HAZARD – The jury in the trial of accused murderer Sarah Melton returned their verdict Tuesday afternoon, finding Melton guilty instead of reckless homicide and assault under extreme emotional disturbance, and recommending that she serve a total of six years in prison.
Melton, 43, of Brownsfork, was on trial this week and facing charges of murder and attempted murder for using a shotgun to seriously injure her brother, Bill Couch, and kill his girlfriend, Cindy Caudill, in the Brownsfork community on the evening of June 28, 2011. Murder by itself carries a maximum of 50 years in prison.
Melton’s trial opened with jury selection and opening remarks on June 4, and some of the testimony over the past week included statements from Bill Couch, who survived the June 2011 incident, as well as an expert who said Melton was mentally incapacitated when she shot and killed Cindy Caudill.
Couch took the stand on June 5, detailing his injuries and the memory loss he suffered. The jury also viewed on June 5 Melton’s taped confession she gave police, in which she admitted to shooting both Couch and Caudill as they sat atop an ATV.
Melton took the stand in her own defense on June 6, as defense attorney Gerald Teaster spent time asking questions that would paint Melton as a victim, and her brother as a man with violent tendencies dating back three decades. According to Melton, Couch punched her several times after she arrived at a friend’s residence on the day of the shooting, and later Couch and Caudill both assaulted her before a bystander pulled Couch away.
It wasn’t long after they all left the residence that Melton claimed Couch made a threat against her and her children, and that’s when she snapped.
“I stopped, and stepped out,” Melton said. “l closed my eyes and just pulled the trigger.”
Melton later claimed that she feared for her children, whom she left at her new trailer on Brownsfork earlier that day. She testified that she wasn’t trying to shoot her bother or Cindy Caudill, but to shoot the four wheeler and disable it so she could get to her home and retrieve her children before they were harmed.
“I didn’t mean to kill anybody,” she said. “I just wanted shoot the four wheeler to stop it.”
Melton’s testimony was in stark contrast to witness statements earlier in the trial indicating that she had threatened both Couch and Caudill, and that no physical altercation had taken place prior to the shooting.
Testimony resumed on Friday, during which Dr. James Walker, a neuropsychologist, testified that after reviewing Melton’s history and interviewing Melton and individuals who were in contact with her on the day of the shooting, she lacked the capacity to control her actions when she shot her brother and Cindy Caudill.
Walker said he believes that Melton suffers from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, the latter condition stemming from abuse she had undergone as a youth. He added that because of that abuse, she is overly protective of her children. Melton testified on June 6 that Couch had assaulted her and threatened her children on the day of the shooting, and Walker testified on Friday that he believes this pushed her over the edge to the point that she lacked “substantial capacity” to control what she was doing.
“I believe that because of those two conditions (bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders), and the stress she was faced with when her brother threatened her, resulted in her entering a state of mind where she could not control her actions,” Walker said. “She acted out in a way without thinking and being very rational.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Teresa Reed called a rebuttal witness on Monday, Dr. Richard Johnson, a psychologist who examined Melton after the crimes. According to WYMT-TV in Hazard, Johnson testified that Melton did indeed know what she was doing when she pulled the trigger.
“I do not see her as fitting the criteria of being legally insane,” Johnson said.
Reed and Teaster delivered their closing remarks on Tuesday, after which the jury received instructions and began deliberations. It took the jury less than an hour to return the verdict.
It also didn’t take the jury long to return their recommended sentence of six years total. Melton will be required to serve at least 20 percent before she is eligible for parole, which means she could be released in just over a year. She will appear in court for formal sentencing on July 26.