Joanna Madonna recounted for jurors on Wednesday her recollection of the night she told her husband she wanted out of their marriage – and the gunshots and knife fight that followed.
In a clear, strong voice, she testified in her defense on the seventh day of the trial in Wake County Superior Court over accusations that she murdered her husband.
Madonna, 48, is charged with plotting the violent death of Jose Perez on Father’s Day weekend in June 2013.
The former Wake County teacher provided jurors with a daylong account of her life until Father’s Day on June 16, 2013, when police came to her home on Schoolhouse Street in Brier Creek neighborhood, investigating Perez’s death.
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Perez, almost 18 years older than Madonna, was found dead in a ditch near Falls Lake by a passerby earlier that morning.
What led to Perez’s death has been the subject of competing narratives in a trial that has highlighted tribulations of people who bonded over substance abuse issues and their resolve to stay sober.
Prosecutors contend Madonna killed her husband shortly after starting a romantic relationship with her former therapist.
Quickly after settling into the witness box on Wednesday, Madonna admitted she had a hand in her husband’s death but said she did not plot to kill him.
Then over the next several hours, Madonna took the jurors on a quick journey through her life, talking about her struggles as a teen, leaving her parents’ house and living on the streets, where she abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered from sexual assaults.
Then Madonna described relationships with the three men with whom she had daughters. She talked about falling in love, developing relationships and marriages that didn’t last.
Madonna described her three daughters and a series of jobs she has had over the years. She was a teacher in the Wake County public schools for a while, but quit several months before her husband’s death because her youngest daughter was having trouble in school.
In 2009, Madonna married Perez, a man she met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and befriended while still married to a different husband.
That husband, the father of her youngest child, testified at the trial that Perez moved in with Madonna almost a month after he moved out.
But Madonna offered a different take on that on Wednesday.
Perez, she said, moved into her home first as a platonic friend. She said he told her he had cancer and only a few months to live not long after they met.
Prosecutors have suggested that Madonna married Perez, in part, for the benefits that he received as a veteran. Though her daughters received benefits for their education from Perez, she said her family had not relied on him financially.
Madonna said she started to suspect in 2013 that Perez was having an affair with a woman in Florida, and saved a Facebook exchange from his page that was presented in court on Wednesday.
Madonna also said she found bottles of rum in the garage on two occasions that led her to believe that Perez had started drinking again.
As a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, Madonna said she could not live with a husband who was drinking, lying to her and cheating on her.
Madonna said she told Perez on several occasions during their marriage that she wanted out of the relationship. Whenever she did that, she said, Perez was able to talk her out of it by telling her that his life was not worth continuing without her in it.
By Father’s Day weekend in 2013, Madonna said she had told many she was leaving Perez, including her father and sponsors and friends from AA.
She decided to tell him on a Saturday afternoon after she had visited her former brother-in-law and his teenage son, who was dying from a rare bone cancer.
During that visit, Madonna got a handgun and knife from the teenager, an avid weapons collector.
Perez, according to autopsy reports, had been shot and repeatedly stabbed before his death.
Madonna said she planned to take Perez on a drive, end the relationship and drop him off at his sponsor’s home off N.C. 98.
Madonna, with little emotion in her voice, described stopping at a Sheetz gas station not far from their home before that conversation unfolded, then going with Perez to a Family Dollar store where she bought nail polish for a jewelry project she was making and a candle lighter.
After that stop, Madonna said her husband became more and more agitated about her wanting to end their marriage.
She said she told him she knew he was drinking and cheating on her.
She recounted him responding: “Jo, I can’t live without you. Jo, I love you, you’re my whole world. I’ll kill myself if you’re not here.”
Madonna said she was driving because Perez had left home without his wallet. She said she left her cell phone at home, charging in the bedroom, and he told her he did not have his phone, though she later said she remembered seeing it in the car and retrieved it later to text his friends.
Madonna said she pulled over twice during that ride.
The first time, Madonna recounted pulling into a church lot. He was yelling at her in English and Spanish, using profanity and clutching his chest.
“He’s getting more and more agitated,” Madonna recounted. “He starts getting loud and he starts looking like he’s panicking and he starts clutching his chest, saying ‘I’m going to have a heart attack. I’m going to have a heart attack.’”
In the church lot, Madonna said the two got out of the car. She moved from the driver’s side to the passenger side where he was.
“By the time I was coming around the back of the car I heard a gunshot and I looked up and he was pointing the gun at me,” Madonna recounted. “I was in shock. I just stood there and he started pointing the gun at himself.”
She pointed to just under her chin to demonstrate for the court just where he pointed the gun’s barrel. Madonna said she lunged at him and the gun went off.
Perez, according to the medical examiner report, suffered a wound in his jaw area that shattered his dentures.
Deonte’ Thomas, one of two Wake County public defender’s representing Madonna, asked, “and he shot at you?”
“He fired a shot at me, yep,” Madonna said in matter-of-fact tone.
Perez was bleeding from the wound in his cheek. He initially told her he was going to walk to the hospital, she recounted.
Madonna said she got Perez back in the car, strapped him into the passenger seat and began driving toward WakeMed, the nearest hospital.
But Perez, she said, told her he did not want to go to the hospital and said if he had to go he wanted to go to the Durham Veterans Administration Hospital, where he would not get charged as much for a visit.
Thomas asked Madonna why she didn’t just call emergency dispatchers. She explained that she had left her phone at home, charging in the bedroom, and that Perez told her he did not have his with him.
As they drove, Madonna said she was blaming herself for what she thought was a suicide attempt by Perez.
“I’m thinking it’s my fault that he was upset,” Madonna said. “I had expected that he might kill himself.”
Their drive toward the VA in Durham took another unexpected turn, Madonna said, when Perez again began clutching his chest. She pulled over again.
At that stop, not far from where his body was found, Madonna said Perez knocked her in the chest and she ended up on the ground with him on top of her and his arm across her. She said she struggled to breathe and thought she was going to die. Her arm was cut, she said, but she could not recall how.
Then, without remembering which arm she used, Madonna said she saw a knife glimmer within her reach and she grabbed it and began swinging it.
“I thought I was going to be dying right there,” Madonna said. “I just started swinging at him and I kept swinging at him until I felt he wasn’t holding me down any more.”
Madonna said she got up, ran toward the car, then saw Perez out of the corner of her eye push up off the ground as if he were going to get up. She said she rushed back toward him, took off his shoes, threw them away and tossed the knife into the woods.
She said in her mind, she thought he was going to get up and go to his sponsor’s on his own.
“I didn’t realize how many times I had stabbed him,” she said. “I was completely in like a frenzy, an adrenaline thing.”
Madonna, once home, quickly made phone calls to her middle daughter and then tried to enlist her help in cleaning the blood out of the front of the jeep. The daughter refused to help her.
Madonna said she did not call police or emergency dispatchers because she thought Perez was going to get up from the violence and go to his sponsor’s.
“I kept telling myself that,” she said.
But then she also got his phone out of the car and texted people to tell them he was going to Florida, where he used to live. “I didn’t want people to worry,” she said.
Madonna also texted the former therapist many times on that Saturday and Sunday, and, after going to Mass on Sunday, went to visit her romantic interest.
Madonna acknowledged to her defense attorney that her visiting her former therapist might “look like she was cheating on her husband.”
“You were, in fact, cheating on him,” Thomas said. Madonna responded that she was.
But Madonna said at the end, shortly before prosecutors began their cross-examination of her, that she did not intend to kill her husband and did not know he was fatally wounded when she left him on the side of the road, near Falls Lake that Saturday.