Shelia Eddy Sentenced to Life With Mercy
I can’t say how many expressions passed across Shelia Eddy’s face from the time she walked into Judge Russell Clawges’ courtroom until she took her seat and began sobbing, but I can tell you she’s one of the most difficult people to read I’ve ever seen during the 25 years I’ve been covering criminal trials.
What does one say when a girl of 18 pleads guilty to first-degree, premeditated murder? Yes, it means the victim’s family doesn’t have to suffer the agony of a long and drawn-out trial. I’m not sure it gives us much else to cheer about, though.
What about the fact that, in this country, a juvenile cannot receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole? If that juvenile has taken another human life, then shouldn’t the law dictate her life be spent behind bars—without any hope of freedom?
Today Eddy did what it’s been rumored she would do for some time: she pled guilty to intentionally killing Skylar Neese. Eddy didn’t so much tell the court—Eddy didn’t speak at all about what she and co-conspirator Rachel Shoaf did—she simply pled guilty to all of the charges Clawges read from his bench. Eddy said she understood what the charges meant. She said no one had pressured her to plead guilty. She said her legal representation was good.
She “said” all that in the form of “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” when the Judge asked her.
The most troubling part of today’s plea hearing, for me and many in attendance, was in what Eddy didn’t say: She didn’t say “I’m sorry.”
That left most of us wondering why. You plead guilty to first-degree murder, to planning to kill your best friend, but when you’re given a chance to prove your remorse—if you have any—you remain silent.
This is the Eddy we’ve come to know, the girl we’ve heard so much about from people closest to the case. As we’ve worked on this book for the last seven months, we’ve heard one person and then another say that Eddy has not once indicated she killed Skylar. Instead, she has maintained her innocence throughout—until today.
Which is, or was, fine, given that the U.S. justice system treats all defendants as innocent until proven guilty. But here’s the thing: As a reporter, when you dig into cases like this one, you come to learn more than you anticipated. You’re in possession not just of bits and pieces of information, but of specific details that lead you to your own impression about a defendant’s innocence or guilt.
Such turned out to be the case two weeks ago, when I read Eddy’s criminal case file. (It’s a matter of public record, so you can do the same.) At that time, I knew why the prosecution seemed to think they had an airtight case—they did. All their ducks in a row, so to speak. Upon leaving the Monongalia County Circuit Clerk’s office, I wasn’t sure how her defense attorney could defend her.
In the end, he couldn’t. Attorney Michael Benninger told the court as much today. “I have found negligible if any basis . . . to develop a defense,” Benninger said. After digging through West Virginia and even United States case law, Benninger said he found nothing that would allow him to mount a reasonable defense for his client.
He tried to do so, after looking through “every piece of paper, video and audio,” he received about the case, after extensive meetings with or talking to his client or her family about 30 times. In the end, though, he realized “there was little more that I or anyone else could do for this young lady.”
There didn’t seem much to say after that. Clawges accepted Eddy’s plea. And in a case that has sometimes seemed to drag on and on and on, today’s hearing continued at warp speed. After the court heard from Skylar’s father, Dave Neese, and her aunt, Carol Michaud, Eddy was sentenced. (She waived her right to a pre-sentencing investigation.)
If the hearing wasn’t serious enough before, the family’s statements certainly brought home the gravity of what Eddy’s actions led to: “My life and my wife’s life has been drastically altered. We are no longer a family.” Those were the words Dave Neese spoke, heartbreaking ones for many in the courtroom to hear.
Carol’s words were equally sad, and serve as a solemn reminder that the loss of a child equals the loss of the next generation, as well. Carol said “she’s taken hopes and dreams from my sister” because Mary Neese was cheated out of seeing Skylar go to prom, graduate high school, or get married. With Skylar’s murder, Mary also lost any chance of becoming a grandmother, Carol said.
Many people in the courtroom openly wept at Carol’s words.
No doubt Clawges was touched by what amounted to a victim’s impact statement, but in the end, his hands were tied. The prosecution asked for life with mercy for Eddy. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, which says sentencing juveniles to life without mercy is unconstitutional, Clawges issued his sentence.
When he told the courtroom that meant Eddy would be eligible for parole in 15 years, Clawges stressed that the law allows for nothing less. In short, everyone’s hands are tied.
He was equally quick to inform Eddy that while she will be eligible for parole then—that does not mean she will find herself on the road to freedom that soon. That is a decision for the parole board.
As we’ve worked on this book, one of the constant questions was whether a lesbian element was involved. Or if that could possibly be the motive for murder. Many teens of both sexes today experiment with same-sex relationships. But if Shelia and Eddy did, it hardly seems a reason for them to kill Skylar.
Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown didn’t discuss this, but she alluded to there being more involved. The murder occurred, she said, after Eddy and Shoaf began to distance themselves from Skylar. They feared their friendship would dissolve and, if that happened, they were “worried that Skylar would divulge their secrets. The kind of secrets girls have and (Ashdown paused here) other things.”
Ashdown also confirmed a rumor we’ve heard for awhile now, that sometimes in June, Eddy and Shoaf finalized their plan to kill Skylar. They put that plan into action on July 6, by concealing kitchen knives beneath their clothing, taking along a shovel to help bury their intended victim, and clean clothes to change into afterward.
They lured Skylar into Eddy’s vehicle, drove to the Blacksville, W.Va., area, and crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. They went to an area familiar to all three girls, where they then counted down, and then “both stabbed Skylar multiple times,” Ashdown said.
“Skylar fought back and tried to run but she was overcome by her attackers,” she added.
Because of the nature of “this horrific and vile crime,” the prosecution said it had one other request: “We are asking you here, today, to sentence this defendant to adult prison, for her very adult crime.” Ashdown said Eddy should not be returned to a juvenile facility, especially since she’s now 18.
Judge Clawges agreed with the request, and said that as soon as a bed becomes available—be it tomorrow or a month from tomorrow—Eddy is to be placed in an adult prison.
Because Skylar was lured from her home, Eddy was charged with kidnapping, which is a federal crime. The same thing is true for crossing state lines, since Skylar was taken from West Virginia but killed in Pennsylvania. In return for Eddy’s plea today, Pennsylvania and federal court systems both agreed to dismiss any pending charges they have against her.
There are so many, many more details that I could go into here—but time and space limit me. The best I can do is offer a thorough and extensive examination of all of today’s court proceedings and more in our upcoming book. This includes the motive for Skylar’s murder, and whether a lesbian relationship was at the heart of it.
BenBella Books, our publisher, has selected the title. The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese will be available as an ebook in late February. In addition to the above, we hope it also provides a look at problems within today’s families, the average teen’s use of social media, and why a savage crime like this happened at all.
* * * *
My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
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 a 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 her memoir, 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.”