Mary Miller has said all along she doesn't believe her daughter's death was suicide or an accident. A coroner's jury agreed and ruled 18-year-old Jade Winston's Aug. 17 death a homicide by gunshot at the hand of a person or persons unknown.
Mary Miller has said all along she doesn't believe her daughter's death was suicide or an accident. A coroner's jury agreed and ruled 18-year-old Jade Winston's Aug. 17 death a homicide by gunshot at the hand of a person or persons unknown. The verdict of the coroner's inquest means Miller can finally get some rest, she said. "When I went in there I knew the body was moved, and now I don't feel stupid for it," Miller said. She believes justice eventually will be served in the case. "Whoever did this will be caught, that's all I can say," Miller said. The six men and women on the coroner's jury heard testimony from Deputy Jerod Campbell, Chief Deputy Todd Fort, Illinois State Police crime scene investigator Jack Rother and Dr. Mark LeVaughn, who performed the autopsy on Winston. All agreed Winston's death looked suspicious. Fort arrived at 714 N. Mill St. in Carrier Mills at 11:26 p.m. Aug. 17, just over 30 minutes after a neighbor called 9-1-1 and reported hearing a gunshot. The apartment was shared by Winston, her sister and a friend. The front door was ajar – Campbell and Carrier Mills officers had already been inside the residence to secure the scene. Winston was lying on the floor, "In a large pool of blood and a lot of tissue. I noticed the clip in her left hand and the gun was under her left leg," Fort said. The gun was later identified as a 9-mm semi-automatic pistol that can be fired without a magazine as long as a bullet is in the chamber, Fort said. The gun was reported stolen from Raleigh several months before. Police are not entirely sure how the gun got to Winston's residence, Fort said. She was lying on her back, arms and legs extended. The blood pool began 1 foot away on her right side. "The position struck me as odd," Fort said. It appeared possible she was moved prior to the arrival of law enforcement, but there was no hard evidence at the scene to support that conclusion, Fort said. Campbell and the Carrier Mills officers first on the scene did not move her, Campbell said. Her body was lying in such a position the bullet would have traveled at a 90-degree angle to come to rest in the wall where it did, had she not moved -- or been moved -- after her death, Fort said. "My professional opinion is it was not an accident," Fort said. Fort also does not believe Winston committed suicide. There are more factors dismissing a conclusion of suicide than supporting it, Fort said. Winston didn't appear to be overly depressed or despondent. She apparently intended to teach dance steps from the movie "High School Musical" to a group of young girls the next day. Winston was found in exercise clothes with "High School Musical" still playing on the DVD player, Fort said. Winston had gotten off work at Arby's about 10 p.m. and went to Eldorado, Fort said. She had some sort of argument with a boyfriend there. A cellular phone call made by Winston at 10:06 p.m. went to a cellular tower in Eldorado, Fort testified. She made it home and put in the movie before 10:54 p.m. The entry wound on Winston's head was on the right temple and the exit wound was on her left temple. The gun was in contact with her head when it was fired, according to testimony by Fort and LeVaughn. "We know from talking to family and friends Miss Winston was deathly afraid of firearms," Fort said, so she was not experienced in handling them. If she had been playing with the firearm, Fort said, it would most likely have gone off at a different angle judging from the trajectory of the bullet and the position in which the body was found. There were no fingerprints suitable for comparison on the weapon. "The magazine puzzles me a little bit because that was laying in her hand," Fort said. Blood found on the pistol matched Winston's, Fort said. She tested positive for gunpowder residue on her right hand, but that test, in and of itself, can be inconclusive -- it tests for nitrates found in gunpowder that can also be picked up from other substances. Rother led the crime-scene investigation for the ISP. He arrived at the apartment after Fort, Campbell and the Carrier Mills officers. "The apartment did not appear to be in a disarray like there had been a struggle," Rother said. He collected several pieces of evidence -- 17 in all -- including the gun, ammunition magazine and a spent shell casing found next to Winston's left foot. Rother prepared Winston's body for removal, a process that includes placing bags over her hands so they can be tested later for gunpowder residue and other evidence. Rother agreed the position of Winston's body was strange. "The positioning of this body to me just doesn't look right," Rother said. LeVaughn began the autopsy at the Vanderburgh County, Ind., morgue by discussing the case with Rother and other law enforcement officials attending the autopsy. "It was unanimous this was odd," LeVaughn said. He determined the pistol was fired while held directly to Winston's head. The bullet exited on the left side of her temple, LeVaughn said. The bullet caused massive internal damage and skull fragments likely caused lethal damage to the brain stem. In response to a question by a juror, LeVaughn said Winston died instantly. LeVaughn noticed blood from the entry wound was found underneath her nose, but Winston's body was found on her back, with the head tilted back slightly. The blood on her face would have flowed in an upward direction if her face had not been pointed downward -- at least momentarily -- after the shot was fired, LeVaughn said. The position in which the body was found and the trajectory of the bullet don't appear to match, LeVaughn said. The head wounds found during the autopsy were so extensive, Winston most likely could not have moved by herself after the shot was fired. LeVaughn and Fort both said Winston was standing when she was shot. After the jury rendered its verdict, Mary Miller embraced Fort, then Coroner Randy Reed. Miller said the case eventually will come together. She believes the death of Winston is connected somehow with the death of her son and Winston's brother, Jerome Mitchell, just over 24 hours later. Mitchell, 22, also of Carrier Mills, died when his vehicle went off the road on old Route 13 and overturned several times near the intersection of old and new Route 13. His passenger, Christopher L. Pennington, 31, Carrier Mills, was seriously injured in the crash. Miller and several friends and family members attended the inquest wearing T-shirts in memory of Jade and Jerome. The shirts were made by several people and organizations in Carrier Mills, Miller said. The courtroom was filled with family members and friends of Winston and Mitchell. The Investigation The investigation of Winston's death has been frustrating for law enforcement, but officers keep trying to develop new leads and work with any new information that becomes available, Sheriff Keith Brown said. Police have interviewed more than 70 people and have given six polygraph tests during the investigation, Fort said. Police have canvassed the neighborhood twice. "And we are still continuing the investigation," Fort said. Numerous agencies have been involved with the investigation in one way or another, including the Sheriff's Department, ISP, Carrier Mills, Harrisburg and Eldorado police, the Department of Corrections and the FBI. "We continue to look, go back and look again," Brown said. Before the inquest, Reed said there has been a lot of "he-said, she-said" in the case, but not much to back up a lot of the theories that have come to the attention of law enforcement. More tests were done than usual and a great deal of evidence had to be sifted through, which is why it took so long to convene a coroner's jury, Reed said. "This has been one of the most difficult cases that I have had to work on," Reed said. Authorities have gone down blind alleys and been frustrated many times, Reed suggested during the inquest. "I think that has been a lot of the problem with this case. You start down one road and hit a brick wall, then you start down another path ...," Reed said. Brown hopes will come forward with information that will help authorities make an arrest in the case. "If there is someone out there with more information, we need their help," Brown said. Harrisburg Daily Register