Robert Jarrett Jr. was convicted Tuesday of murdering his wife, following a trial in which prosecutors described him as a "cold-blooded killer" who allowed his sons to walk over her body buried beneath their backyard shed for two decades.
Howard County jurors handed down a guilty verdict on one count of second-degree murder after deliberating into the night, bringing an end to a years-long investigation.
Prosecutors, who had pushed for a first-degree murder conviction, said they would seek the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison at Jarrett's sentencing, scheduled in August.
For family members who wondered for years what happened to victim Christine Jarrett, the verdict brought mixed emotions. Nephew David Mueller said he'd swear at times that he had seen Christine in public places.
"We don't have to look in crowds anymore," said Mueller. He praised county prosecutors for securing a conviction with little evidence beyond the victim's body, found under the shed behind Jarrett's Elkridge home. "Did we get justice? No. Something was taken, and we'll never get what was taken from us."
In closing arguments, defense lawyers had attempted to sow doubts about the Howard County case.
Defense attorney George Psoras had implored jurors to consider the unknowns in the 1991 disappearance and death of Christine Jarrett. Prosecutors said during the two-week trial that she likely died by smothering or strangling. No official cause has been determined.
Psoras said any number of scenarios were just as plausible as the prosecution's theory that Robert Jarrett, killed his wife. He said she could have taken her own life, died of natural causes or been killed by a lover.
Psoras even suggested that she could have died from autoerotic asphyxiation. His closing arguments did not refer to evidence behind that assertion.
"They're asking you to make a leap of faith without evidence," Psoras told the panel.
Some of Christine Jarrett's family members were disappointed that jurors did not convict the defendant of first-degree murder, making him eligible for a stricter sentence.
"We got a little bit of closure, we wanted more," said her brother Will Wilson, 59, from Glen Burnie. He said of his feelings, "It's hard to explain."
Assistant state's attorneys Kim Oldham and Jim Dietrich had hoped to prove that the murder was premeditated.
"It was his wife, under his shed, under his yard, of his house," shouted Dietrich, asking jurors to use "common sense."
Christine Jarrett went missing Jan. 3, 1991, from the family home on Claire Drive in Elkridge after an argument, Robert Jarrett told police at the time. He continued to live in the home with their two boys and, eventually, a second wife.
Investigators over the years gathered accusations that Robert Jarrett had been abusive and evidence that the marriage had been crumbling. But the discovery of the body under concrete in the backyard shed in April 2012 was the catalyst for prosecutors to bring charges.
Dietrich told jurors that it was "not reasonable to believe that someone who commits suicide or dies from natural causes ends up buried under concrete in their own shed."
Oldham said Jarrett had grown to hate his wife. They had separated at least once before, she said, and had decided about two weeks before her disappearance to divorce. Money was emerging as an issue of contention.
Jarrett was unfaithful, she said, and two witnesses testified that he had been abusive, once bloodying her and causing her to flee on foot to call for help.
During the trial, Psoras pressed witnesses — including the couple's elder son, Robert III — on whether they were presenting false memories to boost the prosecution case.
The day after Christine was last seen, Jarrett reported her missing to police, and joined investigators and friends and relatives in a search. Police officers testified that he appeared to show genuine concern. Prosecutors said it was an act.
At one point, Robert III testified, the father handed his son a newspaper clipping about his mother's disappearance and told him to let him know if he had any questions.
"That is one cold heart," Oldham said.
Robert III covered his face during the closing remarks, and Jarrett's second wife, Martha, held the couple's daughter close as they both quietly sobbed. Neither was available for comment after the verdict.
Most of the testimony during trial came from relatives and neighbors, including Martha — who gave police permission to search the shed after Jarrett walked out on her — but that meant they could not sit in on the proceedings. With testimony concluded, the courtroom was packed for the first time.
During nine days of testimony, Psoras questioned whether the body was Christine's. At one point during his closing argument, he sat down on a gurney supporting the 600-pound concrete block found over Christine's body.
"This was [presented] for sympathy," he said, patting the concrete. "This ain't gonna tell you what happened."
The defense said authorities failed to conduct a simple DNA test before the body was released to the family and cremated.
Prosecutors said the state used dental records — including a denture for two teeth and evidence of a similar root canal — to confirm the identity. The concrete grave also contained what family said were some of Christine's belongings, including a purse, a ring, and family photos.
After Jarrett was charged with murder, he spoke to his children in recorded jail calls about paying for the cremation his attorney now criticizes. Oldham suggested that Jarrett wouldn't have assisted in the cremation of a body that he did not believe was Christine.
"If there's no question in his mind, there should be no question in yours," Oldham told jurors.