OPPENHEIM — A Fulton County Court jury on Thursday afternoon convicted Daniel Nellis of murder in the death of 21-year-old Michaela MacVilla.
The jury returned its verdict after less than a day of deliberations.
Nellis also was found guilty of possessing a cache of guns at a different residence.
He faces a combined possible sentence of 50 years to life -- 25 on the weapons conviction and 25 to life in MacVilla's murder.
Fulton County District Attorney Chad Brown and MacVilla's parents, Samantha and Kevin Jump, met with reporters after the verdict was read. Kevin Jump said he and Samantha have tried to stay quiet during most of the trial.
“We’ve read everything there was on social media, on all the platforms, the comments that people have made, trying to justify Nellis’ actions, saying there wasn’t enough evidence; there wasn’t enough proof," Jump said. "Anyone who attended court would know the evidence that was presented.”
“”We don’t get justice; we get vindication," Samantha Jump said. "Michaela did nothing wrong. She was coming home from work."
During the trial prosecutors presented the jury with videos of MacVilla with Nellis at his home the morning she was believed to have been killed, DNA evidence placing Nellis with MacVilla at the time of her death, cellphone evidence showing she had called Nellis after midnight the day she was believed killed and cellphone location evidence placing him in proximity to her at the time of her death. Data from a Fitbit heart rate monitor MacVilla wore showed her heart rate spiked at 12:24 p.m. on Sept. 25, and then stopped six minutes later. Brown contended that was the time of MacVilla's death.
Brown said MacVilla's cellphone, found on Mill Road on Sept. 27, provided key evidence that pointed toward Nellis.
"From her cellphone, they got the information about who she had been communicating with and that led them to Dan Nellis. You can see how the technology just continued to guide this case," he said.
Brown said relatively new technology provided much of the evidence he was able to present in the case. “If this case had happened 10 years ago, we probably wouldn’t have had most of that, because Fitbit hasn’t been around for 10 years. The range and tower data Verizon has, has just been around, probably, the better part of five years,” Brown said.
"The only thing that might have been around back then would have been a surveillance camera, and even that was only installed in 2017, that one.”
All the evidence, Brown told the jury in closing arguments Wednesday, pointed to Nellis as the killer.
But Nellis' attorney, Brian Toal, pointed to others he argued were never properly investigated. Nellis has maintained his innocence.
Nellis, 45, was indicted in November on one count of second-degree murder, accused of shooting MacVilla in the head with a handgun.
MacVilla was reported missing after she left a Stewart's Shop on West Main Street in St. Johnsville at about 12:10 a.m. on Sept. 25. She was found dead Oct. 2 in heavy brush on a property on Kringsbush Road in Oppenheim, state police said. The property's owner discovered her body.
In his own closing arguments, Toal attempted to paint a picture of an investigation that focused exclusively on Nellis to the exclusion of at least three other possible suspects, including MacVilla's boyfriend, Devin Sargeant, with whom she was in the process of leaving.
But Brown countered Toal's alternate killer theories by saying there was no evidence of anyone else being involved. Brown said Sargeant was investigated, but his account of his whereabouts, and his cellphone data, showed he wasn't anywhere near the relevant locations, including where MacVilla's body was found.
Nellis testified during the trial that he had consensual sex with MacVilla and that he did not kill her. Brown said there was DNA evidence Nellis and MacVilla had sex, but not enough evidence from the autopsy of her body to charge Nellis with sexual assault.
“Dr. Sikirica, who did the autopsy, said he couldn’t rule that there was any sexual assault based on his analysis,” Brown said.
Brown said it is not necessary for a murder case, and for most crimes, for the prosecution to provide evidence of a possible motive for the crime. He said in this case there is no way to know Nellis’ motive.
“We never had anything that would tell us what the motive was. Killing a 21-year-old girl in a field is something that would not justify any motive."
Brown said the prosecution was never able to definitively determine the murder weapon used to kill MacVilla. He said a .38 revolver was found at 53 Dolge Ave., the location of the guns involved in the weapons charges against Nellis, but tests of a bullet fired from the revolver and the bullet used to kill MacVilla proved inconclusive. He said the tests could not rule the revolver "in or out" as being the gun used in the crime.
Kevin and Samantha Jump said they hope their marriage will remain strong despite the death of both of their daughters.
Kimberly Jump, 24, died of a cardiac arrhythmia in her sleep on Aug. 31, just 25 days before her sister was murdered.
“None of this is ever going to be easy. We’re never going to feel whole,” Samantha said.