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Attorneys react to Joseph Elledge's verdict, sentence recommendation

Would do anything to have Mengqi back
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It was the very early hours of Friday morning when a jury of seven men and five women handed down their second verdict in the trial of Joseph Elledge: A recommendation of how long they thought Elledge should spend behind bars after convicting him of second-degree murder in the October 2019 death his wife, Mengqi Ji.

“That's not for me to decide. That's for a jury to decide,” said Defense Attorney Scott Rosenblum following trial. “The jury decided this was justice. And I accepted it.”

The sentence recommendation came following a nearly two-week trial in Boone County that had the prosecution seeking a first-degree murder conviction for intentional and pre-mediated murder.

From the first day of trial Elledge’s defense team painted Mengqi’s death an accident, resulting from a fall that happened when Elledge pushed her during one of many arguments between the couple. Elledge said his wife hit her head, went to bed, and never woke up. Rosenblum called it a ‘tragic accident,’ telling the jury his client made a ‘terrible decision’ by choosing not to call 9-1-1.

It’s not a story Boone County prosecuting attorney Dan Knight believes.

“Self-defense... That's pretty clever. Because what they did was they injected [the couple’s child] into it,” explained Knight. “By injecting [her] into it It's the only way [Mengqi] would ever do anything physical to protect her daughter. So I thought it was real clever to come up with that.”

Elledge took the stand in his own defense, spending two days testifying and answering questions from his defense team and the state. He admitted his involvement in his wife's death but said it was not intentional. Rosenblum said his client was in a state of panic when he went down many 'rabbit holes," and reminded the jury in both his opening and closing arguments that his client was only charged with his wife's death, not what he did after.

“I'm not naive. The worst facts about the case is what happened after,” Rosenblum said. “That's a difficult... It was a difficult decision to make. I should say it was a bad decision to make and then that decisions afterward were difficult for the jury to understand.”

Elledge recounted how he said he carried his wife's lifeless body to the trunk of her car, put their infant daughter in the back seat, and drove around looking for a place to bury her. It was that day, October 9, 2019, that Elledge said he stopped at Harbor Freight in Jefferson City to purchase a shovel. But it wasn't until the next day, after one of Mengqi Ji's friends came to their apartment looking for her, that Elledge said he decided to drive to Rock Bridge State Park to bury her.

Throughout his testimony, Elledge appeared emotionless when answering questions.

“I can’t make him somebody he's not. He is who he is and he doesn't speak a lot and he's most of the time very reserved, maybe awkward, I think I said in court, but again that's just who he is,” explained Rosenblum of his client. “That's his personality. You can’t change it. It's not a play, not a movie and people are going to perceive it the way they did. The fact he was on the stand for so long, I think gave them a glimpse of that's who he is and that's how he talks and that's how expresses himself.”

The prosecution, on the other hand, compiled electronic communications and audio files, secretly recorded by the couple, that showed the two argued frequently with Elledge, most often, demeaning his wife. They showcased Google search terms from Elledge's computer that included how to file for divorce and the probationary period for manslaughter.

The prosecution also showcased an interview with KRCG 13 where Elledge spoke about his wife in the past-tense, as well as a script found in a notebook in the couple's apartment that Elledge had written for himself ahead of the interview. The prosecution said it detailed how Mengqi had disappeared and reminded Elledge to no answer questions about speculation, to use sadness and sorrow, and to speak in the current tense.

“Who needs to keep a script?" asked Knight after trial. "Only a guilty person like him needs to keep a script.”

But the question of how Mengqi Ji died still isn't clear. The defense argued she suffered a subdural hematoma, or bleeding of the brain, resulting from her fall during the couple's fight.

A pathologist with the Boone County Medical Examiner's Office testified he could not determine a cause of death, but said it was clear Mengqi was killed at the hands of another person. When she was found, face down in the ground in a shallow grave, Dr. Keith Norton said four of her ribs were broken near her spine and between and her shoulder blades.

Boone County prosecuting attorney Dan Knight questioned Elledge intensely about other methods of death, including suffocation and using a heavy object to his Mengqi in the head. Elledge denied intentionally killing his wife but admitted he couldn't remember if she hit her head during cross-examination.

I still think I could prove to this day she was killed without have a body. I really do. We got so fortunate.

Elledge was charged with first-degree murder in February 2020, four months after he was arrested for child abuse, following the disappearance of his wife, Mengqi Ji. At that time, investigators had not been able to locate Mengqi Ji. Even so, Knight pushed for a trial, telling reporters early Friday that he was confident he would have been able to prove Elledge killed his wife even without evidence of her remains.

“If I would've tried the case and there would’ve been an acquittal, and then her body would’ve been found... Oh boy,” said Knight. “That would've been a tough one. But I didn't think we weren't going to find her, I'd just given up hope that it was going to happen so I went ahead and filed charges. It was a risky move to do that, there’s no doubt. But I wouldn't have done it if I hadn’t felt confident”

It wasn't until March 2021 his wife's remains were discovered by a hiker in Rock Bridge State Park. Knight explained there would have been some advantages to trying a case without a body. He said it would have allowed for more character evidence, showing how good of a person he said Mengqi was. He said he was able to showcase some of that during the trial but only because the defense put forward a defense of accidence, which he said opened the door.

While Knight always pursued a conviction of first-degree murder, he seemed satisfied with the conviction brought by the jury. Still, he said, he wished things were different.

“I feel fortunate but believe me I’d do anything to have Mengqi back,” Knight said. “Don't get me wrong on that but I would say it's been a labor of love and it's been a thing that's incredibly sad really.”

It's such a horrible loss. And I think it's just the most terrible thing.

“I guess the biggest mystery to me is how in the world did Mengqi end up with this guy?" said Knight. "That's just the thing I’ve always wondered more than anything else because she was just out of his league.”

A conviction of second-degree murder in the state of Missouri comes with 10-30 years in prison or a life sentence. Ultimately, the jury recommended a sentence of 28 years in prison.

“We can all speculate... I've got an idea on that,” Knight suggested. “I think maybe that's because that was Mengqi's age when she was killed.”

Judge J. Hasbrouck Jacobs will now take the jury’s recommendation and order an official sentence during a hearing set for December 17.

“The defendant is incapable of expressing any type of remorse, sympathy, empathy for anyone. He's just so self-centered, and that’s what we saw and that's something that bothered me quite a bit,” Knight said. “I think he's dangerous and I’m happy he's going to be incarcerated for a long time it looks like. I'm hoping our judge follows that recommendation.”

“He knew that at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to be asking the jury to return a verdict of not guilty,” said Rosenblum following the trial early Friday morning. “[Elledge] certainly wanted to avoid a conviction of murder in the first degree which would have been a life sentence without the opportunity of parole.”

Rosenblum estimates Elledge will be eligible for parole in approximately 20 years, because of the time he’s already served since his arrest in February 2020. For that, Rosenblum said Elledge is grateful.

“He thanked us. He's a very gracious guy. He thanked us for the hard work. His family thanked us as well,” Rosenblum said. “Disappointed? I think they're realistic. I don't think anyone believed the jury was going to acquit him.”

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When asked if they would be appealing the jury’s verdict, Rosenblum said it was too early to tell. He said he would talk with Elledge’s family in the next week or so to discuss.

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