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Lancaster murder trial begins in Spotsylvania County

Posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2015 at 8:50 am

The trial of James Todd Kessler in the disappearance and suspected murder of Claudine Gifford began Tuesday July, 28. Kessler was charged with First Degree Murder and Concealment of a Dead Body.

The majority of the first day was jury selection followed by opening statements. No witnesses were called to testify.

Though the charges were brought in Lancaster County, the trial is taking place in Spotsylvania County after a change of venue was approved due to the large amount of publicity and interest in Lancaster County.

The makeup of the jury including alternates is eleven women and three men from Spotsylvania County.

The jury and Judge Harry Taliaferro heard opening statements at 3:30 pm from Special Prosecuting Attorney Tony Spencer of Caroline County, who was assigned to this case because of his 2009 conviction of Lawrence Gaudenzi on a murder charge where no body was ever found.

Spencer said that over the course of this trial, which is expected to last at least four days, he will prove that Kessler murdered Gifford and disposed of her body in a manner in which she would never be found.

Spencer said that he would prove that there is no way Kessler’s story can be truthful through witness testimony, cell phone records/triangulation and direct evidence.

Spencer gave a two-hour long narrative of a roughly two-month relationship and claimed that in that time Kessler was abusive, controlling, jealous and out of control.

The prosecution’s narrative ends with the theory that Gifford was dumped out of a boat in her own suitcase filled with crushed cinder block, Spencer explained. The prosecution said that there was motive because Kessler had read a text message Gifford’s daughter had sent to her from Florida asking her “when she was coming down because she thought she just went there to get her stuff,” according to Spencer.

Spencer said that there is a witness that will testify that Kessler said, “She was playing me.”

In his opening statement, defense counsel Craig Cooley said that the prosecution made many leaps and assumptions in selling their theories to the jury.

Cooley, who has previously defended D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo. said that the prosecution’s theory that Kessler must have choked and beat Gifford to death was absurd.

“There is no evidence to support that at all. It’s guesswork. It sounds good in the story. It’s compelling. But there’s no evidence.”

Cooley said that to prove first-degree murder the prosecution must prove three things: that there was a murder, that the murder was committed with malice and that the murder was premeditated.

Cooley said that there is no way to prove any of these things.

“She may still be alive for all we know,” Cooley said. “Maybe walking around in Texas or Richmond. We just don’t know.”

Cooley finished by saying that there are too many other possibilities to entertain the idea that Kessler, a man who loved her and she loved him, is the murderer.

The trial was set to resume Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. and is scheduled to last through the week.

James Todd Kessler

James Todd Kessler