A former Lexington taxi driver and lawn-care worker should be put to death for murdering three Adair County family members, a judge said yesterday.
Circuit Judge James G. Weddle imposed three death sentences on William Harry Meece, 33, as well as a total of 40 years on burglary and robbery convictions.
Weddle said Meece deserved the ultimate penalty for the murders of veterinarian Joseph Wellnitz, 50; his wife, Beth, 40; and son Dennis, 20. Meece invaded their farmhouse outside Columbia early one cold morning in February 1993 and shot each of them more than once, reloading in order to finish off Dennis Wellnitz.
Meece has been unusual and contentious throughout the process leading up to his trial, filing dozens of motions on his own, and his sentencing was no exception.
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He read a five-page statement that said he did not kill the Wellnitzes but had been railroaded by lies -- including those of his ex-wife, who testified against him.
He condemned the court system, likening it to "Nazi Germany, Communist China and Soviet Russia."
"I bemoan the loss of the American ideal of a fair trial," he said. He finished with a prayer in Hebrew and English and asked God to have mercy on the police, the prosecutor, the court and the witnesses against him.
Weddle, however, said he had absolutely no doubt Meece committed the murders. Weddle rejected requests for a new trial for Meece or a sentence of life in prison without parole.
The prosecutor, Commonwealth's Attorney Brian Wright, called Meece's statement disgusting and said he was pleased the judge imposed the death sentence Wright had sought for Meece.
The death sentence had been a long time coming for friends and family of the Wellnitzes and for police who pursued the case for years.
Meece and the daughter of the slain couple, Margaret "Meg" Wellnitz Appleton, became suspects early in the case, but it took nearly 10 years for state police to get the evidence they thought was needed for an an arrest.
That development came by way of Regina Meade, Meece's wife at the time of the murders. The two later divorced.
When state police contacted Meade as part of a follow-up in late 2002, she told them Meece and Appleton had told her years earlier about killing the Wellnitz family and disposing of the gun and Meece's bloody clothes in a restaurant dumpster.
She also gave state police a piece of physical evidence -- a small safe Meece stole from the Wellnitz home, Wright said.
Ten years after the murders, state police arrested Meece and Appleton, who had met as students at Lexington Community College.
Meece was already in jail by then on a charge that he offered to kill a man for $2,000 in Lexington in 2002. He is serving 12 years in that case.
Wright said money motivated the Adair County slayings. Appleton got $300,000 in insurance money after her parents' deaths, and Meece was to get a share, the prosecutor said.
The case took a strange turn in late 2004. Meece pleaded guilty and gave authorities two chilling, detailed videotaped statements about how he killed the Wellnitzes.
Appleton also pleaded guilty in return for a sentence of life in prison without parole for at least 25 years, which she is serving.
But Meece quickly recanted. He said he'd had a conflict with one of his court-appointed attorneys and thought pleading guilty and then taking back the plea was the only way to get new lawyers and a fair trial.
He got new lawyers and a trial, but the confessions came back to haunt him. Wright played them for the jury, over Meece's objection.
Meece told jurors the confessions were a lie and he was now telling the truth about being innocent. Jurors believed the confessions and other evidence more, however, convicting Meece in less than two hours.
Under Kentucky law there will be an automatic appeal of Meece's conviction to the state Supreme Court. One issue is likely to be whether it was proper for jurors to hear Meece's 2004 confessions.