Turner pleads guilty to killing stepmother and half brother, gets up to 90 years

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Sep. 17—Jack Turner admitted in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas to killing his stepmother and half brother in cold blood two years ago, but doesn't know why he did it.

Turner, 23, pleaded guilty Thursday before Judge Mark Stevens to two counts of third-degree murder, as well as one count of burglary, for the 2019 shooting deaths of his stepmother, Shannon Whitman, 49, and his half brother, Darrin Whitman, 10.

Turner then was sentenced by the judge to serve a total of 45 to 90 years in prison following the lengthy plea hearing.

The Meadville Tribune was the only media outlet in attendance at Turner's hearing and sentencing.

Turner's plea and sentencing agreement was reached late Wednesday between Turner, his defense attorneys and the Crawford County District Attorney's Office.

Jury selection was set to start Oct. 4 in county court on what could have been a potential death penalty case against Turner. In February of this year, the District Attorney's Office filed notice it would seek the death penalty if Turner was convicted at trial.

Before accepting Turner's guilty plea to two counts of third-degree murder and a felony count of burglary, Stevens questioned him at length.

Stevens wanted to make sure Turner understood he would be giving up many rights by entering guilty pleas rather than heading to trial. The judge said he also wanted to make sure Turner was entering the guilty pleas of his own free will.

Turner gave short answers in a soft voice to the questions by Stevens during the nearly four-hour court appearance.

Turner sat at the defense table seated between his two defense lawyers and was dressed in a dark black suit with dark purple shirt and black tie. He was handcuffed with the handcuffs attached to a waist belt and was wearing leg shackles.

Under questioning by Stevens, Turner said he had been dropped off at the Whitman home at 13185 State Route 198 in Randolph Township around 6 p.m. Aug. 10, 2019, by a friend. Turner, who last lived at the home in December 2018, said he went there to get personal belongings. Turner admitted he had a 9-mm Luger pistol on him that was loaded and had additional ammunition for it.

Turner said no one was home when he was dropped off at the house, entering it through an unlocked sliding glass door on a sun room at the rear of the home.

Turner said he had taken the drugs methamphetamine, oxycodone and suboxone before the shootings. He said he also drank a bottle of wine he found in the home.

"Did you have any conversation with the victims?" Stevens asked.

"No," Turner said.

"Did you have the firearm with you?" Stevens asked.

"I shot them," Turner said.

"Why did you shoot Shannon Whitman?" Stevens then asked.

"I don't know," Turner responded.

"Did you shoot her as she came into the home?" Stevens asked.

"Yes," Turner said.

"Including Darren as he came in?" Stevens then asked.

"Yes," Turner said.

Turner responded "Yes" when asked if he thought they were dead.

"Did you check on them?" Stevens asked.

"No," Turner said.

"You shot each once?" Stevens asked.

"Yes," Turner said.

Turner also admitted under questioning that he picked up shell casings from the shooting.

Turner then left the home in the Whitman car — a silver Mercury MKS sedan — and drove to Titusville where he met briefly with an ex-girlfriend at the Titusville public library.

Turner admitted he told another friend that he had been shot.

"Was that true?" Stevens asked.

"No," Turner said.

"Why did you do that?" Stevens asked.

"I don't know," Turner said.

Turner admitted he drove the car to Cleveland on Aug. 11, 2019, leaving it in a parking garage across from the city's bus station. He said he purchased a bus ticket and went to St. Augustine, Florida. Turner told the judge that he stayed at a hotel before making his way to Jacksonville, Florida, where he bought another bus ticket to return to Cleveland.

Turner said he was returning to Cleveland to get the car that he had left in that city. He said he planned to drive back to Erie to turn himself over to police. Turner was arrested in Charleston, West Virginia, at the bus station on Aug. 14, 2019, while awaiting transfer to another bus on the Jacksonville-to-Cleveland trip.

In accepting Turner's guilty pleas and the sentencing agreement reached, Stevens said the 45- to 90-year sentence was within the standard range for two third-degree murder and felony burglary under state guidelines.

Stevens reminded family members from both sides that the outcome of a trial — either way — was never a certainty. The plea and sentencing would help bring closure to the Whitman family, he said.

The capital punishment aspect also made it a complex case for the jury to decide, according to the judge.

"There's no way anyone can quantify the loss of Shannon Whitman and Darrin Whitman," Stevens said. "Unjustified, inexcusable and tragic are all words that come to mind."

Stevens told Turner the 45- to 90-year sentence "is a really long time — it could be life."

"You know what happened, you know what you did and you wish you could undo it, but you can't answer why," the judge said. "Mr. Turner, I just don't get it and I think that makes it harder in some ways, but you've got to get it and figure it out."

"Any loss of life is a tragedy," Stevens said before pronouncing sentence. "The loss of a 10-year-old's life is devastating."

Stevens ordered Turner to serve 20 to 40 years for the murder of Shannon Whitman followed by another 20 to 40 years in prison for the murder of Darrin Whitman then five to 10 years for the burglary count. Stevens also ordered Turner to pay $1,000 in fines plus court costs. The judge gave Turner presentence jail credit dating back to Oct. 7, 2019.

Both Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz and Turner's defense team of Michael Waltman and Owen Seman said they reached the plea agreement during the last two weeks.

Schultz said he had a duty under Pennsylvania's Crime Victim's Act to consult with the Whitman family about the plea and sentence agreement and received input from them.

While the commonwealth had a strong case due to the thorough investigation done by Pennsylvania State Police, Schultz said getting a guaranteed minimum sentence of 45 years was important rather than to risk a trial.

"Some people will say, 'It's not a life sentence it should be a life sentence,' but 45 years is pretty darn close," he said. "It's a long time. When you start thinking about 45 years, 45 years is a very, very long time. Really, that's the bulk of the rest of Turner's life."

Seman and Waltman said it was a difficult case from beginning to end.

"I think this is a resolution that takes into account all of the different aspects of the case and takes into account our client's life," Seman said. "And it gives him an opportunity (for eventual release) while also punishing him."

Keith Gushard can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting