Twenty-two-year-old Joseph Wert of Cedar Grove was indicted for first degree murder last week by the Carroll County Grand Jury.
Wert was bound over to the Grand Jury during a preliminary hearing in June of last year for the Jan. 14, 2020 shooting death of Larry Gene Watkins, Jr., 46, of Cedar Grove.
When Wert was bound over, General Sessions Judge Larry Logan reduced Wert’s charge from first degree to second degree murder, but, according to Assistant District Attorney James “Jimbo” Webb, his office made the decision to take the charge back up to first degree before Wert’s case was presented to the Grand Jury. As Webb explained, they always give due consideration to a judge’s ruling, but the DA’s Office is not bound by such rulings and can change charges if the evidence warrants it.
According to testimony given during the preliminary hearing, officers responded to a call about a shooting at Wert’s residence at 660 Moss Creek Road. It was testified that a hysterical-sounding Wert could be heard in the background of that call saying that he had shot Watkins and that Watkins was dead.
Responding officers found Watkins’ body lying face up about 250 feet from Wert’s residence down a trail leading to a nearby pond levy. A nine-millimeter pistol with a full magazine and a bullet in the chamber was found in one of the front pockets of Watkins’ blue jeans.
Investigators found that Watkins had been shot once in the center of the chest and once in the neck from close range. While searching Wert’s residence, investigators found a 44-magnum revolver that was determined to be the weapon used in the shooting on a kitchen counter. The revolver was found to have three bullets in the cylinder and three spent shells.
It was also revealed during testimony that Wert and Watkins had gotten into a physical altercation before the shooting and that investigators observed that Wert had a busted lip and a cut inside his mouth, presumably from the altercation.
During the preliminary hearing, Wert’s attorney, Joe Byrd of Jackson, argued that there was no evidence of premeditation and that Wert, who had no criminal record prior to the shooting, was acting in defense of his own life.
Byrd also pointed out that Watkins had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit at the time of his death, he was a known user of methamphetamine with prior convictions, and that he had previously made threats against Wert regarding Wert’s relationship with Watkins’ ex-wife.
Webb asserted that forensic evidence – evidence that was not available at the time of the hearing – indicated that Wert first shot Watkins in the neck, and then after Watkins had fallen to the ground, Wert stood over him and shot him in the chest.
Wert has been out of jail since making a $150,000 bond in February of last year.