The investigators did not believe her. The prosecutor did not believe her. But the jury believed her and in the end that was all that mattered.
In mid-November Tiffany Jones took the stand in her second-degree murder trial and walked jurors through what she described as a volatile and violent relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Jonathan Vasta. The relationship ended on April 14, 2018, when the pair got into another fight and Jones stabbed Vasta in the neck. At Vasta’s urging, Jones called 911, but he later died from his injury.
Jones told jurors that she didn’t remember the stabbing, only Vasta coming at her in the garage after he busted through the garage door with enough force to take the door off the hinges.
“He just was coming towards me with his hands. I don’t know what he was going to do to me,” Jones said.
Her testimony was the key to the case, according to her attorney, Sean Landers of the Baez Law Firm.
“We are the very thankful that the jury followed the law and the evidence in this case in finding Tiffany Jones was justified and acted in self-defense,” Landers said. “The jury heard evidence of the history of domestic violence between Mr. Vasta and Ms. Jones.”
It is unusual for a jury to find a murder defendant not guilty. Most defense attorneys will tell you the best they can hope for is that the jury will settle on lesser charges and that one of their main goals is to keep the defendant off death row.
“We were surprised by the verdict but as always, we honor the system,” said State Attorney Glenn Hess.
Another surprise? That Jones chose to testify at all.
“A lot goes into whether or not you tell your client to testify,” said Kim Jewell, the chief of the capital division for the 14th Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s Office. Jewell handles murder cases and has defended dozens of people facing a possible death sentence.
One factor to examine, Jewell said, how many prior convictions the defendant might have. The prosecution will bring all of those crimes back up during cross-examination in order to show that the defendant isn’t telling the truth.
Another concern is whether or not the jury will believe that the defendant is sincere in their testimony.
“You know when your client is genuine,” Jewell said. “I have had a lot of clients I 100 percent believed in what they were telling me.”
If they can articulate their defense then they have a shot at a good outcome.
“If you think they will come across to a jury well and be able to explain their side of things “I’m probably never going to stop them from doing that,” Jewell said.
Barring the rare successful appeal, a murder defendant is only going to get one trial.
“I don’t want to be the one to say don’t do it,” Jewell said.
On the other hand, the stress from a trial may be enough to derail the defendant.
“You run the risk they are going to panic and trip over their words. Or the state will come at them so hard that they just can’t keep it together,” Jewell said. “Trials are extremely stressful. Clients underestimate how stressful a trial is. They can get those panic moments. They are deciding your fate. That is very ominous. It’s a lot for someone to stand up there and say, ‘OK this is what happened.’”
Even though the defendant has an absolute right not to testify at their own trial, jurors may hold it against them if they choose to remain silent.
Some jurors think, “I can’t find them not guilty if I don’t hear them testify,” Jewell said. “I have to hear from them.”
On the other hand, jurors may decide the defendant has every reason to lie and won’t give them the same credence that they offer to other testimony.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Jewell said.
But in this case, the testimony was crucial, Landers said.
“Although it is never a requirement, even in an affirmative defense case like this, for the defendant it to testify, we felt it was necessary for the jury to actually hear from Ms. Jones. The jury needed to hear from her the reasonableness of fear that she was placed in when Mr. Vasta came at her in the garage,” Landers said. “I believed it was necessary for Ms. Jones to explain what ‘he came at me’ meant. Ms. Jones said this when she called 911 to get help and the first responding deputies testified that she was said this to them. When interviewed for over an hour she was never asked about this or her fear.”