After nearly 10 hours of deliberation Thursday, a Chester County Court jury found Clayton P. Carter III guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his next-door neighbor George Brooks Jennings in August 2017.
As the foreman read the verdict just before 11 p.m., the victim’s wife, Jill Jennings, mouthed “Thank you” through tears. Other relatives and friends, including the victim’s 11-year-old-son, embraced.
Across the room, Carter, 53, remained stone-faced, as did several relatives seated behind him. He will be sentenced later. He had faced charges of first-degree murder, third-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter.
With its verdict, the jury of eight women and four men showed it didn’t agree with the defense’s argument that Carter fired in self-defense after years of provocation by Jennings.
For 12 seconds, Carter watched Jennings die slowly, prosecutors said in their closing argument Thursday, his body sprawled across the men’s property line in a quiet West Goshen neighborhood.
Standing over him, Carter watched the life drain out of the face, they said, of the man he’d shot after years of conflict. Then he stepped forward, leaned down to 8 to 18 inches from Jennings, they said, and shot him once more, in the head.
“He did nothing to deserve to die,” Deputy District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco said.
Earlier, the prosecutor had asked the jury to convict Carter of first-degree murder, saying Carter had wanted to kill Jennings for perhaps as long as a year, and finally executed his plan on an August 2017 night when he noticed his neighbor outside and intoxicated.
Throughout the five-day trial, Carter sat quietly in a green shirt and blazer, occasionally taking notes.
Just before 1 p.m., County Court Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft sent the jury out to decide which of the offenses, if any, Carter committed when he shot Jennings on the 300 block of Box Elder Drive.
Carter’s attorney, Joseph P. Green Jr., said Jennings repeatedly provoked Carter as part of a campaign to get Carter — a former mobile home park operator Jennings called “trailer trash” — to move out of the neighborhood.
He showed jurors a photo of Jennings’ backyard shed, in front of which he displayed several Trump-Pence 2016 signs facing Carter’s yard in an attempt to irritate Carter a year after the election, Green said.
“Jennings knows how to provoke him,” Green said. “He’s been practicing and practicing and practicing.”
On the night Jennings was killed, Green said, Carter “had no intention to hurt Mr. Jennings until he came after him.”
Green shined on jurors the two spotlights Jennings had set up in his driveway when Carter returned home from a late-night trip to a supermarket, saying Jennings used the large bulbs to make it difficult for Carter to park. Green also showed them the crime scene photo of a blue folding chair Jennings set up on the property line that night.
Carter brought his .380-caliber Ruger semiautomatic handgun outside in a sweatshirt pocket, Green said, to protect himself.
Carter had called the police in the past about Jennings, Green said, but no charges were filed. (In 2017, West Goshen Police Chief Joseph Gleason said the department did all it could to contain the feud.) Green said officers looked the other way because they knew Jennings, a Republican committee person.
“This was intentional and drunken provocation over a period of time, and West Goshen police enabled it," Green said. “If you continue to provoke someone for years, he’s going to make a mistake.”
Prosecutors acknowledged that Jennings, 51, made mistakes, too. But, Ost-Prisco said, “he didn’t deserve to die for them.”
The two families’ lives were forever altered early on Aug. 8, 2017, when authorities say Jennings and Carter began arguing outside.
After tucking his then-9-year-old son into bed and watching TV with his wife, Jennings was outside setting up a makeshift security system with those spotlights, prosecutors said. Carter pulled up with his groceries, unloaded them in his kitchen, and returned outside to park his car, bringing along the handgun.
The men got into a verbal altercation, similar to one police had responded to hours earlier. Carter pulled his car up to the property line so its high beams shined in Jennings’ face. They talked for an hour or more. Prosecutors said that at one point, Jennings asked Carter to remove a skeleton decoration from his yard so as not to scare the neighborhood children, and Carter refused.
Carter told police that Jennings came at him with a pocketknife, causing him to shoot. He said he shot a second time because he thought Jennings might be faking his injuries. Prosecutors, said Carter planted the knife at the scene, noting that his DNA evidence was on the knife and Jennings’ was not.