Jacob Gene Tharpe

Jacob Gene Tharpe, 17, takes the witness stand Tuesday in Pittsyvlania County Circuit Court.

CHATHAM — It took only 20 minutes for a Pittsylvania County Circuit Court jury to find 17-year-old Jacob Gene Tharpe was guilty of first-degree murder and arson Tuesday.

Tharpe surprised the court by confessing to his mother’s death on the witness stand Tuesday morning.

His mother, Bernadette Marie Nesbitt, died from 71 stab wounds to the head, torso and arms on Dec. 21, 2016. She was found in her burning home at 4175 Sandy Creek Road in Dry Fork.

“Were you the cause of your mother’s death?” defense attorney Michael McPheeters asked Tharpe while testifying.

“Yes,” he answered. His arms were crossed over his white polo shirt, and he told the story of the night his mother died in an even tone.

When asked to tell his story, he said that he and his mother had gotten into an argument that turned physical when she got a belt and started beating him with it.

“I tried to reach for anything to block off the hits,” Tharpe said. “I just wanted to hold something to put space between us.”

What he grabbed was a kitchen knife, and he said that he accidentally stabbed her in the side — hard enough that it perforated the bottom of her lung.

“I thought, ‘What is everyone going to think of you? What’s going to happen to you?” Tharpe testified. “I started stabbing her repeatedly, but unwillingly. I couldn’t stop. She was begging me to stop.”

Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Haskins called the confession a Hail Mary pass, noting that Tharpe had lied to investigators on multiple occasions, and parts of his story still did not mesh with the evidence.

Haskins recalled Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office investigator Shannon Edwards and Lt. Marvin Barrett to the stand. Both testified nothing resembling a belt was found within the remains of the fire or in the areas.

His father, Lugene Tharpe, and older sister, Bernadette “Buffy” Gomez, testified for the defense. Both said Jacob was going to be going to live with Gomez, his oldest sister, after Christmas last year.

“Jake has a lot of problems,” Gomez said. “I wanted to take him because of things going on that I felt were being ignored.”

Both attorneys requested a full psychological evaluation of Tharpe before the sentencing, at the request of the family.

“I’m doing this for my mother. This is what she would have wanted,” Gomez said in an interview with the Register & Bee. “She would want the court to have mercy on Jacob. We just want him to get the help he needs.”

The sentencing has been scheduled for 1 p.m. March 12. The court expects significant evidence to be presented at that time regarding Tharpe’s mental health.

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Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at csimkiss@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7981.

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