaining that in general, everyone in the house ate the same meals. Berry wasn’t malnourished, Dove said; at the time of the murder, “he was almost 300 pounds.”
Dove explained that it was mostly Walls who cleaned the house, did the laundry and made sure Berry had clean, well-kept clothes to wear. He said that a landline phone was located down the hall from Berry’s room and available to him any time, “but he didn’t like to use the phone.” Dove said Walls made medical appointments for Berry and provided transportation. She was also responsible for his medication, but sometimes bought them online. Peters suggested that this may be why the prescriptions where not always filled at the pharmacy at regular intervals and Dove agreed.
Dove said, “He was always messing with his pills. Angie would put them down with his food” but she kept having to move them or hide them in different cabinets because he “would try to take them all at once, or he’d spit them out into the trash.”
Dove said that Berry had agreed months before the murder to move to a facility in Richmond that could care for him. “When it was time to sign the paperwork, he refused, saying he didn’t want to be away from his father – even though he hadn’t seen him in a year.”
During O’Donnell’s cross-examination she asked Dove, “Are you angry with Mr. Berry?”
Dove replied that he didn’t think it was a fair question, but said, “Yes, I am very angry.”
In her closing statement, O’Donnell admitted that Walls had her hands full taking care of her brother. “Her favorite thing was to take care of her little grandson, but instead, she was stuck with him,” referring to Berry. “He was a burden to her.”
About the murder, she said, “He let anger get the best of him. He is not an individual who can take a step back and consider.” O’Donnell acknowledged that the murder was not a case of someone “snapping” under pressure. “He went back and made sure she was dead.”
Peters agreed and emphasized that after holding her head under water until she stopped moving, he left to smoke a cigarette. “He came back ten minutes later and saw her gasp for air. He went back on the deck and made a decision. He sat on her head until she was dead.
“He could have saved her life. Instead, he finished the job.”
Peters said that Berry told police, “I don’t have to hear my sister yelling at me no more.”
Peters added, “Angie is not on trial today. There was stress in the home. Both siblings were angry with each other.
“Was Angie perfect? No one is … She died a horrific death. She suffered severely at Mr. Berry’s hands.”
Peters said that the murder justified the maximum jail sentence.
When asked if he had anything to say, Berry said, “I murdered her. I’m sorry it happened. I wish she wouldn’t argue with me. She hollered and cussed at me all the time. It was very hard for me to live with her.”
Parker told Berry that despite the video evidence, “She did a lot for you. You were pretty well taken care of … She was a good caregiver for you.”
Before pronouncing the final sentence, Parker told Berry that “you showed a deliberate, prolonged and callous disrespect for the person who cared for you … She didn’t deserve to be killed.”
Reach Robin Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org