Jay Darling, left, hugs his lawyer, James McComas, after receiving a verdict of not guilty Wednesday in Homer.
After three days of deliberation, a 12-member jury on Wednesday declared Jay Darling not guilty in the death of his wife, Wanda Wood Darling, who fell to her death from an 800-foot bluff near Homer on Aug. 24, 1997.
As Judge Richard Savell read the verdict in Homer’s District Courthouse, Jay Darling remained expressionless. Wanda Darling’s mother, Ollie Wood, and her sisters, Cindy Kaelin and Tammy Ward, all from Alabama, gasped and grabbed each other’s hands as they heard the words “not guilty.”
Across the aisle, Jay Darling’s defense attorney James McComas, sitting with co-counsel Cynthia Strout and the defendant, raised both fists in the air in victory.
“I don’t mind telling you this isn’t a case where there was anything damning that didn’t come out,” McComas told the Homer News after leaving the courtroom. “This is not a case where I thought Jay might have done it and got off. That’s not what we’re talking about here. It was a sad thing that happened.”
Immediately after hearing the verdict, Wanda Darling’s family called family and friends in Alabama. News was received with shock and disbelief, according to Kaelin.
“We are disappointed, real disappointed,” Kaelin said outside the courthouse, adding there was never a doubt in her mind Jay Darling had killed her sister. “I feel sorry for the jury. They have just let a murderer loose. I hope he doesn’t kill somebody else.”
On Monday, nearly three weeks after the trial began, the original jury of six men and nine women listened to closing arguments from state prosecutor Crandon Randell and the defense team of McComas and Strout. Three jurors, two men and one woman, were dismissed as alternates before deliberations began.
According to instructions from Judge Savell, the jury’s role was to determine if testimony and evidence presented in court proved beyond a reasonable doubt that:
· Wanda Wood Darling died at or near Homer, on or about Aug. 24, 1997;
· Jay Darling intended to cause the death of Wanda Wood Darling; and
· In acting on that intent, Jay Darling physically caused the death of Wanda Wood Darling.
Darling, a physical therapist, and Wanda Wood, a registered nurse, married in Tennessee in April 1997. A week later, Darling attempted to take out State Farm life insurance on himself for $3 million and his wife for $500,000.
He also applied for life insurance policies from Allstate for himself and his wife in the amount of $1 million each.
Witnesses testified and Darling admitted he had a plan to fake his own death in a kayaking accident and use his wife to obtain the insurance money.
Darling and his wife moved from Mississippi to Anchorage on Aug. 19, 1997. Four days later, the couple’s kayak capsized near Jakalof Bay, spilling Darling and Wanda Darling into the water. He made it back into the craft and towed her to shore. Darling’s actions saved his wife’s life, the defense contended.
The prosecution offered another interpretation: Wanda survived.
Darling said, that night he suggested they have their marriage annulled if she couldn’t forgive him for the incident. He said he believed their conflict drove her to throw herself off the bluff. He said he had since come to believe her reaction to medication she was taking may have caused her to fall.
In September 2002, a federal grand jury indicted Darling on five charges of mail and wire fraud for his scam to obtain life insurance. In January 2003, he pleaded guilty to one count as part of an agreement in which four counts were dismissed. Darling was sentenced to 40 months in prison. In April 2005 a grand jury in Kenai indicted Darling for first-degree murder in Wanda Darling’s death.
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