A Morgan County man charged in connection with the December 2011 death of his pregnant girlfriend pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of second-degree murder and one count of concealment of a deceased body, Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Debra MH McLaughlin said Tuesday.
James T. Zell Jr., 24, who is being held at Eastern Regional Jail, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 17 in Morgan County Circuit Court by Senior Status Circuit Judge Andrew N. Frye Jr., McLaughlin said.
Zell, of Tri Lake Park in southern Morgan County, faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison for each murder count, and a one- to five-year prison sentence for the body-concealment count, McLaughlin said.
While the judge has sentencing discretion, McLaughlin said she agreed to recommend Zell be ordered to serve the maximum sentence for Kelly Elizabeth Butler’s death and the body-concealment charge, and a 20-year prison sentence for the death of the unborn child as part of a plea agreement.
McLaughlin said she also is recommending the court order Zell to serve the prison sentences consecutively.
Police have alleged that Zell strangled Butler, 29, then took her body to a remote area of Hampshire County, W.Va., and left it there in an abandoned cabin.
Butler was three to four months pregnant when she was found dead Dec. 23, McLaughlin said.
DNA testing of the unborn child was not done, but McLaughlin said she believed Zell was the father, based on his statements.
Police have said Zell confessed to the murder after he was arrested on a DUI charge in Franklin County, Pa.
Zell told police that the couple fought after they had been at a bar, and that Butler punched him in the face several times in the fight, causing him to black out. Zell discovered Butler was lying dead on the floor with fingerprints around her throat when he awoke, police have said.
Butler’s body was loaded into a Chevrolet Blazer and taken to a cabin in the area of Slanesville, W.Va., in Hampshire County, which borders Morgan County, police have said.
The couple dated for at least a year, McLaughlin said.
Zell could be eligible for parole after serving 22 years in prison if the court accepts the recommended sentence, McLaughlin said. Zell was separately ordered earlier this year to serve a one- to 10-year prison sentence in a breaking-and-entering case, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said the lower prison sentence recommended in connection with the unborn child’s death came after she looked at the total sentence for the crimes that Zell has committed and possible outcomes if the murder case had gone to trial.
“It’s not that the child’s life is worth any less than the mother’s life,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said she did not seek a first-degree murder conviction in the state’s case against Zell because there was no evidence that he carried out a “planned premeditated act” in Butler’s death.
Evidence of premeditation is required when pursuing a first-degree murder conviction, McLaughlin said.
Zell was indicted in April on the two murder counts and the body-concealment charge.