Jury finds Justin Cornell guilty of murder, recommends 40-year sentence

WAVY News 10

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A man accused of killing his co-worker in 2015 has been found guilty of second-degree murder.

Cornell, who was accused of killing Brianna Armstrong last year, walked in to court for the final day of his trial. A jury began deliberations for a verdict in the trial Friday morning, and made their decision before 1 p.m.

The jury recommended a maximum sentence of 40 years and a fine of $100,000 for Cornell. He will be formally sentenced on Sept. 7.

“Justin is innocent,” his mother said after the verdict. “He was convicted when the Medical Examiner does not even know the cause of death.”

“Clearly the evidence showed that there wasn’t anybody else responsible for this murder,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Adam Lantz said.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney gave the first closing arguments Friday, before the verdict was decided. Prosecutors went over the evidence they say is key in convicting Cornell of Armstrong’s murder.

Cornell and Brianna worked together and were in a romantic relationship. Armstrong was last seen by her husband on May 7, 2015. Unbeknownst to him, she went to Cornell’s apartment off Newton Road that evening. When she didn’t return home the next morning, Armstrong’s husband filed a missing persons report and a search ensued.

Armstrong’s car was found in a shopping center near Cornell’s apartment on May 14, 2015.

When police went to Cornell’s apartment to interview him, all of the doors and windows were open. Clothing that belonged to Brianna was found in the apartment and there were swords and knives all over the place. Investigators noticed a large stain on the carpet in Cornell’s hallway.

Initially, Cornell denied recently seeing Armstrong. Later, he changed his story and admitted to seeing her on May 7, the day she disappeared.

Receipts for cleaning supplies and a carpet cleaner were later recovered from Cornell’s apartment.

On May 31, 2015, a man riding his bike near the Great Dismal Swamp found human remains and called the police. The body was identified as Brianna Armstrong through DNA tests and dental records. She had been decapitated and dismembered.

Several items that belonged to Cornell were found at the scene with Armstrong’s remains, including trash, a receipt with his name and address and underwear that contained Cornell’s DNA.

There were also green plastic particles found at the scene. They were scientifically analyzed and found to be consistent with a Christmas tree found in Cornell’s home.

A small blood stain containing Armstrong’s DNA was found on carpet in Cornell’s apartment.

Finally, a search of Cornell’s phone showed that just seven hours before Armstrong’s remains were found, Cornell searched Google Maps for the exact location within the Great Dismal Swamp where the body was discovered.

Cornell’s defense attorney started his closing argument by saying coincidences like these do not make someone guilty of homicide.

He went on to point out that police never found a crime scene, and still have no cause of Armstrong’s death. He asked the jury to do the right thing, and not the easy thing.

When the verdict was announced, there were audible gasps from the family of Justin Cornell. There were also tears visible from the family of Brianna Armstrong.

WAVY’s Matt Gregory is in Virginia Beach covering this trial. Look for full coverage of the verdict tonight on WAVY News 10, with coverage beginning at 4.

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