After nearly five hours of deliberation, Aaron Eugene Carlile, 65, stood before a jury of his peers Wednesday and was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Thomas Monroe “Sonny” Culwell, 78, and his sister, Marion Almenia Culwell, 80.
The jury of five men and seven women recommended sentences of life without parole on each count. A pre-sentencing investigation will take place prior to the sentencing hearing set for 10 a.m. July 29.
“I am very pleased with the jury’s verdict,” District Attorney Craig Ladd said. “I think it was supported by the evidence.
“I want to thank the jury; they did a good job. I also want to thank the OSBI once again; they did a good job with the verdict.”
Carlile shot the Culwells on their property on May 3, 2013. Carlile said he shot Sonny Culwell, his father-in-law, in self-defense. Almenia Culwell was shot seconds later when she got out of her truck and was yelling at Carlile.
During closing arguments, Ladd reviewed the elements of murder, stressing malice of forethought in appealing for a verdict of first-degree murder. In addressing the jury, Ladd pointed out malice of forethought can be formed instantly before the commission of an act. He also argued against the notion Sonny Culwell was killed in self-defense.
“You can’t bring a gun to a fist fight,” Ladd said.
In the death of Almenia Culwell, Ladd argued premeditation took place when Carlile cocked the hammer of his Super Blackhawk Ruger 44. Ladd said Carlile shot her like a “dog.”
“A sweet lady,” Ladd said. “Nobody said a bad word about her. A sweet woman, and he executed her.”
Ladd said at the time of the murders, Carlile was in a dark place, having separated from his wife. He pointed out Culwell was drinking more, and he talked about Sonny Culwell’s girlfriend, Sandra Welch, who was seen by the family as a gold digger. In discussing a motive, Ladd said Carlile was concerned about not having a place to live with the possibility of divorce looming.
“If Sonny dies before he marries Sandra, and if Sonny dies before Janette (Carlile) can divorce him, who benefits?” Ladd asked.
Ladd also recalled a statement made by Carlile during an interview with the OSBI when he said Sonny caught him on a bad day. Given the animosity between the two for 40 years, Ladd said Sonny didn’t catch Carlile on a bad day. Carlile caught Sonny.
In her closing statement, defense attorney Melanie Blackburn pointed out Ladd said he didn’t need to prove motive, although he spent most of his time on it. She argued the state had not proved the burden of intent, noting that Sonny had not put his hands on Carlile previous to that day.
“He poked and prodded him,” Blackburn said. “He tortured him, and when he got to the point when he put his hands on him, he shot him.
“It’s unfortunate two lives were taken, he has never denied it. But it is the state’s burden of proof that there was malice of forethought. The fact he went looking for Sonny has not been proven.”
Blackburn also stressed that there are different kinds of homicide, and although first-degree murder is a homicide, not every homicide is first-degree murder.
In his final statement, Ladd pointed out Sonny Culwell was shot twice, once in the right arm, and that re-emphasized the malice of forethought.
“Why does he shoot twice,” Ladd asked. “Sonny was 5-7, 175 and 78 years old. Why does he shoot this bear of a man and why does he shoot him in the arm if it is self defense?”
Ladd re-emphasized testimony from the medical examiner in which gunshots 18 inches or closer leave gunshot residue and a burn mark on skin and clothing. There were none found on Culwell’s clothes.
“More facts the defendant is not telling the truth about this self defense nonsense,” Ladd said.
Ladd pointed out Culwell’s hat and glasses found nearby as well as his gloves, asking why Culwell would have gotten into a fight without discarding the items. Ladd also questioned Carlile’s statement that Culwell was shot and made it back by the truck 20 feet away, contending Carlile shot Culwell by the truck
“Bad day is the whole key to what he says,” Ladd said. “He was in a dark place, his wife left him, you had Sandra and then Sonny happened.”
After the verdict, Ladd met with some members of Culwell’s family.
“I hope this brings some degree of peace to Sonny’s and Almenia’s family,” he said. “They seemed pleased with the jury and the jury’s verdict. They are grateful that Carlile will be held accountable for his actions.”