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State v. Seal

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 9, 2018

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
William Jesse Seal, Defendant Below, Petitioner

          (Mercer County 16-F-342-WS)


         Petitioner William Jesse Seal, by counsel John E. "Jay" Williams Jr. and Ryan J. Flanigan, appeals the Circuit Court of Mercer County's April 5, 2017, order sentencing him to forty years of imprisonment following his second-degree murder conviction. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel Robert L. Hogan, filed a response. On appeal, petitioner contends that there was insufficient evidence to sustain his conviction and that the circuit court erred in imposing the maximum sentence.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         The evidence at petitioner's trial showed that, on June 19, 2015, an officer with the Princeton Police Department responded to a call at petitioner's home. Upon the officer's arrival, he found petitioner "sort of laying across" the deceased body of Ashley Seal, petitioner's ex-wife. The officer observed multiple stab wounds on the victim. Petitioner informed the officer that he and the victim had had a fight and asked the officer to "please shoot me." The officer noted a butterfly knife, determined to belong to petitioner, that was covered in blood and positioned close to petitioner. Another knife found at the scene was determined to be the victim's, but it was sheathed and had no blood on it. Ultimately, eighty-six stab wounds were counted on the victim's body, which included wounds to her heart, lungs, liver, spleen, small bowel, and pancreas. Petitioner sustained one wound to his abdomen.

         Petitioner's neighbor and her daughter-in-law, who was visiting the neighbor, testified at trial. Although their view of the events that transpired in petitioner's home on that day were not entirely clear due to the angle of the view, these witnesses testified that they could see through an open window in petitioner's home and saw the victim move or lunge toward petitioner. Petitioner responded to this by pushing the victim onto the floor. The witnesses noted silence for approximately three minutes, and then heard the victim gurgle and faintly yell, "Help me." Several minutes later, petitioner came to the window, looked at these witnesses, and said, "Somebody needs to help me. I did it."

         Petitioner was later transported to the hospital to obtain treatment. While there, officers obtained a statement from him. Petitioner admitted to killing the victim. Petitioner also stated that he went toward the victim first, and that she may have perceived that as a threat. The record also suggests that petitioner's abdomen wound was unintentionally self-inflicted during the fight with the deceased.

         Indisputably, petitioner and the victim had a tumultuous relationship. The victim flaunted her new relationship in front of petitioner, and due to "not getting along very well" with petitioner, petitioner's landlord had banned her from the premises on occasion. Petitioner argued at trial that he acted in self-defense and was provoked. The jury, however, rejected these claims and found him guilty of second-degree murder.

         On April 3, 2017, the circuit court sentenced petitioner to a determinate term of forty years of incarceration. In imposing this sentence, the court noted the following:

The [c]ourt, as [has] been noted - and the [c]ourt's familiar with this case, since it was a [j]ury trial. So, the [c]ourt's familiar with the evidence in this case more so than the [c]ourt typically has in sentencing.
The Pre-Sentence Report indicates that [petitioner] is 34 years of age. He has an 11th grade education. He was employed at the time that this act was committed. He didn't have much of a criminal record really prior to this offense. He doesn't appear to have - at least as [of] the time this act was committed - a drug o[r] alcohol problem. If this was anything other than [a] second[-]degree murder case, [petitioner] probably would be entitled to some leniency by the [c]ourt. But, that is outweighed in this case by the act itself. The thing that stood out to the [c]ourt about this - this act was the brutality that was committed. I know [petitioner] indicates that these acts were done in self-defense. But, this went way - you know, even this went way beyond any amount of self-defense. The - just the shear brutality of the actions of [petitioner] in taking the life of [Ashley]. Even with the [c]ourt giving him the maximum sentence, [petitioner] will be young enough when he gets out of prison to still have a life. That's something that he took away from another person. And, society demands that he should have to pay for that. And, the [c]ourt feels like society should demand that he should have to pay for that.

         Petitioner's sentence was memorialized in an order dated April 5, 2017, and it is from this order that petitioner appeals.

         Petitioner's first argument on appeal is that there was insufficient evidence presented to support a second-degree murder conviction. Petitioner "feels that the evidence of self[-]defense predominated any finding of second[-]degree murder as [the victim] stabbed him first." Petitioner recounts the evidence presented to the jury, including the victim's psychiatric issues, her purported provocation of petitioner, the witnesses' views of the altercation, and his not leaving the home following the killing.

         With regard to appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial, this Court has held that

[t]he function of an appellate court when reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction is to examine the evidence admitted at trial to determine whether such evidence, if believed, is sufficient to convince a reasonable person of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the relevant inquiry is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any ...

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