District Attorney Lorrin Freeman was sworn in as Wake County’s top prosecutor at the stroke of midnight the first day of this year with a goal.
She wanted to be a district attorney who was in the courtroom, trying cases, not one stuck in the office, tending mostly to administrative details.
On Monday, Freeman will be at the prosecutor’s table as jury selection begins in a homicide case in which a former Wake County teacher is accused of stabbing her husband to death.
Joanna Roberta Madonna, the accused, has pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charges filed against her in 2013 after her husband, Jose Manuel Perez was found dead in a ditch near Falls Lake.
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The 47-year-old former special education teacher at Garner high school has claimed self-defense.
Perez was 64 when his lifeless body was discovered by a man who routinely walked from his neighborhood near N.C. 98 in northern Wake County toward Falls Lake.
The man alerted law enforcement on June 16, 2013, to what he initially thought might have been a bag of trash near Old Bayleaf Road until a closer view revealed otherwise.
Perez, clothed in an off-white tank short, gray shorts, white sneakers, was not immediately identified. The sheriff released descriptive details — including the watch and “Support Your Veterans” band on his wrist, a wedding ring on his finger and his gray hair, mustache and goatee — in an appeal to the public for help.
Not long after that, investigators knocked at the door of Perez’s home on Schoolhouse Street and one of Madonna’s daughters greeted them.
At that time, the daughter said her mother had gone to a meeting and, according to a search warrant application filed by sheriff’s Investigator T.S. Barefoot, said “Jose had left to go to Florida.”
The daughter “did not know how he went because his Jeep was in the garage,” Barefoot wrote in the court document.
The daughter told deputies that her mother and stepfather had been fighting recently. She said Madonna had found emails between Perez and a woman in Florida and that she believed he was having an affair.
Madonna came home and told investigators “her husband had been drinking a lot lately and had been abusive,” according to Barefoot’s warrant application. Madonna,told investigators she had asked her husband to leave the house and get help and that she had last seen him around 7 p.m. on June 15 with a suitcase in his hand.
Another daughter then arrived and told investigators a conflicting story. She said she had seen Madonna and Perez leaving the house together that night, but Madonna returned home alone “hot and sweaty,” Barefoot stated in the warrant application. The daughter said Madonna told her that Perez had assaulted her with a knife and hurt her arm, the investigator stated.
When investigators searched the house the day after the body was found, they took away a knife, two computers and a flash drive, Perez’s Jeep, Madonna’s Mercedes-Benz, a Bible, clothing, jewelry and trash bags in which they found a GPS unit.
Two days later, investigators obtained a warrant to search the GPS data, saying they hoped to find “locations visited by the victim and/or suspect prior to and/or after the murder of the victim.”
In subsequent searches, investigators took dozens of items, including a trash bag containing Perez’s mail, bank cards, eyeglasses and medication.
Another trash bag, according to a June 25 warrant, contained clothing and personal items “used during the events leading up to Perez’s death.”
In one warrant application, filed by sheriff’s investigators Brian Gay, Madonna had indicated through her attorney that “some sort of event took place” in Perez’s Jeep and that “a firearm had been present during the altercation that led to the death of Jose Perez.”
Though crime scene investigators reported finding what appeared to be blood in the Jeep, according to one warrant application, they were unable to find the gun and footwear that matched what appeared to be a bloody shoe print on Perez’s clothes.
In a hearing earlier this month, when Madonna entered her not guilty plea, her attorneys also indicated that their defense will include an acknowledgment that something happened between Madonna and Perez, but they are claiming self-defense.
Freeman, who participated in several plea hearings since becoming district attorney, said the trial will be the first she has actively prosecuted in more than a decade.
Freeman, who became the district attorney on Jan. 1 after eight years as Wake County clerk of court, was a Wake County assistant district attorney early in her career and also a federal prosecutor.
The trial is expected to last no more than two weeks once a jury is selected and opening statements have been made.
Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1