Jonathan Jenkins, who has no prior criminal record, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in connection with the 1998 shooting death of Joseph Richard Vestal Jr. Under the plea, he will serve at least eight years, but no more than 10 years in prison.
Johnston County District Attorney Tom Lock said that if the case had gone to trial, Jenkins might have been acquitted. Vestal's sister, Linda Vestal, said it was a risk that she and her family were willing to take.
"For them to have all this time to get it together, and then fumble it up, something's not right, it's just not right," Linda Vestal said.
The investigation was a 6-year-old murder case when investigators finally solved it two years ago. The time it took to solve the case also would have made it much harder to try.
"This was not a slam-dunk case," Lock said. "The evidence was not overwhelming."
The most compelling evidence in the case was Jenkins' DNA taken from a mask left behind at Joseph Vestal's mobile home where he was killed. The DNA placed Jenkins at the scene.
"It didn't necessarily put the defendant at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder," Lock said.
Linda Vestal believes the decision is, in part, politically motivated since Lock is running for Superior Court judge.
"If he lost this trial, it would look bad," she said.
Lock has said that he does not contend that the sentence imposed on Jenkins is adequate for second-degree murder, but that it is within the range of sentences, which means Jenkins will serve about as much time as it took to solve the case altogether.
The Vestal family plans to hire an attorney to review everything from the plea deal to the Clayton Police Department's detective work.
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