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BRIDGETON – The trial of Jeremiah E. Monell for the 2016 murder of his estranged wife got off to a late and erratic start in Cumberland County Superior Court on Thursday morning, at one point looking like the defendant might miss the first day altogether.

Monell, who has sat in jail for two years now, appeared 90 minutes late. He arrived with a claim of inhuman treatment, which is not the first time he has accused his jailers of not treating him correctly.

More: Inmate finds jail tough, judge says talk to your lawyer

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The defendant's excuse appeared not to persuade Judge Cristen D’Arrigo, who warned him in detail to start communicating with his attorneys about any alleged problems or possibly end up absent from his own trial.

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Monell, now 34, is charged with first-degree murder as well as weapon and contempt charges. The Cedarville resident faces a prison term of life without the possibility of parole, if convicted on the murder charge.

Authorities allege that the victim, 35-year-old Tara O'Shea-Watson, was killed inside her home in the Laurel Lake section of Commercial Township on Dec. 19, 2016. She and Monell, who were divorcing, had a young son and daughter who were home when she was attacked, according to testimony.

Not long into the three-hour afternoon session, with defendant and witnesses finally in place, the "horrors" that county Assistant Prosecutor Charles J. Wettstein touched on in his opening remarks were presented to the 10 women and four men of the jury.

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Opening statements began in the murder trial of Jeremiah E. Monell, charged with stabbing to death his estranged wife in 2016. 1/3/2019. Adam Monacelli, Vineland Daily Journal

The briefest but perhaps most jarring testimony was mute — a single, color photograph by a New Jersey State Police forensics investigator of O’Shea-Watson lying in her living room. Blood stains were found elsewhere in the trailer as well.

The boy, who is named after his father, and his 5-year-old sister, Sara, went to the home of a neighbor and close friend, Crystal Grear, after the alleged murder of their mother. State police did not find Monell at the scene and would not find him for another two weeks, finally getting information leading to his camp in woods in Folsom.

The death photo, among scores of less painful ones placed in evidence on day one, was allowed to flash only briefly on a screen and was not shown again. But it conveyed the extent of the knife attack on the 35-year-old woman.

The photograph showed O’Shea-Watson sprawled face up on her living room floor, eyes open, her left arm stretched out but her right hand resting close to her neck. One side of her neck showed a large and bloody wound, and her torso was punctured multiple times.

Two bloody knives were recovered “secreted” behind a stove, according to one testifying trooper.

State police, coming through the main entrance, found the door hard to open because the victim’s feet were against it. Her body and a pool of blood, as several neighbors hurrying to investigate discovered first, was covered by a Disney “Frozen” movie blanket or quilt.

Later, from the witness stand, state police Sgt. Michael Hughes donned gloves and cut open a large paper evidence bag holding the blanket. Many bright flowers decorated one side and character faces on the other.

Hughes and county Assistant Prosecutor Charles Wettstein, each taking an end, unfolded the blanket in front of the jury box. The spectacle drew jurors forward on their chairs, peering at several bloodstains on the blanket.

The dramatic scene ended testimony on the first day of trial. Hughes, who was the third state police witness of the day, is expected back on the stand when the trial resumes on Tuesday.

O’Shea-Watson’s mother was among relatives watching the trial’s first day, gathered together in a long row a few pews behind where Monell sat. Most of the family, but not her mother, left before the death photo was shown. Wettstein had walked back to the spectator area to tell them what was coming before going ahead.

Monell sat quietly most of the day, looking straight ahead. Only several times did he talk with his attorneys as witnesses answered questions or evidence was shown.

But as the judge was wrapping up final instructions to the jury a little before the 12:30 p.m. lunch break, Monell suddenly appeared agitated and started talking in low tones.

D'Arrigo noticed, dismissing jurors and turned to Monell.

Monell told the court he was feeling something like "motion sickness." He attributed the feeling to the behavior of a sheriff's officer standing close by to watch. The officer, who was on her feet, was rocking her body sideways.

D'Arrigo nodded understandingly, if taken aback, suggested to Monell that he actually might feel better after eating lunch. That ended the morning session.

Relatives of O'Shea Watson said in the aftermath of her death that she had been seeking a divorce from Monell and earlier in the year had obtained a court-issued final restraining order against him.

Wettstein, as prosecutor, gave the opening remarks to the jury in the afternoon session. He described how a neighbor and close friend of the victim was the first to find out something had happened at her friend’s home.

Wettstein said O’Shea-Watson’s practice, before sending “little Jeremiah” and Sara to school, was to stop by her friend’s house. The victim even had a key, if the door was locked. The day of the murder, and earlier than normal, the neighbor heard a knock on her door.

“Standing there at the doorway is little Jeremiah and his sister, still in her footy pajamas,” Wettstein said. “Confused by what’s going on, she didn’t see Tara there. … So, she asked Jeremiah, ‘Jeremiah, where’s your mom?’ Jeremiah looks at her and says, ‘Mommy is dead. Daddy killed her.’

“Imagine the shock and how stunned she was when she heard those words,” the prosecutor said. “She asks him again. This is not something to kid about. ‘Where is your mom?’ And he gives the same response.”

Wettstein said the woman, her husband, and another neighbor with medical training went to the O’Shea-Watson home.

Wettstein said they found their neighbor lying there on the floor.

"There’s a blanket covering her," he said. "The corner of the blanket is pulled back. They see her face, spattered with blood. A gaping wound in her neck."

Monell is represented by two assistant deputy public defenders, Nathan Perry and JoEllyn Jones.

In the morning session, the defense tried to disqualify New Jersey State Police detective Sgt. Eric Crain as an expert witness on fingerprints and to have D’Arrigo bar a fingerprint analysis report as inadmissible.

D’Arrigo rejected both requests, though he advised the defense that they still could make an argument to the jury about the value of the fingerprint testimony. Crain would take the stand in the afternoon.

The defense’s opening remarks came from Jones, who told jurors O’Shea-Watson was murdered but not by her husband. Jones told jurors that, at the end of testimony, they would have more questions than answers.

“The government just got up and painted you a picture of what they believe that witnesses can come and testify to,” Jones said. “One of these witnesses is even the son of Tara and Jeremiah.  There will be lab technicians. There will be police officers. And others will be considered lay witnesses, who will come before you and give you testimony. And as each person comes, I want you to not just listen to what they say but analyze it. Are they giving you answers?”

According to state police investigators, a palm print from Monell's right hand appears on the bloody handle of one of the two knives found at the scene.

Joseph P. Smith; jpsmith_dj; (856) 563-5252; jsmith@gannettnj.com

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