From the Outer Banks Voice
Four days after the start of John “Jay” Tolson’s second-degree murder trial in the July 2020 death of LeeAnn Fletcher, the two sides reached a plea agreement on Thursday, August 31, that carries a sentence of 56-80 months for voluntary manslaughter. Given that the roughly three years Tolson has been in detention counts towards the sentence, the plea tacks on roughly another two to four years.
Fletcher, a 38-year-old mother of two, was found unresponsive in her Kitty Hawk home on July 22, 2020, and she died three days later. Tolson, a Hatteras Island resident, was arrested in Bangor, Maine in October 2020, after an autopsy report from the Virginia Medical Examiner’s office determined Fletcher’s cause of death was “complications of blunt force trauma to the head with hepatic cirrhosis with clinical hepatic failure contributing.”
Tolson’s arrest also followed a determined social media campaign by Fletcher’s friends and family, led by her first cousin and close friend Trisha Cahoon, that expressed concerns that law enforcement was not adequately investigating the case. The high-profile case also generated national media coverage.
The plea agreement came after two days of testimony from prosecution witnesses that was at times, contradictory, and also indicated there were no head wounds found on Fletcher nor blood at the scene when she was found in the bathtub of her home.
In an interview with the Outer Banks Voice, District 1 District Attorney General Jeff Cruden said that plea agreements are “always difficult,” adding that “obviously, it’s not something we would have done if the family wasn’t 100 percent behind it.”
Asked for his assessment of how the trial was going up until the plea bargain, Cruden stated that “I thought it was going well. There’s always an ebb and flow in the trial,” adding that sometimes witness testimony “doesn’t go the way you think [it’s] going to go.”
Entering the courtroom just before 9:50 a.m. on Aug. 31, Tolson, 32 seemed relaxed, smiling and chatting with defense counsel. In response to questions from Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster, he repeatedly acknowledged understanding the implications of the plea.
In addressing the court, Public Defender Christan Routten said that had the trial gotten to the point of calling defense witnesses, they would have included a forensic pathologist and a forensic neuropathologist who would have testified that Fletcher’s brain injury “did not match the actual presentation” from the prosecutors. In the end, she added, “it would have been a case of the jury deciding which expert they believed,” and Tolson was concerned about putting his fate in the hands of 12 strangers.
Routten added that she hoped the plea agreement would bring “some measure of closure and healing.”
Speaking to the court on behalf of Fletcher’s friends and family, a sobbing Trisha Cahoon declared that “LeeAnn’s life was taken, not just from her family but from the whole community.”
“If Jay [Tolson] had given or actually sought medical help for LeeAnn, we would not be here today,” she continued. “He did everything he could to clean up and hide what had happened. To me, this is horrible.”
Judge Foster expressed his condolences to Fletcher’s family and advised them that “any hatred or ill will you hold in your heart will not hurt Mr. Tolson,” but would only hurt them.
In addressing Tolson, Foster said the decision to accept the plea deal “in some way…shows compassion in your heart” for not taking the case to its conclusion.
Asked if he wanted to make any remarks, Tolson stayed silent for a few seconds, before saying, “I pray for peace.” Because he was speaking so softly, the phrase he uttered after that was virtually inaudible, although one courtroom observer said she heard the words “and closure in Jesus’ name,” follow the word “peace.”
Once the plea agreement had been completed, Foster asked the prosecutors about a social media posting made the previous night on the subject of “Justice For LeeAnn,” the slogan of those advocating for a conviction in the case. Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bland responded that the post was taken down shortly after publication.
Noting that he had heard comments in the courtroom that ignored his warning not to engage in advocacy while the trial was ongoing, Foster declared that “I’m incredibly disappointed, after the discussions we had…that these things still happened.” He also stated that they created “the risk of a mistrial.”