Justin Jennings’ account of how he came to discharge a blast of bear spray and then fatally shoot a man in a Frederickson mobile home didn’t satisfy the judge tasked with sentencing him Friday.
“Mr. Jennings, I don’t think the jury believed your testimony,” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Jerry Costello said. “I didn’t believe it.”
Jurors convicted Jennings, 40, of second-degree murder last month for the death of 50-year-old J Christopher Burton. Costello decided the crime warranted a high-end sentence of 34 years, nine months in prison.
Deputy prosecutor Lisa Wagner argued at trial that Jennings went to the mobile home May 6, 2017, with a friend looking for a missing car. Both were armed with bear spray and guns, she said.
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Burton was there that day to help a friend work on a vehicle.
Jennings and his friend started asking occupants of the home about the missing vehicle, and a dispute between the friend and Burton escalated to a struggle.
Jennings fired the bear spray as the two wrestled, then fatally shot Burton.
At sentencing, Wagner asked for the high-end sentence. She noted Jennings’ criminal history, which includes convictions for residential burglary, theft, trying to elude police, unlawful gun and drug possession.
“This is a man who knew that he should not possess or own a firearm,” she said.
Defense attorney Bryan Hershman argued at trial that Burton took five or six steps toward Jennings after the bear spray was fired, and Jennings shot him in self-defense.
At sentencing, Hershman asked for leniency, and told the court it was clear to him that Jennings was remorseful about Burton’s death and his role in it.
“Whether it was self-defense or not, he’s living with it,” the attorney said.
He told the court, “That house was a very dangerous place to be” and that, “I think these are two good young men who ended up in a terrible situation.”
Jennings has three children, ages 10, 12 and 14. He attended Bethel High School and got a GED. He repaired small engines for a living, and worked with drywall and in a wrecking yard.
Burton was a commercial fisherman in Neah Bay and Alaska, among other jobs, and has an adult son and two grandchildren.
His mother, Joanne Burton, told Jennings on Friday, “I want you to know what you’ve taken. You took from me my best friend, and the love of my life. My only child.”
She told the court Burton would always hug and kiss her goodbye, and that he’d call to say goodnight, in Greek.
He grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church, she said, and was an altar boy.
“You ripped my heart out,” she told Jennings. “We were all each other had in the world.”
Jennings told the judge he was “deeply sorry,” and that he thinks daily about what happened. He said he can’t imagine Joanne Burton’s loss.
He said he didn’t know her son, but that “under different circumstances, him and I probably would have been friends.”
As he handed down the sentence, Costello said he agreed with the prosecution that Jennings knew “full well” he wasn’t allowed to have a gun.
That Burton came toward Jennings “can in no way justify pulling the trigger twice, as you did,” he told Jennings.