Original article no longer available
The Roanoke Times (VA)
July 23, 1999
Author: LAURENCE HAMMACK, THE ROANOKE TIMES
With photographs of a smiling Wanda Jennings pinned close to their hearts, family and friends watched Thursday as Jennings’ ex-husband was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing her to death. Angry that she had broken off their relationship, Michael W. Jennings plunged a hunting knife into his ex-wife’s chest when they met the morning of June 5, 1998, in the front yard of her home in Northeast Roanoke.
Jennings – who at 52 has spent his life in and out of prisons – will now go back for good under the maximum sentence imposed by Circuit Judge Jonathan Apgar. Some of the courtroom spectators wore buttons made from a photograph, a close-up of Wanda Jennings’ face taken on Christmas Day three years ago. Her son, Michael Alley, said he hoped the buttons would remind the judge and everyone else that “this wasn’t just a murder, this was a person who meant a lot to us.” Alley, who was standing at his mother’s side when she was stabbed, said he was happy with the judge’s sentence – even though it did little to resolve the pain of losing his mother or the wondering of what motivated his stepfather. “There is no justice because there’s nothing they could do to bring her back,” he said. At an earlier hearing, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Blaney summarized the evidence after Jennings pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
Last June 4, Jennings told his ex-wife that he would stop by her home on Long Acre Drive to work on her truck. The Jenningses, who both worked as nurses at Catawba Hospital, had divorced in 1997 but were still communicating regularly. The following morning, Jennings stopped by Wal-Mart on the way to his ex-wife’s house, purchasing a hunting knife and a pellet gun. Witnesses told police he used the gun to confront her in the front yard, then stabbed her in the chest.
Wanda Jennings, who was 46, walked a short distance and collapsed. As Alley tried desperately to stop his mother’s bleeding, Michael Jennings sped off. Police found him at the bottom of a nearby ravine, curled in a fetal position. Jennings did not testify Thursday. But probation Officer Allison Nagel testified that Jennings was “cold and dispassionate” when he told her what happened the day he killed his ex-wife. Jennings said he had no intention of doing harm when he went to her house and that what happened when he got there was a “spontaneous act,” Nagel testified. Jennings’ lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Paul Fantl, said his client acted out of jealousy and rage when “everything he had worked for after being released from the penitentiary … came to an end when he realized his marriage to a woman he loved was over.”
Because of Jennings’ lengthy criminal record – he has been convicted of abduction, five robberies, escape and theft charges – he became the first person in Roanoke to be charged under the state’s three-strikes-you’re-out law. In what proved to be a futile effort to get a lesser punishment, Jennings pleaded guilty in exchange for a promise by prosecutors not to use the law, which carries a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of a third violent crime. While that gave Apgar a sentencing range of 20 years to life, it didn’t guarantee less time in prison – especially considering Jennings’ record. “We’re rarely in a situation where we’re looking at someone who is still out on the street as a five-time convicted robber,” Blaney said. One month before he stabbed his wife, Jennings was hospitalized after he tried to kill himself during a bout of depression over their failing relationship, according to court records. Jennings has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and was taking Valporic acid and Prozac at the time of the murder.
For Alley, that does not fully explain the actions of a man he admired and trusted, a man who had never sunk to violence against Wanda Jennings until the morning of June 5, 1998. “I feel betrayed,” Alley said. “It’s just very sad to see his life end this way.” Equally sad is the loss of his mother and best friend. Alley said he still lives in the home where she died as a way of holding on to memories; even though the good ones are accompanied by the bad. “Every time I walk through the front door I think about her lying in the yard,” he said. “And there’s never a time that I pick up a knife to cut something that I don’t think about what happened.” Laurence Hammack can be reached at 981-3239 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Some courtroom spectators, including Wanda Jennings’ mother, Edith Ruble, wore buttons made from a photograph of Jennings. Her son, Michael Alley, said he hoped the buttons would remind everyone “this wasn’t just a murder, this was a person who meant a lot to us.”