RALEIGH — A 70-year-old man charged with the stabbing death of his sister asked a judge about entering a self-defense plea Thursday during his first court appearance.
Wake County District Court Judge Jacqueline L. Brewer told John Wesley Winters Jr. that he could face the death penalty or spend the rest of his life in prison without parole if he is convicted of the first-degree murder of his sister and roommate, Seanne Winters Barnette.
“Uh hmm,” Winters answered when Brewer asked whether he understood.
Winters has been in the Wake County jail since Oct. 23 on charges that he stole his sister’s Chrysler PT Cruiser and drove it to Virginia. On Oct. 10, a Virginia state trooper found Winters in his sister’s car on the side of Interstate 95, south of Washington.
Wake County Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings said the trooper found Winters “disoriented” with a cut on his right hand and a knife in his possession.
Emergency workers transported Winters to a hospital, where he told a doctor that he “had been in an altercation with his sister and stabbed her,” Cummings said.
Staff at the hospital began looking for someone in his family to notify that Winters was there. Family members knew he had been staying with Barnette and repeatedly tried to reach her at home. When they couldn’t, they asked police to check on her apartment.
On Oct. 12, officers found Barnette’s body in her bedroom with dried blood on and around her body. She was covered with an American flag. It appeared she had more than 50 stab wounds, Cummings said.
Cummings said the “excessive number of wounds” suggested that Barnette was the victim of a “crime of passion” by someone who knew her. Cummings said Winters and Barnette had had disagreements in the past over financial matters and other matters.
It’s not clear why it took police and prosecutors more than a month to charge Winters with first-degree murder. Knightdale Police Chief Jason Godwin said in a statement Thursday that Winters was a suspect soon after Barnette’s body was found and that investigators in recent weeks have gathered “additional information that supported our initial beliefs and collectively lead to the first-degree murder charge.”
Brewer on Thursday told Winters that his next court appearance will be a probable cause hearing on Dec. 5 at 9 a.m. She also said that she would appoint an attorney to represent him.
Winters asked the judge whether a self-defense plea could be entered during that hearing.
“No, sir,” Brewer replied. “That’s what you will talk with your lawyer about, and he or she will help you navigate those waters.”
Winters, before he was led away, then asked Brewer if he could discuss the bail amount for the theft of a motor vehicle charge filed against him last month.
“I want to know about the possibility of eliminating the criminal charges altogether,” Winters told the judge.
“No, sir,” Brewer answered. She explained that he was in jail under $1.5 million bail for the auto theft charges and told him he was not entitled to bail on a charge of first-degree murder.
Winters and Barnette were the children of John Winters Sr., a real estate and insurance company owner who was the first African-American elected to the Raleigh City Council since Reconstruction, in 1961, and was later elected to the state Senate. John Winters Jr. also worked in real estate and tried to follow his father into politics with an unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress in 1984.