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Former Virginia Tech linebacker acquitted in death of Tinder date

Isimemen Etute attends his trial in Christiansburg.t
MATT GENTRY, The Roanoke Times/AP
Pool The Roanoke Times
Isimemen Etute, who was found not guilty on Friday, sits at the defense table during his trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg. The former Virginia Tech student had been charged in the death of 40-year-old Jerry Paul Smith. (Photo: Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

A jury in Christiansburg on Friday found Isimemen “Isi” Etute, a former Virginia Tech football player, not guilty of second-degree murder. Etute fatally beat Jerry Paul Smith in May 2021; the 19-year-old’s lawyers said he acted in self-defense.

Evidence showed that Etute connected with 40-year old Jerry Paul Smith on the dating app Tinder during April 2021 and was at first under the impression that he was meeting a woman named Angie Renee. Following their initial sexual encounter at Smith’s Blacksburg apartment, Etute met up with Smith on a second occasion, he said, to find out if they were a woman or man.

After discovering Smith’s sex, Etute told detectives that he punched them multiple times. A medical examiner testified that most of Smith’s facial bones had been broken and their brain was bleeding. A bloodstain pattern analyst added that Smith’s face had also been stomped on by a foot twice. During the three-day trial, the former Tech student testified that he did not know the blows had been fatal until he was arrested two days later.

Etute testified that when he discovered the person he met on a dating app was anatomically male he felt “violated” and was “shocked and in disbelief that somebody had tricked me and lied to me.”

The defense called the attack a “heat of passion provocation,” but also argued that Etute was acting in self-defense because their client said Smith reached for something during the pair’s second encounter.

Detectives later found a knife under the bed in Smith’s apartment.

Family and friends cheered the not guilty verdict outside the courtroom Friday evening, but Etute left without speaking to reporters.

His family later released a statement through his attorney:

We are relieved and thankful that God has helped guide us through this extremely hard and punishing journey. It will take time to decompress and feel relief from this gut-wrenching, frightening experience in life. It has made us stronger and strengthened our faith. We will continue to include the Smith family in our prayers. Isi is extremely grateful for the jury’s hard work, deliberation, and verdict. Isi is now focused on picking up where he left off in his pursuit of [a] college degree and love for the game of football. Isi says the process gives him trust and faith again in life. He further says it has only helped him become much smarter, wiser and stronger, with a new outlook on life in his journey moving forward.

Virginia now bars the “gay panic” defense, in which a defendant claims they were provoked by discovering a person’s LGBTQ status. Judge Mike Fleenor said he didn’t instruct the jury on the law — which was passed in 2021 — because it wasn’t in effect at the time of Smith’s killing.

“I don’t believe that it would have been applicable to the facts of this case anyway,” said Defense Attorney Jim Turk. “That’s not what led to the death.”

Lawyers in Virginia have used the “gay panic” defense at least eight times since 1986, according to a study by W. Carsten Andresen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Edward's University. Andresen found that judges and juries reduced charges in 32.7% of cases when the approach is used.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.