'Rage' or heroism? Motive for fatal shooting to be focus at trial
UTICA — Was the shooting of James Westcott a "crime of anger, a crime of rage," as the prosecution is arguing? Or was it a heroic and possibly selfless act done to protect the rest of the family from James' "totalitarian" threats, as the defense has stated?
Those are the questions before a jury of 11 men and one woman this week in Oneida County Court. Was Matthew Westcott full of "hate and anger" when he shot his brother James, or was he doing "what he needed to do?"
Jury selection was held Monday morning, followed by opening statements by the prosecution and defense. The first witness was expected to take the stand tomorrow morning (Tuesday) before Judge Robert L. Bauer. The trial is expected to last into next week.
Matthew E. Westcott, 28, is charged with one count each of second-degree murder and third-degree possession of a weapon in the Sept. 17, 2021, shooting death of his older brother, James Westcott, age 30, at their family home in Taberg. Westcott faces a maximum of 25 years to life in state prison if he is found guilty.
Assistant District Attorney Todd Carville is prosecuting the case. Carville laid out the facts of the case for the jury in his opening statement, calling it a "simple and basic" case that would take some "unexpected turns," with some possible "mistakes" along the way.
Carville explained that Matthew and James Westcott lived "very simple lives" with their parents and a third brother, Micheal, all together at the family home on Route 69 in Taberg. None of the brothers had graduated high school, and all three were unemployed, he said.
Carville told the jury that James had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that "made living with him very difficult." He said James "would sometimes run his mouth and say things that would anger Matthew," though their brotherly "animosity" never turned physical.
On the morning of Sept. 17, 2021, Carville said James convened a family meeting of all five and that "James went on several rants about things needing to change," and how he would be in charge of family decisions, including how to spend his mother's money.
"James even went so far as to threaten everyone's life if they didn't do their part," Carville stated, including threats to attack his mother and burn down their home with everyone inside.
After the family meeting, James went to a family friend's home and borrowed a weed eater and a can of gasoline, bringing both back to the residence. Shortly after this, Carville said "hate and anger consumed" Matthew Westcott, and he went to get a shotgun from inside the home, filling it with birdshot. While James was in his own bedroom looking out the window, Carville said Matthew fired, "blasting a hole" in James's left eye, causing his death.
Carville also said there is evidence that Matthew then took a knife and made at least four stabbing wounds to the back of James' head.
When state police arrived, after the family had called 911, Carville said the troopers took Matthew into custody.
"Matthew told the troopers he was sorry, that James was a threat, and he threatened everybody." Matthew would then go on to give a confession to the state police, though he didn't remember getting the gun or pulling the trigger, Carville explained.
"The evidence will show that this was a crime of anger, a crime of rage," Carville told the jury, one "without justification."
Public Defender Adam Tyksinski agreed with many of the facts that the prosecution laid out. The defense agrees that Matthew shot James, but Tyksinski said it wasn't one of anger, it was an attempt to save his family after James had threatened to burn down the home, and after he came home with a can of gasoline.
"The right decisions are always the hardest to make," Tyksinski told the jury. "Sometimes you've got to make choices that you don't want to, but you know you have to."
Tyksinski said James Westcott often made threats against the family, and Sept. 17 was not the first time he had threatened to burn down the residence with everyone inside. At the family meeting, Tyksinski said James declared himself the "boss" and the "alpha" of the family, and threatened that if their mother did not do as he told her, he would burn down the house.
James even wrote a long email to their sister in Florida "so that she was aware of his totalitarian ideology," Tyksinski told the jury.
Matthew made the decision to shoot James after seeing him come back to the residence with a can of gasoline, Tyksinski said. After the family meeting, their parents had left the residence to buy a new appliance, and spend their money on something James had not told them to, the attorney explained.
"What better way to light the house up than with a can of gasoline?" Tyksinski posed to the jury.
Matthew shot James "in order to save the people he loved the most" from being burned alive, Tyksinski said, adding that there is evidence that Matthew tried to turn the gun on himself, but it jammed.
Tyksinski said the Westcott family "survived because of him" and "his courage," and that they'll be able to testify this week because Matthew saved them.
"We know that Matthew did what he needed to do," Tyksinski told the jury. "When exactly do you start taking action? It wasn't about him, it was about them."
One issue that will be discussed at trial is the role of the third Westcott brother, Micheal. Both attorneys mentioned him in their opening statements.
Shortly after the shooting, the state police discovered the knife wounds to James' head at an autopsy. Micheal was interviewed and admitted causing the knife wounds. He gave a statement to the state police claiming he did it to ease his brother's suffering, according to prior court testimony. Micheal was charged with attempted murder and assault, and was scheduled to go to trial alongside his brother.
That is no longer the case.
Last week, the prosecution announced that Micheal had recanted his earlier confession and now claims he had no part in causing the knife wounds. Micheal pleaded guilty to making a false written statement, and the attempted murder and assault charges were dropped.
"Keep an open mind regarding Micheal's situation," Todd Carville asked the jury, pointing out that there was no physical evidence — such as blood on his clothes — to indicate that Micheal had stabbed James.
Adam Tyksinski told the jury it is "maybe not a coincidence" that the charges were dropped against Micheal only a few days before the start of the trial. Micheal is expected to take the stand and testify against his brother.
"He sat in jail for over a year" on the charges, Tyksinski pointed out. "He was taken out of jail and now he's a witness for the People."
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