A former Ft. Drum soldier has been sentenced to life in prison for the 2017 murders of his wife and a New York State trooper.
Justin Walters, 33, was sentenced to life without parole Tuesday in Jefferson County court. Walters was an active-duty Army staff sergeant in 2017 when he shot his wife, 27-year-old Nichole Walters, more than a dozen times at the couple's home in Theresa.
Walters also shot a family friend who was living on the property, according to investigators, and forced that person to drag Nichole’s body across the yard. Trooper Joel Davis, 36, was the first officer to respond at the scene. He was shot once and died soon after.
Family and friends say their piece
Tuesday's sentencing was almost standing room only. So many relatives and supporters packed into the courtroom that state police officers went to sit in the jury box.
Walters walked into the courtroom in shackles, wearing a beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He was found guilty last month of 52 counts, including first-degree murder, in a case that sent shockwaves throughout the region. It touched the military community, law enforcement and multiple families.
Walters declined to speak at his sentencing. His parents, who were also at the hearing, did not give a statement. But Jefferson County Judge Kim Martusewicz said several other people close to the case were prepared to address the court.
Mary Davis, the mother of Trooper Joel Davis, said her son had an active life outside state police. He was a father of three who loved to “take a boat ride or sit by the fire with a cold one and swap some lies and laughs.”
Rebecca Finkle is the family friend who was at the Walters’ home the night of the shooting. Finkle was also wounded and survived, but said she now suffers from severe PTSD. Speaking through tears, she apologized for not being able to save Nichole.
Kristin Lum, Nichole’s mother, said her daughter dreamed of someday going to college. Nichole had one son with Justin Walters and wanted even more kids.
Lum and her daughter, Brittney, later told North Country Public Radio it felt important to share those details.
"Nichole was an amazing person," Kristin Lum said. "She had the biggest heart and she would have done great things. I just wanted Nichole to have her name back. For 19 months, she didn't have a name in the press."
"She was just 'Justin Walters' wife,'" Brittney Lum added. "Not Nichole Victoria Walters."
Maximum sentence for Walters
In the end, Justin Walters got the strictest possible sentence: life without parole.
Judge Kim Martusewicz referred back to Walters' journal entries and other evidence presented at trial. The AR-15 assault rifle Walters used the night of the murders had the text of the Second Amendment imprinted on its side, Martusewicz said, "as if it was some kind of license to fulfill the goal of torture."
"You are a racist, a Nazi, and a skilled marksman," Martusewicz said, adding that a life sentence without parole would ensure that Walters "does not ever again have the freedom to live, function, or threaten in civil society."
But the hearing also raised important questions about the case that still haven’t been answered.
Mary Davis, the mother of Trooper Joel Davis, brought up Walters’ juvenile record. At age 15, Walters pleaded guilty to plotting a Columbine-style shooting at his middle school in Michigan. Somehow, Walters still found his way into the military.
The Army has never commented on Walters’ recruitment. But he signed up just as the Army was lowering its enlistment standards to prevent a possible troop shortage. Walters later deployed twice to Afghanistan. Diary entries submitted at his trial showed that Walters may have had homicidal urges long before and after he enlisted.
Rebecca Finkle, the friend who survived being shot, told the court the Army should “be held accountable, as their actions probably would have prevented this to start with.”
Jefferson County district attorney Kristyna Mills said she’s looked at Walters’ medical records and psychiatric history. She said those records clearly show the Army tried to intervene.
"I think that the military did everything that they could once they realized that there was a problem. He was in a lot of counseling. They sent him away to inpatient [treatment in Texas]," Mills said. "I think they were doing everything they could to help them with the problems that they knew. The issue here is that Justin Walters was masking who he really was."
Walters will stay in Jefferson County jail for the next few days before transferring into the state prison system. He now has 30 days to file an appeal to his conviction, before time expires.