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Moorhead man found guilty on charges of arson, murder

Justin Marshall Critt

MOORHEAD, Minn. – A Moorhead man has been convicted in Clay County District Court of arson and murder in the death of 49-year-old Melissa Willcoxon in the summer of 2016.

A jury convicted Justin Critt on Friday, May 25, for the second-degree murder of Willcoxon and a first-degree arson charge for burning down the house she was staying in that summer. Sentencing was set for July 9.

Brian Melton, Clay County attorney and the prosecutor in the case, said the jury came to the right verdict.

“We feel satisfied that everything came in the way we expected,” Melton said.

The verdict comes after a two-week trial filled with testimony from friends, witnesses, doctors and law enforcement officials. The jury of six men and six women took just over four hours of deliberating to come to its conclusion.

Bruce Ringstrom Jr., Critt’s defense attorney, said he was surprised at how short the deliberation was and believed there was enough reasonable doubt for a not guilty verdict.

Ringstrom said if some of the rulings against the evidence brought forward by the defense had been different, an acquittal would have been more likely.

A second shorter hearing, called a Blakely hearing, followed the guilty verdict where the jury was asked to determine if Critt’s past felony convictions presented him as a risk to public safety. The prosecution presented Critt’s conviction of first-degree arson in 1995 and another for second-degree assault in 2005 as evidence.

Ringstrom argued the jury should take into consideration that Critt was 17 years old at the time of his 1995 arson conviction. After a quick deliberation, the jury decided Critt was a risk to public safety.

That jury decision, as well as a pre-sentencing investigation of Critt which will look into his prior convictions and history, will aid Judge Michelle Lawson’s sentence.

Critt was found guilty of killing Willcoxon June 28, 2016 in south Moorhead by bludgeoning her in the head and then burning down the house, which the prosecution claimed was to cover up the murder.

According to testimony from the trial, Critt had been escorted from the house earlier that day when Willcoxon called police to complain about a man who wouldn’t leave and passed out in the basement.

Police told Critt to leave his bike and tools behind. Police left at about 3 p.m. that day.

Evidence presented during the trial revealed Critt later called the owner of the house to see if he could get his belongings back.

Another witness testified they saw a man run away from the house on a bicycle and carrying a sack at about 4:15 p.m. Firefighters were dispatched to the house at about 4:30 p.m. and found Willcoxon’s body with a hammer nearby. Autopsy results and a testimony from the medical examiner show the cause of death was blunt force trauma, consistent with a hammer strike.

Court documents stated an acquaintance of Critt told detectives Critt said he had killed someone on June 28, 2016.

During closing statements, both sides restated their cases from the beginning of the trial.

The prosecution recapped the entire trial – covering each presented witness testimony and evidence exhibit.

Melton reiterated testimony from the three women who Willcoxon called during the day of the incident. All three described a man in the house who made Willcoxon uncomfortable and, according to Sheena Sutherland, a friend of Willcoxon, “hysterical” and “frantic.”

Melton also mentioned Critt’s statement to one of his acquaintances, who said Critt told him, “I just killed somebody,” which Ringstrom argued to the jury actually occurred the morning of June 28 and not in the evening.

Another point of dispute between the two sides was over witness testimony of who was seen biking away from the residence around 4:15 p.m. carrying a sack. The prosecution said the man was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed about 150 pounds, similar to Critt. Ringstrom said the man was also described as wearing sunglasses, which Critt was not.

Melton defended the exhaustive investigation done by the Moorhead Police Department and lead investigator Joel Voxland, while Ringstrom claimed the investigation was focused on Critt from the beginning and there was a rush to judgment in the case.

Voxland said “all the leads” pointed to Critt in the investigation.

After the pre-sentencing investigation, both the prosecution and defense will offer suggestions on the severity of sentencing.

The maximum sentence for second-degree murder and first-degree arson is 40 years in prison.