By Greg Jordan
For The Register-Herald
A Mercer County man told his victim’s family and his own family how sorry he was for his actions before a circuit judge sentenced him Wednesday for first-degree murder and abduction of a child.
Tracy Lee Atwell, 39, of Spanishburg pleaded guilty May 23 to first-degree murder with recommendation of mercy and abduction of a child by a parent. Atwell was arrested in April 2012 after he murdered his wife, 33-year-old Christina Atwell, and abducted their daughter, 8-year-old Porsche.
The child was found safe after the West Virginia State Police, Mercer County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies conducted an extensive search.
During the hearing, Christina Atwell’s mother, Lucinda Cheresnowsky of Roanoke, Va., presented Mercer County Circuit Judge Derek Swope with a letter asking him to reject Atwell’s plea bargain. Swope called a brief recess so Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Janet Williamson could leave the court with members of the victim’s family and explain the plea to them.
They returned 10 minutes later. When the judge asked if the family now understood the sentence Tracy Lee Atwell was facing, Cheresnowsky replied, “We’re good.”
Swope sentenced Atwell to life in prison with mercy, meaning he could be eligible for parole in 15 years, and to a term of one to five years for the abduction. The sentences are set to run consecutively. As a result, Atwell will be eligible for parole in approximately 16 years. Atwell will receive 425 days credit for the time he has served in jail since his arrest.
Before Swope passed sentence, he said in his experience, people convicted of first-degree murder with a recommendation of mercy in West Virginia are not granted parole very often. He described one case in which a person was sentenced to life with mercy; parole has been not granted, and he has spent 28 years in prison.
“I just wish I could take all this back, I really do,” Atwell said. “I’m saying I’m sorry to Porsche.” He looked to Christina’s family and his parents. “I’m sorry to you all. I’m sorry for my mom and dad.”
Swope said the state had “diligently prepared” to prosecute Atwell, and that defense attorneys Paul Cassell and Derrick Lefler had done “an outstanding job” for their client. Swope said he was accepting the plea in order to help bring closure to Atwell’s daughter. Rejecting the plea would mean a trial and at least another year of legal proceedings. Atwell is still facing life in prison despite the possibility of parole.
“I do believe he (Atwell) is remorseful for it, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that she died by his hand,” Swope said.
Atwell’s parents declined to comment.
After the hearing, Cheresnowsky said Atwell frequently abused Christina physically. The couple had been in the process of getting a divorce. Porsche is now with members of Atwell’s family, but Cheresnowsky said she hoped to gain custody.
Cheresnowsky said she and her family believed Atwell should have received more prison time. Swope reminded the family during the proceedings that they could address authorities during any future parole hearings.
“Hopefully, he will spend his last breath in prison,” said the victim’s brother, Andrew Fokas of Roanoke, Va.