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Murder case dismissed following death of 89-year-old suspect

James Edward Wheeler, 89, was booked in the Jackson County Jail in January for the shooting death of his 87-year-old wife, Joanne. The Jackson County DA’s office dropped the homicide case Thursday following Wheeler’s death at a nursing home earlier this month.
Medford murder case dismissed after senior suspect’s death

The Jackson County District Attorney’s office has dropped all charges in the shooting death of an 87-year-old Medford woman, and released new details as to why they charged her 89-year-old husband with murder in the first place.

James Edward Wheeler, 89, was cleared of a second-degree murder charge Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court following his death earlier this month at an adult foster home.

Wheeler faced the murder charge for shooting his wife, Joanne, in what he’d intended to be a murder-suicide the morning of Jan. 11 at their home in the 2000 block of Judy Way.

Wheeler survived his suicide attempt in the home’s laundry room after shooting himself in the neck with the 20-gauge shotgun used in the homicide.

The motive, as reported in an earlier news report, was that Wheeler and his wife were suffering from medical problems. The DA’s office filed the second-degree murder charge on grounds that Joanne Wheeler did not choose to die, according to Deputy District Attorney Melissa LeRitz, who prosecuted the case.

“She was not in on the plan and did not know it was going to happen,” LeRitz said.

When homicide detectives with the Major Assault and Death Investigation Unit interviewed James Wheeler, he reportedly told them that he’d come to the conclusion that the two of them would be “better off dead than alive,” according to an affidavit filed by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

When detectives asked him if his wife wanted to continue living, Wheeler told detectives that he believed she did want to live, according to LeRitz. Wheeler told detectives that he and his wife had discussed murder-suicide once before, but that Joanne Wheeler never agreed to anything in the conversation within three days of the shooting.

“He brought it up,” LeRitz said. “They talked about it, but he did not believe that she believed it was an actual plan to be put in place.”

Wheeler was initially booked in the Jackson County Jail on the murder charge, but with the assistance of Wheeler’s defense lawyer, Samantha Evans, Wheeler was granted release later that month. He was first released with an ankle monitor to his son in Medford, but he was later moved to an adult foster home as his health deteriorated.

The release from jail is unusual for someone facing a murder charge, but LeRitz said the DA’s office didn’t object because the unique circumstances of Wheeler’s release prevented him from being a threat to the community or himself.

“Given his health and that he was always monitored ... the state felt comfortable releasing him to that custody status,” LeRitz said.