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Victim’s brother, medical examiner take stand in first day of Etute trial

Isimemen Etute appears in a Christiansburg courtroom for the first day of trial.
Matt Gentry/AP
Pool The Roanoke Times
Former Virginia Tech football player Isimemen Etute attends the first day of his trial at Montgomery County Circuit Court on Wednesday in Christiansburg. The 19-year-old is accused of fatally beating Jerry Paul Smith, 40, after the two met on Tinder in May 2021. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via The Associated Press)

CHRISTIANSBURG — Defense attorneys said Wednesday that a former Virginia Tech football player feared for his life when he fatally beat a person he met online in April 2021.

Isimemen Etute, now 19 years old, connected with 40-year old Jerry Paul Smith on the dating app Tinder. Smith was using the photo and identity of  a 28-year-old woman named Angie Renee.

Without a declaration from the deceased regarding their pronouns, name or gender identity, VPM News will refer to the victim as Smith or they/them.

Following a sexual encounter at Smith’s apartment in Blacksburg, Etute discovered Smith was not an anatomical woman and proceeded to punch them multiple times. Dr. Amy Marie Tharp, of the Roanoke Medical Examiner’s office, testified Smith died of blunt force trauma, that nearly all of their facial bones were broken and that they had bleeding and swelling of the brain. Tharp said there was no evidence that Smith fought back.

Etute pleaded not guilty to the murder charge during his arraignment last week.

John Wayne Smith also took the stand Wednesday, describing how he found Jerry Paul Smith’s body after stopping to check on his brother at his apartment. He said the two had video-chatted the night Jerry Paul Smith was killed and was concerned after he hadn’t answered a follow-up call the next morning.

John Wayne Smith testified he did not know his brother had been posing as a woman or soliciting young men — but that he knew him to be an out gay man and didn’t “approve of him being gay.”

Defense attorney Jimmy Turk told the jury that Etute did not intend to seriously injure or kill Smith and was “overwhelmed with emotion and disbelief” when he learned that Smith had died.

Turk described Etute as a victim, noting that Smith had a history of using a “criminal ruse” to lure primarily young Black males into sexual enounters. They said Smith’s tactics amounted to sexual battery under Virginia law. The defense also pointed to weapons Smith had in his apartment as evidence that Etute was fearful for his safety.

The defense filed a motion to allow some witnesses to remain anonymous because they had similar encounters with Smith. Judge Mike Fleenor denied the request on Monday.  

Etute’s lawyers also asked the court to disregard a 2021 Virginia law banning the so-called “gay panic” defense. The legal strategy asks a jury to find a defendant less culpable because they were provoked after discovering a victim’s sexual orientation or biological sex.

The law should be disregarded, Etute’s lawyers argued, because it didn’t go into effect until July 1, about a month after the incident. The prosecution contends statutes apply at the time of trial — not the date of the alleged criminal offense.

The trial is expected to continue through Thursday.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.