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Trial opens in husband's '09 killing

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- After midnight on July 25, 2009, Greg Schutt was engaged in a favorite hobby of his, online gaming. At 1:30 a.m., he signed off, telling fellow gamers his wife had just arrived home from work -- a night-shift gig at a Newton County call center -- and that the couple planned to watch a new DVD of the television vampire series "True Blood."

It would be last contact he had with the outside world.

Seven hours later, a team of three Gwinnett police officers and their corporal swept through the Schutt's Lawrenceville residence, finding Greg's naked, 6-foot, 5-inch, 275-pound body near the threshold of the master bedroom, partially wrapped in a bloody comforter. Greg, 30, had reportedly been stabbed 38 times, his wrists and throat slashed and his face bashed another 20 times with a ball peen hammer. Amid the carnage, according to a defense attorney, lay a skeleton key and a sex toy.

Who inflicted those wounds is not in question. The defense and prosecutors agree that evidence puts the knife and hammer in the hands of Schutt's wife of nine years, Ashley Schutt, who was 27 at the time.

Whether Ashley is a cold-blooded, deceptive and methodical killer, or a beat-down wife who'd reached a boiling point after years of physical and emotional abuse, will be the question put to jurors seated in the opening day of her murder trial Tuesday.

Defense attorney Thomas Clegg told jurors his client had been beaten for years and masked physical injuries like a black eye and injured leg with silly excuses, which worked. He called her a classic battered person's syndrome case who also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, all born of the abuse.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, painted Greg as a kind soul, known as "a gentle giant" to colleagues at a Gwinnett veterinary clinic where he worked as an animal technician.

In opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Tana Brackin hinted at a possible theory as to how the much-smaller woman overtook Greg. An autopsy showed he had Ambien in his system, a sedative prescribed to his wife.

In one of several fabricated accounts Ashley spun for investigators, she said the couple's Thomas Palmer Court home was stormed by robbers who raped her and forced her husband to drink Ambien-laced water before killing him, Brackin said.

Following a rape exam that contradicted her story, Ashley Schutt copped to the killing, telling authorities, "I just kept swinging," Brackin said.

Clegg posited that Greg flew into a rage after his wife threatened a divorce. He assaulted his wife with the sex toy and used the skeleton key to enter their bedroom after she'd locked herself inside, Clegg said.

Ashley slept with the hammer under her pillow as a form of protection, her attorney said.

"He was a big, big guy. He was on a rampage," Clegg told jurors. "She was fighting for her life. Because she did, she's sitting here today."

A head full of auburn curls, Ashley Schutt wore a black overgarment and slacks during the trial's opening day, intermittently jotting notes.

Volatile history?

Greg had met his wife in her final years of high school in their native Sterling, Ill., a river town of 15,000 west of Chicago. She shelved college plans to expediently marry him, Clegg said, under the impression he was about to be deployed with the military, when he wasn't even enlisted.

"Their marriage, as it was founded, was built on a lie," Clegg said Tuesday.

They wed in June 2000, and eventually lived in Kansas and Japan during Greg's four-year U.S. Army stint. His military service ended in 2005, and the couple settled in metro Atlanta, where Ashley had family.

Their MySpace pages around the time of the killing gave the impression of a copacetic relationship:

"I'm just loving life and waiting financially to be ready for our first child," Greg wrote on his page.

From his wife: "We have been through everything together, we have gone around the world together (thank you US Army) (sic), and we have so much more to experience together ... I can hardly wait."

Later Tuesday, Gwinnett police Cpl. Troy Tobler said he spotted evidence that could have been symbolic after the crime scene was secure: The Schutts' wedding rings lying at the back door near a photo of them in happier times, the matting discarded. He said police had not responded to the home for any reason in years leading up to the slaying.

In 2009, Greg's mother, Betty Schutt, told Sauk Valley Newspapers in Sterling that Ashley had begun taking medication that could have triggered her behavior.

Clegg said testimony will show that Greg had "started to help himself" to Ashley's medication and was doling it out like an allowance to her as another means of control.

Female jurors outnumber men 9-5, including alternates. Assistant District Attorney Stephen Fern said testimony should consume this week and possibly spill into next.

Clegg unabashedly tipped his hand to prosecutors in telling jurors his client and certain family members, including her father, are slated -- and are eager -- to testify.

Schutt faces life in prison on counts of murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, possession of a knife during the commission of a felony and making false statements.