PRINCETON — A jury listened to arguments Thursday supporting first-degree murder and ones for self defense before finding a Mercer County man guilty of second-degree murder in the October 2018 shooting death of a local man.
Jan McKinley Williams Jr., 25, was charged with first-degree murder in the Oct. 28, 2018 death of 29-year-old Jason Varney. Varney was shot once in the back and once in the elbow on Kee Street in Princeton.
Williams had been seeking Varney after being paid $200 in counterfeit money for narcotics, according to testimony heard during the trial. The attorneys representing Williams, Brandon Austin and Joshua Lawson, argued that their client had acted in self defense because he thought Varney was agitated and about to pull out a gun.
The trial started Monday before Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope.
Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler told the jury in the state’s closing argument that the shooting was premeditated.
“It’s first-degree murder, no mercy,” he said. “That’s the only reasonable verdict.”
Williams took the stand and testified about Varney had contacted him that day to buy some hydromorphone, and how the transaction took place at a Washington Street park. He said that he soon noticed Chinese letters on the $100 bills and realized that they were counterfeit, but Varney did not immediately reply to calls or texts.
“I told him, ‘Hey, we need to talk,’” Williams testified.
“Did you at any time threaten him?” Austin asked him.
“No, sir,” Williams replied.
Williams said Varney was pacing back and forth and threatening him, so he pulled out his 9-mm pistol, but didn’t point it at him. Varney kept reaching for his waistband, he added later in his testimony. Williams stated that he fired because he thought Varney was drawing a gun, then fled the scene because he was panicking.
As the questioning continued, Williams said he ran from the scene, then hid his jacket and the pistol. He said also that he lied to the Princeton police about knowing Varney.
“I was nervous,” he stated.
“Did you do the only thing you thought you could do at that time?” Austin asked his client.
“Yes,” Williams replied.
“Was it your intent to kill Mr. Varney?” Austin asked.
“No,” Williams said. “My intent was to survive.”
Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler cross-examined Williams and asked him about his drug dealing activities, and how he had to answer to drug suppliers if he lost money.
“So in a situation where the way you make a living is at risk and your personal safety at stake, that would be pretty upsetting?” Sitler asked.
“Yes,” Williams said.
“Make you kind of mad?”
“Correct,” Williams replied.
Williams told Sitler that he was in fear of his life. Sitler said there was only one gun, the one Williams had brought with him, at the scene that day.
During the trial’s first day Monday, Dr. Piotr Kubiczek, first deputy medical examiner at the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s )Office, testified that he found an entrance wound in Varney’s back when he performed an autopsy. Sitler reminded Williams that a wound in Varney’s elbow was also from back to front.
“How is a man with his back to you going to threaten you when you didn’t see a gun?” Sitler asked Williams. “He wasn’t threatening you, was he?”
“Yes, he was,” Williams said.
During the defense’s closing arguments, Lawson said forensic tests had show that Varney had consumed hydromorphone and cocaine before the shooting.
“Mr. Williams never contemplated shooting Mr. Varney,” Lawson told the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, crude as this sounds, Mr. Williams wanted to continue business with Mr. Varney. He did not want to kill him.”
Sitler said in the state’s closing argument that there was nothing to indicate that the shooting was in self defense, and that it was “a cold-blooded, deliberate drug killing.” Williams had almost three hours to consider his actions before he shot Varney.
“This is not a whodunnit, this is not a whydunnit,” Sitler stated. “This is a very clear case of deliberate, premeditated first-degree murder.”
Sitler later added, “This is not a question of self defense. This was not a close-up shot. This was a cold-blooded shot from some distance away... there is no evidence that Jason Varney was advancing on Jan Williams, threatening Jan Williams. What Jason Varney was doing all day long was avoiding a confrontation with this man all day long after cheating him and giving him phony money for drugs.”
“Maybe the shot in the back was not the immediate, fatal shot,” Sitler said, adding that the elbow wound could have been the first one inflicted.
The jury started deliberations just before noon and came back with its verdict soon after 1 p.m.
Williams is facing 10 to 40 years in prison, Sitler said later. He will be eligible for parole after serving 10 years, but he could end up serving all 40 years behind bars. Williams is being held at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.
In a previous plea agreement, Williams had agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. Judge Swope rejected this plea in August 2019.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Lauren Lynch worked with Sitler while representing the state’s case.
Contact Greg Jordan at email@example.com