Dare jury to consider Tolson’s fate

Published 9:10 am Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Sitting at the Dare County Superior Court defendant’s table Monday, August 28, 2023, John Curtis “Jay” Tolson watched quietly as prosecution and defense attorneys selected 12 jurors for a murder trial set to begin Tuesday.

Tolson is charged with second degree murder in the July 2020 death of Amanda LeeAnn Fletcher Hartleben, a 38-year-old Kitty Hawk resident and mother of two. Tolson’s not guilty plea places the burden on state prosecutors to connect all the dots that prove Tolson is responsible for that death.

Under the direction of Pitt County Superior Court Judge Jeffery B. Foster, both Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bland and Assistant Public Defense Attorney Christan C. Routten focused on the objectivity of jurors in the attempt to eliminate any possible bias from preconceived opinions.

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After questioning dozens of potential jurors from a pool of around 75 county residents, prosecution and defense agreed on 12 jurors just after 4 p.m. The seven women and five men are residents from Southern Shores down to Hatteras Island. Two alternates – a man and a woman – were also chosen.

There was, however, plenty of opportunity for preconceived bias.

On July 22, 2020, Tolson called EMS to Hartleben’s West Kitty Hawk Road home, saying he found her bleeding and unresponsive. Hartleben died three days later in a Virginia hospital.

Finding blood stains in several rooms and on different items around the house, members of Hartleben’s family said they suspected foul play and insisted Tolson, her boyfriend, was involved.

When police did not immediately respond, the story blossomed on social media as family and friends flooded different digital outlets with questions asking why not. The Kitty Hawk Police Department responded with a July 27 statement that it was working closely with the District Attorney’s Office to carefully and thoroughly examine all of the evidence submitted before making any final determination. The community was asked to be patient.

Convinced that the police did not have all the evidence, Hartleben’s family hired a private investigator to look into the circumstances surrounding the death. The community was not silent and additional social media posts, letters to the editor, and even emotional speakers at a Kitty Hawk Town Council meeting questioned the thoroughness of police actions. The story even made national news.

In response to continued public scrutiny, previous District Attorney R. Andrew Womble issued a statement that his office was waiting for an official autopsy report from the Virginia medical examiner’s office. There would be no decisions regarding potential criminal charges until a final report was reviewed. Investigators with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation eventually joined the probe.

When the Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office autopsy report was made public, it said Hartleben died from complications of blunt force trauma to the head with hepatic cirrhosis and with clinical hepatic failure contributing. In layman terms, it means something hit her head with enough force to cause her brain to black out and eventually quit sending messages to the body. The report also listed the manner of Hartleben’s death as being undetermined.

Three months after Hartleben’s death, on October 26, a Dare County Grand Jury returned a true bill of indictment charging John Curtis Tolson with one count of second degree murder in violation of N.C. General Statute 14-&17(b) for the death of Amanda LeeAnn Fletcher Hartleben. Language in the indictment says on or about July 22, 2020, Tolson unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did of malice and aforethought kill and murder Amanda LeeAnn Fletcher Hartleben.

A press release from Womble’s office said Tolson was served with a warrant for his arrest and taken into custody by the Bangor Police Department in Bangor, Maine, without incident.

If convicted, Tolson could face between 192 to 240 months in jail.

In addition to Monday’s jury selection, Judge Foster was asked to rule on some preliminary motions related to admissibility of evidence and the wording used to instruct the jury.

Although Judge Foster ruled for the prosecution on several items collected right after the incident, he said he had concerns about other evidence collected several weeks later, in September 2020, adding that he would reserve judgment on that material until a later time.

Opening arguments are set for Tuesday morning and the trial is expected to last all of this week and, depending on weather conditions, could extend into next week. Bland said she intends to call 19 prosecution witnesses in a trial. Her list of potential witnesses is much longer. There was no defense estimate on evidence to be presented, and Tolson is not required to testify.

UPDATES:

Testimony begins in Tolson second degree murder trial

Tolson trial day three: Testimonies from family member, medical experts and former employer

Tolson pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter

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