The contrast between defense attorney and client couldn’t have been more stark: His voice boomed. It was by far the loudest in the courtroom. Distinct and certain, everyone seated inside the wood-paneled room could hear him without the need to lean forward, fearful of missing a single syllable.
Hers was soft and uncertain, almost childlike in its tone. I know I had to strain to hear her words. I’m not sure if it was by design or genetics, since today was the first time I heard her speak in person. Honestly, she didn’t have much to say—except “not guilty.”
Four times in a row. To the charge of first-degree murder. To the charge of kidnapping. To two charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
The murder of Skylar Neese. Her best friend.
Morgantown residents have been waiting since 2012 to hear someone speak in public about Skylar’s death. Since then, people around the world have joined us, as they waited along with us, hoping to hear someone explain what happened to Skylar the night of July 6, 2012. Hoping to have someone take responsibility for her death. They’ve been eagerly awaiting this since May 1, 2013, when Rachel Shoaf, another “best friend” of Skylar’s pleaded guilty to Skylar’s murder.
Shoaf pleaded guilty to second-degree murder right away. But her other “best friend,” the girl who appeared in Mon County Circuit Court today, did nothing of the kind—one of the reasons this case has moved along with such slow deliberation.
And until last week, even though everyone knew who she was, no one who is anyone in the media would name her. That changed last Wednesday, when she was finally transferred from juvenile to adult status. If no one heard her name Wednesday, they couldn’t have missed it Friday, when the September term of the grand jury indicted her in Skylar’s murder.
Shelia Rae Eddy is a small-boned teen of 17, and prettier in person than her pictures depict. Deprived of makeup and hair products, wearing wrist and ankle shackles and an orange prison jumpsuit, she looks much younger than she is. More fragile. As I watched her being led into the courtroom today, in her inmate-issued white socks and sandals, I couldn’t help but notice her long, blond hair.
What surprised me most was her lack of emotion today. A flat affect, psychologists call it. I didn’t know if she felt no emotion or if she was simply blank with the enormity of the moment.
There were at least a dozen other inmates whose names, whose crimes, were first brought before Circuit Judge Russell Clawges. They all seemed to be pretty standard procedure—save for the one inmate, Jerod Alan Green , accused of the third-offense DUI that killed Mon County Deputy Michael Todd May on Feb. 18 last year.
Maybe that’s why Eddy went last. After all, it’s not every day that a pretty teenage girl is accused with planning to kill her best friend. But her being last made it that much more dramatic. Especially since she was the only female inmate in the courtroom.
Eddy and her attorney are also opposite in physicality. He is as tall, broad, and dark as she is petite, fair, and tiny. But it was their voices that commandeered our attention. Especially when Mike Benninger answered Judge Clawgess’s questions.
“Have you discussed the charges with your client?” Clawgess asked.
“I have, your Honor. Carefully,” Benninger replied.
“Does she understand the charges against her?” the Judge asked.
“She absolutely does,” the defense attorney said.
I was sitting one row back in the gallery where the media and other audience sits. Behind me sat two rows of people—including Skylar’s father, Dave, and her aunt, Carol Michaud—and before Eddy could finish her first “not guilty,” I heard sobs coming from their direction.
I’m told people who came to observe, who didn’t even know Skylar or her family, began to cry at the sounds of grief and pain coming from the Neese contingent.
The most surreal thing to me was looking at Eddy’s face as she turned and walked down the aisle, right past me. I didn’t see a single tear. A colleague said her eyes appeared to be rimmed in red, as if she had been crying while answering the Judge’s questions.
I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that with those eight words, the “not guilty,” repeated once as each criminal count against her was read, it became clear that the search for answers to what happened to Skylar Neese is going to be long and painful.
And anything but simple.
Editor’s note: Berry and award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon), have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the Skylar Neese murder. Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry’s memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site.