Ervin Found Guilty of Murdering Leslie Layman—But Is It Enough?
Denny Ervin was a bad man. Even his family said so. They loved him though, like most people do. After all, blood is blood.
He wasn’t always bad, though—and maybe he still isn’t. Who can really say for sure?
I can’t recall him being bad in school. Truth be told, I didn’t really know Denny that well. As we moved from our small country classrooms into a much larger consolidated high school, we stopped being in class together. That tells me he wasn’t an overachiever or naturally bright.
Or was he? Maybe the turmoil in his home life had played such a large role by then, it wasn’t aptitude or ability that Denny lacked—it was desire. Or maybe he was gifted in other areas, like fixing cars.
It’s so hard to say in a case like this one because Denny shot and killed Leslie Layman after telling her that’s exactly what he was going to do. He left dozens of harassing voicemail messages, calling her (and her three daughters) profane names and threatening her. Before he finally did kill her that May 8, 2012, night, he stalked her, hiding in the woods while drinking beer behind her rural home along the Independence-Gladesville Road.
Denny grew up with me; Leslie with my younger siblings. I delivered Grit newspapers every week to both families when I was a child. The two families were practically neighbors, as well as being friends. Jimmy and Cheryl Engle had two children: Jamie and Leslie. Byron and Betty Ervin (both deceased) had eight children, five girls and three boys.
What happens when family friends and neighbors come to blows? Rarely does it turn into a decades-long grudge such as the one portrayed by the Hatfields and McCoys. Although outsiders believe that famous southern feud depicts the way differences play out among folks in West Virginia, we insiders know problems rarely reach that magnitude.
That’s why the Ervin and Engle families could be seen crying and comforting one another before and after the verdict. It’s also why Leslie’s murder struck such sorrow in everyone there: they all lost a child or a sibling or a family member. Both families have suffered for the last two years and they will continue to do so—because Denny’s path in life didn’t only hurt the Engle family. It affected his own loved ones, as a criminal’s actions always do.
Perhaps, like my sister, Lisa, it’s the drugs that took hold of Denny. Led him down a path that ended in disaster—for him and everyone who loved him. After Leslie’s murder I spoke with three women who told me how horribly abusive he was. One of them said he poured gasoline on her and threatened to kill her. Still, these women loved him.
Much like Denny’s family loves him. And Leslie’s loved her. Love is a funny thing. We can love the people who treat us the worst, while ignoring or even deliberately being unkind to those who would die for us.
In spite of loving him, the women in Denny’s life quickly found they couldn’t live with him. Leslie was last in a long line of women to learn this—even as she hoped hers would be the love to change him—during their on-again, off-again, volatile relationship. When she realized Denny wouldn’t change, Leslie chose to end the relationship permanently, something the women in Ervin’s life say he doesn’t take too kindly to.
Everything in life comes down to choice. That’s what Denny’s sister believes, too. “When you become an adult you choose your life and if you don’t you can’t blame anybody else,” Nancy Trickett said.
Nancy told me that Wednesday afternoon while we waited for seven women and five men, a jury of Denny’s peers, to determine her brother’s fate. They filed silently from the courtroom just after 3 p.m. and our small crowd of family, media and legal teams waited, mingling together in different parts of the building or outside on the sidewalk. A little before 7 p.m. a bailiff told us the jury had called it a night.
A collective worry weighed on the faces of everyone there, probably because it’s commonly thought the longer it takes a jury to reach a verdict, the less likely they are to convict—or to convict on the most serious charge. This jury had multiple choices, among them first-degree murder, manslaughter—and not guilty.
No one knew what they would decide, but after hearing days of evidence from an excellent prosecution team and a defense attorney who waged a skillful counterargument, more than one person thought the verdict could be less serious than Denny deserved. The defense had done such a good job one person said they had changed their mind: before the trial, they thought Denny went to Leslie’s home to kill her. After closing arguments, they didn’t.
Most people there though, believed Leslie’s murder was premeditated. When asked why Denny took a gun and went to Leslie’s that day, Nancy didn’t hesitate. “To kill her,” she said.
I wasn’t present for the trial testimony. Wish I would have but like everyone else I had a choice, too. It’s the same choice I’ve had every day for almost two months now. Some days my choice is different, depending on factors within—or beyond—my control. Like the book I just finished writing, some days I’ve put personal things aside and taken care of work first. Other days, like every day throughout this trial, I could not begin my work until I tended to the more pressing personal matters first. Like caring for a loved one.
I am sure sitting inside the Preston County Circuit Court throughout a trial for a man accused of killing a woman he claimed to love, and which was so similar to the many others I’ve covered and which have led me to where I am now, would have evoked strong memories of the painful past I left behind. Maybe it’s better I wasn’t there, after all. Yes, it’s probably best the past stays right where it is, so I don’t have to look back and remember how easily I could have been Leslie. Or remember the other painful memories that linger, more than twenty years later.
Choked-up whispers floated through the surprised crowd huddled outside the courtroom just after 9 a.m. Thursday. Everyone hoped for the best, but the tears on their cheeks showed they were prepared for the worst—because even before court went into session, the jury had reached a verdict.
Turns out all this jury needed was a good night’s sleep, apparently to make sure the twelve men and women were still on the same page as when they left the courthouse Wednesday night. To confirm they had carefully considered the evidence and weren’t making a hasty decision.
The verdict, as everyone now knows, was guilty. The jury found that Denny Ervin committed first-degree murder and wanton endangerment when he deliberately went to Leslie’s home, lay in wait on her family’s land even after they told him to stay away, and then intentionally shot her when her children were nearby that night. They did not recommend mercy.
Whether Leslie carried a shotgun outside for protection or to kill an errant raccoon who might have wanted to feast on her family’s chickens is now irrelevant. Whether she was weary of Denny’s harassment and decided to end it herself, as the defense claimed, no longer matters.
This does, though: Leslie’s daughters are in danger, much like Wanda Toppins’ daughter was, because they lived in a home where their female (and primary) caregiver fell prey to an abusive man with a deadly addiction. In the coming years they have a choice, and I hope they choose wisely. I pray her daughters choose to steer clear of any man like Denny Ervin, and stay far, far away from those men who choose to take their frustration, anger and childhood pain out on the women who are frequently physically weaker—but often intellectually wiser—than them.
There is something else that matters here, and it is this: while she and Denny were blood, Nancy said they weren’t friends. They had not been friends for a long time, because she wouldn’t put up with him assaulting women, abusing drugs, and disrespecting people in general. As a result, Nancy was not one of the six or so people Denny called that May 8 night, to confess: “I killed her.”
Both siblings grew up in a house with alcoholic parents “who fought all the time,” Nancy said. It is entirely possible those family dynamics affected Denny the same way they affected another brother in the family, who has also served time in prison. But in the end, like Nancy says, it really boils down to choice—something we each have.
So if you’re a teen, choose your friends wisely. If you’re looking for a life partner, be choosey about who you love. If you’ve already chosen and you have children, be cautious about what you allow to happen inside your own home. The aftereffects could be deadly. For you, for them, and ultimately, for the people they love.
Sentencing has been set for May 30 in Preston County.
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My memoir, Sister of Silence, is being used in colleges and some high schools; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Liars (also with Fuller), due out in July 2013.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”