Sturdivant convicted of murder, faces up to life in prison

Joyce Sturdivant cries as she testifies in her own defense Friday. She faces up to life in prison after being convicted of her husband’s murder.

Joyce Sturdivant, who tried twice to hire hit men to kill her husband before taking on the bloody task herself, was convicted Friday night in the October 2008 shooting death of her husband at their home in Robinson.

Jurors in Waco’s 54th State District Court worked late Friday, returning the verdict about 9:15 p.m.

They deliberated 5 1/2 hours before convicting the 66-year-old of murder and attempted capital murder in the death of Joe Sturdivant Jr.

The jury of eight men and four women will return Monday morning for the punishment phase of the trial.

Sturdivant, who shot her 68-year-old husband in the back of the head and in the back while he slept, faces from five to 99 years or up to life in prison for each conviction. Sturdivant began crying as soon as the guilty verdicts were read.

The jury sent a note to Judge Matt Johnson after two hours of deliberations saying they wanted to go home about 5:30 p.m. Friday.

But defense attorney Russ Hunt Sr. and Michelle Tuegel would not agree to allow the jury to separate, fearing they would be exposed to more media coverage and pressure from their families during the weekend.

Sturdivant, who testified for more than two hours Friday, denied all the allegations against her, saying she loved her husband and would never want to harm him.

Special prosecutors Guy Cox and Alan Bennett told jurors that Sturdivant killed her husband to cash in on $92,000 in life insurance proceeds. Because of the possibility of financial gain from her husband’s death, Sturdivant was being tried for capital murder, though the jury returned the lesser murder verdict.

Sturdivant would have faced life in prison if convicted of capital murder.

Throughout the five-day trial, Hunt tried to establish that Joyce Sturdivant’s estranged son, Joe Sullins Jr., had more motive to kill his stepfather than she did.

Hunt alleged that Sullins feared he was being pushed out of the family transmission repair business and felt entitled to the South 18th Street shop and other proceeds from Sturdivant’s estate.

Sturdivant spoke glowingly about her husband, marveling at his work ethic, his abilities as a mechanic and champion stock car driver and as her lifetime companion.

In stark contrast, Sturdivant criticized her son, whom she referred to as “Mr. Sullins” throughout her testimony. She said he tried to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital just get her out of the way so he could run the transmission shop as he saw fit.

Sturdivant said Sullins stole a jewelry box from her home, but said she could not remember if it was before or after her husband was killed.

Sullins and his wife told jurors Friday in prosecution rebuttal testimony that Sullins took the jewelry box after the murder as an incentive to convince his mother to seek medical help for what he claimed was her addiction to painkillers. They said they told her the jewelry would be returned if she sought help.

Deborah Dieterich, a friend of Sturdivant’s, testified Tuesday that, at Sturdivant’s request, she recruited a man she met at her apartment pool to kill Joe Sturdivant in September 2008. She told the jury that Sturdivant gave her two diamond rings as payment for the contract hit. Dieterich said she gave them to Carlos Garcia, who recruited an accomplice but never carried out the scheme.

Robinson police recovered the ring from James Bond, of Teague, a friend of one of the hit men, who said he bought the ring for his wife for $400.

Hunt argued in summations that Sullins could have provided the ring as payment to the men because he took the jewelry box from his mother’s home. He said the state’s case was built on a “foundation of lies and liars.”

Too many coincidences

But Bennett told the jury that far too many coincidences would have to fall into place to disprove prosecution witnesses.

“How in the world could a thug like Carlos Garcia get this ring unless Joyce Sturdivant gave it to them?” Bennett said, holding up the diamond cluster ring. “How did this ring get into the possession of James Bond, who had no idea that these were blood diamonds that he was buying.”

Ali Abulla Mohammed, 60, testified that he recruited Christopher Chatman to enter the Sturdivants’ South Robinson Drive residence in September 2007 with the instructions to knock Joe Sturdivant out while he slept.

He said Joyce Sturdivant said her husband was physically abusive to her and she wanted Mohammed to kill him.

Mohammed, a longtime friend of the Sturdivants, told jurors that Sturdivant told him she would put up the couple’s small but aggressive dogs so they would not alert her husband and leave the door unlocked for them.

Chatman testified he was standing over Sturdivant’s bed with a pistol in his hand when Joe Sturdivant woke up, rushed him and started beating him up. He said he got away, but only after striking Sturdivant in the head several times with the butt of his pistol.

Mohammed testified that an angry Joyce Sturdivant contacted him the next day and insisted that they come back and “finish the job.”

“The poor guy. He didn’t have a chance,” Cox told the jury in summations. “She was going to see that he ended up dead one way or another.”

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