Joanna Roberta Madonna, a former Wake County teacher accused of murdering her husband in 2013, has been knocked down many times in her 48 years by difficult life experiences.
Though she climbed back many times, Madonna’s life story is not one of “happily ever after.”
On Tuesday, during opening statements of the trial on Madonna’s latest tribulation, Crystal Grimes, a Wake County public defender, described a bleak past that included multiple rapes, living on the streets as a teen, alcoholism, drug abuse and failed marriages.
But Grimes contended that Madonna did not murder Jose Manual Perez, her husband of four years.
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“There was absolutely no reason for Joanna to want Jose dead,” Grimes told jurors. “She simply wanted a divorce, and because of his actions she had no other choice but to defend herself.”
That was one theme from competing narratives about what happened in the hours and days before June 14, 2013, when a Wake County man, recovering from recent open heart surgery, found Perez lifeless in a ditch near Falls Lake during an early-morning walk.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman contended that evidence presented over the next week would show that Madonna had started a romance outside her marriage and had driven to South Carolina shortly before her husband’s death and picked up a weapon that was used to kill him.
Freeman described Perez as a Vietnam veteran who had some health and substance abuse issues but was quick to help others fight alcoholism.
Perez and Madonna met when they both were in an alcohol treatment program. He was 17 years older and initially not a man that Madonna had thought about marrying.
But as time went on, Grimes said, Madonna, a mother of three who had been twice divorced, decided to marry Perez. He had told her, according to Grimes, that he had cancer and did not have long to live, an unsettling fabrication.
By 2013, Madonna suspected Perez was drinking again and using drugs, Grimes said, and she wanted to end their marriage.
After visiting family from a previous marriage in South Carolina, Grimes said, Madonna came back to Wake County and on June 14, 2013, broached the subject of separation with a man the defense team described as “controlling” and “very jealous.”
Perez, according to the defense, threatened to kill himself, and Madonna harbored unresolved feelings about a previous partner who had killed himself after she split up with him.
She and Perez scuffled, according to Grimes.
“He had a firearm. He shot it twice; luckily she wasn’t hurt,” Grimes said.
Madonna slipped into survival mode, the defense contended. “She’s thinking every breath is her last,” Grimes said.
She grabbed the knife she had gotten in South Carolina and plunged it into Perez multiple times, both sides agreed.
The defense argued that Madonna left her husband, unaware that he had been fatally injured.
Prosecutors argue that she meant to kill Perez and then went later that day to be with the man she had just started dating.
Freeman pointed out that Madonna did not immediately tell investigators what happened to her husband. Her initial account, according to search warrant applications linked to the case, was that Perez had been drinking a lot and left to see a girlfriend in Florida.
Madonna’s daughters offered different accounts to investigators, and eventually an attorney representing the defendant acknowledged that an incident had happened in Perez’s Jeep but said that self-defense played a role.
But Freeman pointed out that investigators found bloodied clothes and a wedding ring in a trash bag in a search of the couple’s home shortly after the killing.
The trial is expected to last into next week and could offer a glimpse of two people battling drug and alcohol addiction.
Madonna, who left home as a teenager and lived on the streets for a while, eventually finished school and had a job as a Wake County special education teacher.