Elizabeth “Betsy” Wall pleaded guilty but mentally ill to felony murder in the June 2016 shooting death of 35-year-old Jenna Wall, a prosecutor’s spokeswoman says.
Jenna was found dead — shot four times — on the floor of the kitchen of her parents’ home in Powder Springs, Georgia, where she was staying during the divorce, authorities have said. Her two sons, both under the age of 10 at the time, were with her but had been taken outside by their grandmother just before the shooting.
Elizabeth, 64, did not leave the scene and was soon taken into custody, where she has remained.
Following her plea on Friday, Elizabeth was sentenced to life in prison. Under state law, she will only become eligible for parole after serving 30 years — meaning she will be 94 if she gets out at that time.
She cried throughout her hearing, according to the prosecution, but she did not speak beyond basic responses to the judge.
“Certainly she was very remorseful about what happened. She’s been very open with me about it,” Elizabeth’s attorney, Jimmy Berry, told local TV station WSB.
Jenna’s mother, Sheri Charlton, was also overcome by emotion while delivering a statement to the court about the murder. Before she died, Jenna taught at Kemp Elementary School, in the same community where she was born and raised.
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Sometimes in tears, Charlton spoke at length about her daughter’s “beautiful, loving” life and about the pall cast by her death.
“When she [Elizabeth] took Jenna from us, she took a member of our family which created not only a hole but a pain that will never go away. Each day as we go about our day, we are unable to pick up the phone and call her,” Charlton said, in part.
“We can no longer hear her voice or laugh with her,” she continued. “Our family will never be complete for as long as we live. The tears flow every day not knowing and wondering how Jenna would have influenced others and made this world a better place. When she took our daughter, she took away part of our lives.”
Many of Jenna’s family and friends and fellow teachers were in attendance on Friday, according to prosecutor Jesse Evans.
“I can hardly think of a case where I’ve seen more people from the community come forward,” he tells PEOPLE.
Behind the Divorce Battle
Authorities believe Elizabeth was largely motivated by the fact that Jenna was divorcing her son, Jerrod Wall, who worked as an investigator for a neighboring district attorney’s office.
Elizabeth “had a lot of animosity toward” Jenna, says Evans, the chief assistant district attorney in Cobb County, Georgia, in charge of the major crimes and homicide unit.
Jenna’s divorce and custody battle with Jerrod, in particular, made Elizabeth “very upset” and she had expressed her feelings repeatedly before the shooting — in text messages to family and friends as well as in her own internet activity, Evans says.
Investigators have said that two months before Jenna was murdered, Elizabeth read “several articles” about people who kill their families and then themselves. Authorities said Elizabeth had apparently been targeting Jenna on Facebook with negative comments.
Elizabeth had also been researching mental health issues and information about Georgia’s gun laws, Evans says.
“There clearly was some thought and deliberation that went into this,” he says.
Elizabeth bought the handgun she later used to murder Jenna on April 19, 2016 — the same day her son was deposed in the divorce case, according to court records previously obtained by PEOPLE.
Those same documents show the marital split was acrimonious but, in the context of divorces, not so unusual.
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Jenna sought permanent custody of their sons, with visitation for Jerrod, and claimed Jerrod may have been badmouthing her to the kids. She argued in one filing that she had “serious concerns … they are being manipulated and influenced in an unhealthy manner.”
Jerrod had asked the court for “no less than joint legal and physical custody” and alleged Jenna had “demonstrated emotional and financial instability.” He also claimed she had had an affair while they were married with a high-school boyfriend.
According to Jerrod’s divorce attorney, Jenna initiated the separation. Nearly nine months after her petition to end their marriage, in October 2015, she was killed.
As Alyssa Kent, Jenna’s friend and college classmate, previously told PEOPLE: “She’s dead. She can’t get her side out.”
Evans, the prosecutor, says Elizabeth’s plea deal last week had been pending the outcome of a psychiatric evaluation requested by the defense to determine whether she was sane and legally competent to stand trial, which she was found to be.
Elizabeth told the court she had depression and severe anxiety, among other mental health issues, Evans says.
The defense first approached prosecutors about a negotiated plea a few months ago, according to Evans. He says they recognized a life sentence was a better alternative than a trial, which had been set to begin this week.
Neither Elizabeth’s attorney nor Jenna’s family returned messages from PEOPLE seeking comment.
How Are the Kids Coping?
Since his estranged wife’s murder, Jerrod Wall has made clear that his mom is not a part of his life.
“He no longer has a mother. She died on that day as well,” says attorney Suzanne Henrickson, who represented Jerrod in his divorce and now describes them as friends.
Evans says Jerrod has expressed much the same to him about his feelings toward Elizabeth.
Prosecutors have said she called Jerrod on the day of the shooting and told him to come pick up his sons at Jenna’s parents’ home, then she left them in her vehicle outside and went in to shoot Jenna.
It was Jerrod who called 911 and helped disarm Elizabeth after driving to the scene. He had “nothing to do” with the homicide, according to Evans.
Henrickson says Jerrod and his sons live in the area, not far from Jenna’s family, and they are all still in regular contact.
Jerrod and the boys have been to therapy, which has been healing, she says. “There’s a sense of normalcy, to a certain extent.”
“His [Jerrod’s] viewpoint as far as I’m aware has always been he could never forgive her for what she did,” Henrickson says, adding, “He never wanted his children not to have a mother.”