Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mobile, AL: Michael Berry 'went to pieces' after wife filed for divorce, expert testifies

MOBILE, Alabama -- As a child, Michael Berry's family fragmented quickly from death and illness. His father was lost at sea, a close cousin died in an accidental drug overdose and his little sister contracted polio.

At 32, he married his first girlfriend, making a family of two stepchildren and two young sons of his own. Maintaining that family was his life's greatest joy -- and an eventual obsession, according to testimony in court today.

Berry, 45, shot and killed his estranged wife, Wendy Stevens, six times in front of the four children on May 11, 2010. Stevens had filed for a divorce, but Berry wanted to reconcile.

"He just went to pieces," Susan Wardell, a mitigation specialist hired by the defense, testified today. "He was not able to cope with this change in his life."

A jury convicted Berry of capital murder earlier this week, and the trial is now in the punishment phase. The jury must decide whether to recommend life in prison without parole or the death penalty for Berry.

Wardell testified about Berry's life based on 250 hours of research and interviews.

When Berry was 12 years old, his father was one of five crewmen on board the SS Poet, which disappeared at sea in 1980 and was never found again, Wardell said. Meanwhile, one brother died from leukemia and a young cousin overdosed when he experimented with one of his father's morphine patches.

His sister, who had polio as a child, has a mental illness and Berry became her caretaker after their mother died from a long battle with congestive heart failure, she said.

"His fear of loss was highly accentuated," Wardell said.

Berry met Stevens when she was a dancer at Sammy's nightclub in Mobile, according to testimony, and they married and a bought a house together.

The couple ran into financial trouble and ended up $30,000 in credit card debt, according to Wardell, and Stevens asked for a divorce.

He moved out and often slept in his car while working jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, Outback steakhouse and a nighttime cleaning business. He lost 70 pounds in the months before the shooting and became haggard looking.

"He's very confused," Wardell said. "He's grieving the loss of his children. He's grieving the loss of his wife."

The day of the shooting, Stevens was parked at a drive-through ATM with her four children in the car at Schillinger and Cottage Hill roads. Berry drove into the parking lot and parked in front of Stevens, blocking her in. He then walked around the front of the car and fired six shots at Stevens.

The Mobile County District Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty, arguing that the slaying was especially atrocious and cruel. The jury yesterday heard testimony from Stevens' daughter, who was in the front seat of the car.

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