CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The man convicted in a 26-year-old murder case in Chesterfield County has died, leaving the once-cold case to be dismissed.
More than 24 years after the disappearance and presumed death of Linda Lunsford, John Harvey Howard of Hanover County was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in May of 2021. Police said that he was Lunsford’s former boyfriend and coworker.
During an August 2022 jury trial in Chesterfield County, a jury found Howard guilty of Lunsford’s murder, though her remains were never found. Howard was in custody at Riverside Regional Jail, awaiting sentencing. But newly obtained court documents revealed that the 64-year-old died at VCU Medical Center on Feb. 7, 2023, thereby concluding the case against him.
Prior to Howard’s death, in November 2022, his attorney filed a motion to strike and set aside the August verdict, arguing that “the evidence is insufficient to prove Linda Lunsford is dead,” and that “the circumstantial evidence is insufficient to prove Howard killed Linda Lunsford.”
“The judge had a hearing on that, and denied the defense’s motion to strike. So, that was the statues of the case at this point,” 8News legal analyst Russ Stone said. “Sentencing was pending, and so, then, prior to actually being able to have a sentencing hearing, the defendant passed away.”
On Feb. 2, court documents showed that Howard’s attorney filed a motion to continue sentencing, citing the defendant’s health issues. According to Attorney Greg Sheldon, Howard had been receiving treatment for cancer throughout the proceedings of this case.
“Most recently, he suffered a fall at Riverside Regional Jail, and according to his daughter, fractured his orbital bone and several ribs and suffered two brain bleeds, resulting in two surgeries,” Sheldon said in the motion. “According to his daughter, there is a possibility that Mr. Howard has suffered brain damage as a result of the brain bleeds.”
In response, a pre-sentence report and status hearing was set in Chesterfield Circuit Court for Feb. 21. But Howard died before reaching that court date. According to LaKeshia Johnson with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, both Howard’s cause and manner of death are pending.
But, without Lunsford’s body, questions also remain about her own cause of death.
“When you don’t have a body, obviously, question number one is, can you really prove a cause of death? And if you can’t prove a cause of death, then it’s hard to prove who was the actor that actually did that cause of death,” Stone said. “In this case, ultimately, after many hearings and much consideration, the court still found that the jury’s verdict should stand. But they are definitely unusual cases.”
In prosecuting this case, the Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney interviewed several witnesses and produced what evidence remained after more than two decades over the course of a multi-day jury trial. This included video excerpts from a previous hour-and-a-half-long questioning with then-CCPD Detective Rick Mormando and Howard, as well as photographs of supplies purchased by Howard that authorities said could have been used in Lunsford’s killing. Both Lunsford’s and Howard’s children testified.
“It is obviously a very complicated matter, and it’s a hard thing for the Commonwealth to prove,” Stone said. “In this case, they were able to prove it to a jury’s satisfaction, and to the satisfaction of the judge that had to decide whether to let the jury’s verdict stand.”
Although there is no record of a motion being filed that could have included questioning Howard to determine the whereabouts of Lunsford’s remains, Stone noted that that could have been part of the defendant’s sentencing.
“It was all pending,” he said. “Had they actually reached sentencing, that certainly may have been one of the things that the defendant might have offered to, perhaps, reduce the sentence. But we never got there.”
On Tuesday, after 8News’ story aired and was published, Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport sent the following statement:
It is accurate that Mr. Howard passed away in the custody of Riverside Regional Jail prior to sentencing; however, he was actually being held at VCU/MCV Hospital in their secured ward used for inmates.
We have no additional information on Mr. Howard’s cause of death beyond what has been disclosed by defense counsel in court filings, citing Mr. Howard’s cancer and injuries sustained as a result a fall that he suffered while at Riverside Regional Jail.
No agreement was ever reached in the case, and our plan had been to move forward with sentencing on February 21, 2023, as scheduled. While it is unfortunate that the case concluded by way of Mr. Howard’s death rather than at the scheduled sentencing hearing, it is our hope that Linda Lunsford’s family finds some peace in knowing that Mr. Howard had been found guilty of first degree murder by a jury of Chesterfield citizens and died in custody, as a result of that conviction. While more than 25 years is far too long for any family to have to wait for justice, I am glad that the day did finally come for the Lunsfords.
Now that the gag order has been lifted, I am happy to answer any further questions you may have about this case.