2nd-degree murder verdict spares ex-Army sergeant death penalty fight

Updated Feb 08, 2018
Vanessa Williams (family photo)

A Palm Beach County jury on Thursday spared John Chapman from a possible fight against a death sentence by convicting him of second-degree murder in the April 18, 2015 stabbing death of a Margate woman with whom he shared a child.

Had jurors convicted the former Army staff sergeant of first-degree murder as charged, prosecutors would have asked them to vote unanimously to sentence Chapman to death. As it is, Chapman, 28, faces at least 25 years and up to life in prison when Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath sentences him.

The case unfolded into a classic debate between premeditated murder or self-defense, with Chapman himself claiming the latter when he took the stand in his own defense a week ago.

Chapman, now 28 himself, told investigators at the time of his arrest nearly three years ago that he “went into robotic mode” and stabbed Vanessa Williams after she pulled a knife on him while they were in the cab up a pickup truck outside a west Boca Raton housing development. Neither lived in the development, which was near the home of a friend of Chapman’s.

The final confrontation capped several days of drug use, drinking and conflict between the on-again, off-again couple.

“It wasn’t a surprise to me,” Williams’ father, Rupert Williams, said of the jury’s verdict. “What it came down to was a split-second of whether or not they thought he had time to think about it or not. But I knew it was never going to be a not guilty.”

Assistant State Attorneys Reid Scott and John Parnofiello had argued to jurors that even if Williams had pulled a knife on Chapman, any potential threat would have been over the moment he was able to wrestle the knife out of her hands.

Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout, who personally represented Chapman along with Assistant Public Defenders Scott Pribble and Tatiana Bertsch, echoed Chapman’s claims that he believed Williams would have stabbed him and told jurors that his response, though brutal,was a justified use of force.

“This is not a case of murder,” Haughwout told jurors at the start of the trial more than two weeks ago.” When you hear the evidence, I think you’ll be convinced. This is the case of emotional frenzy on two people’s parts, but John Chapman believed he did what he had to do to defend himself.”

In the end, jurors rejected both theories and convicted Chapman of second-degree murder as a lesser included offense of the first degree murder charge. The panel convicted Chapman of grand theft for stealing the borrowed pickup truck Williams was driving after he dumped her body in a ditch on Smith Sundy Road west of Delray Beach.

Jurors announced they had reached a decision just before 2 p.m. Thursday, ending deliberations that had begun a day earlier. But after Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath assembled attorneys, jurors and Chapman in the courtroom for the verdict, he sent jurors back into the courtroom after he discovered what he described as a “scrivener’s error” in the verdict form.

The judge later explained that the jury had marked the boxes both for guilty of second degree murder and not guilty on the murder charge. After Colbath gave them a short break to correct the form, they returned with the verdict.

Rupert Williams and Vanessa’s mother, Ninett Martinez, said they would have accepted would have accepted a death sentence had Chapman been convicted as charged, but added they felt that even a death by lethal injection was no comparison to the 26 stab wounds their daughter suffered.

The Margate woman’s parents said they never liked Chapman and claim he had a long history of beating their daughter during their story relationship.

“She would never tell us,” Martinez said of the alleged beatings. “She would always say ‘no, no, nothing happened.’”

The son Chapman and Williams shared is being raised by relatives, her parents said. Chapman had two children from other relationships, including a daughter he shared with a Cape Coral woman he was living with when Williams came to pick him up for what was ultimately the final effort to rekindle their relationship. He was living with a third woman in Miami at the time of his arrest.

The verdict by default leaves local prosecutors winless in their pursuit of the death penalty since a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision forced Florida lawmakers to revamp the process statewide. The previous system, which the high court struck down as unconstitutional, allowed juries to recommend a death sentence when a simple majority of 12 jurors voted for the punishment and left the ultimate sentencing power to judges.

Under the current system, all 12 jurors in Florida death penalty cases must recommend a death sentence in order for a judge to issue the punishment.

Local prosecutors next week will ask another jury to impose a death sentence against 24-year-old Jefty Joseph, convicted last week of first-degree murder in the case involving the 2013 robbery and shooting death of Gustavo Falsetti Cabral.