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Daughter, ex-husband, therapist testify at former teacher's murder trial

Posted September 18, 2015
Updated September 24, 2015

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— A former Wake County teacher on trial, accused of murdering her husband, sat in a courtroom Friday and listened as some of the people closest in her life took the stand, including her oldest daughter, an ex-husband and a former therapist she had an inappropriate relationship with while still married to her husband.

Joanna Madonna, 48, is on trial for first-degree murder in the June 2013 death of her husband, Jose Perez, 64. She has admitted to killing him but claims it was in self-defense, telling investigators Perez was abusive and had a problem with drugs and alcohol.

Madonna has said her husband attacked her with a gun, but the gun went off, hitting him, and he became enraged and tried to strangle her. She says that's when she fought back and stabbed him multiple times.

Madonna's oldest daughter, Rachel Lopez, 22, testified Friday that she heard her mother and stepfather leave the house together the night he was killed in June 2013. Her mother returned alone.

"She was on the phone. She was kind of sweaty, and she had a cut on her arm," Lopez told jurors. "I asked her what was wrong. I could tell she was upset. She was just saying, 'It's OK. It's OK ... I asked her again, 'Mom, what happened?' She said, 'Jose got upset with me, and he took out his knife and cut my arm.'"

Lopez said she suggested calling police "in case Jose comes back," but Madonna said no and told her daughter, "It's OK. He's not coming here," according to testimony.

Lopez said she asked her mother where Perez was, and her mother explained that she had dropped him off at his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor's house so he could go to Florida the next day. The two planned to separate, her mother said.

But prosecutors say Madonna stabbed her husband a dozen times, leaving him to die in a ditch, and then threw away his clothes and her wedding ring.

Around that same time, prosecutors say, she was involved in an inappropriate relationship with her former therapist, John Chadwick Richardson. The two had kissed one time, Richardson testified Friday, and she came to his house the day after she killed her husband.

"She and her husband had just separated," Richardson said. "She told me things got rough or ugly. I don’t remember the words. She said he had gone to Florida. She showed me her arms and said he had cut her with a knife. They were scratched. More like a person’s fingernails. I thought it was odd. I asked her if she called the police, and she said no, she didn’t want to get them involved."

Madonna's ex-husband, Chuck Pritchard, testified that she told him the same story after the killing – that Perez had gone to Florida. Pritchard recounted one time when Madonna got physical with him and said she "threw a fork at me, (but) I deserved it."

Madonna's daughter, Lopez, cried Friday as she described her mother as a caring, loving woman who "has a really big heart" and "would do anything for her family."

Lopez testified that her mother and stepfather had a good relationship and raised her and her two younger sisters – all from different fathers – in a loving, nurturing, caring environment. She said they fought about little things, including money, but the fights were never physical.

"(My mother) loved him, and she was happy with him," Lopez said. "They would hug. They would go on dates, kiss."

Lopez said she cared for both her mother and stepfather and did not want to see her mother go to jail.

At issue in the trial is whether Perez would have been able to physically assault his wife, as she claims. A doctor testified Thursday that Perez was in such bad health, it would have been "a real challenge" for him to attack her.

Dr. Robert Falge, a Raleigh doctor who treated Perez, said he had numerous health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, chronic back pain and other serious ailments. His health was so bad, Falge said, that he could barely hold a fork or walk without assistance, let alone hold a gun and take part in a fight.

"Judging by how impaired his arms were, I think it would be a real challenge to do that. I wouldn't say impossible, but a real challenge," Falge said.

Some jurors were visibly upset, covering their eyes and fanning themselves, as a medical examiner testified Thursday about how Perez was killed and showed autopsy photos of his injuries.

Dr. Lauren Scott, an associate chief medical examiner and forensic pathologist, testified that Perez suffered numerous stab wounds, including one to his neck that severed his carotid artery, one to his left chest that perforated his heart and caused bleeding in his chest cavity, and another to his right lung that caused bleeding. He also suffered a stab wound to his jaw.

Madonna's former sister-in-law also took the stand and recalled a visit with her family in South Carolina shortly before the murder. She said Madonna seemed "on edge" during that visit. She said her son gave Madonna a gun and knife because Madonna said she was afraid of someone breaking into the house.

During opening statements Tuesday, Madonna's defense attorney, Crystal Grimes, told jurors that "there was absolutely no reason for Joanna to want Jose dead. She simply wanted a divorce, and because of his actions, she had no other choice but to defend herself."


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