A city prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that Joshua Hupperterz beat, stabbed, and strangled Temple University student Jenna Burleigh in a fight that erupted in his North Philadelphia apartment two years ago after she cut short their sexual encounter.
Opening the first day of the trial, Assistant District Attorney Jason Grenell told the panel of seven men and five women the evidence would show that what began as a consensual act in August 2017 after the pair met at a bar turned violent and deadly when Burleigh, a 22-year-old student, refused to participate in anal sex.
“You’re going to watch and you’re going to see how her body was beaten and contorted, and how he tried to cover it up,” Grenell said before a packed courtroom filled mostly with Burleigh’s friends and family.
Prosecutors contend that Hupperterz, then a 29-year-old former Temple student, transported her body in a blue plastic storage bin to his grandmother’s wooded, lakeside property in the Poconos and hid it in a shed.
Hupperterz’s lawyer countered that it was his client’s roommate, Jack Miley, who intervened in the 4 a.m. fight in their kitchen and killed Burleigh.
“Jack Miley is the one who came into the kitchen ... [and] put his hands on her neck. As she screamed loudly, he squeezed harder,” and killed her, defense lawyer David Nenner said.
Their conflicting arguments opened what is expected to be more than a week of testimony and deliberations in the trial before Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson.
Hupperterz alone is charged with murder, possession of an instrument of crime, abuse of corpse, and tampering with evidence. Miley, a Temple alum who is expected to testify, has never been charged or implicated by investigators in the case. Authorities have said that Hupperterz’s contention that Miley committed the murder is a lie.
In an unusual arraignment before the jury, Hupperterz acknowledged transporting Burleigh’s body by pleading guilty to the charges of evidence tampering and abuse of corpse. If convicted of first- or second-degree murder, Hupperterz faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
The body of Burleigh, a Temple transfer student who lived with her parents in Harleysville, Montgomery County, was found in early September 2017 in a shed at Hupperterz’s grandmother’s property in Wayne County.
In his opening statement, Grenell told jurors that after Burleigh and Hupperterz met at a nearby bar early on Aug. 31, 2017, they returned to his off-campus apartment on 16th Street and started having consensual sex. Around 4 a.m., he said, “the screaming started."
That’s when Hupperterz tried to have anal sex with Burleigh, the prosecutor alleged. Burleigh fought off Hupperterz, and at one point grabbed a kitchen knife, Grenell said. But he punched her, got the knife, and stabbed Burleigh.
As Burleigh screamed, Hupperterz grabbed a cereal bowl and smashed it over her head, and when she fell on the kitchen floor, he “starts to strangle her,” Grenell said. As she clawed at his neck, he put his hands over her mouth to stop her screams, then strangled her, Grenell said.
A coroner ruled that Burleigh died of blunt-force trauma and strangulation.
Nenner said that Burleigh grabbed a knife from the kitchen after Hupperterz anally penetrated her and stabbed Hupperterz in his hand. Hupperterz then started screaming, which drew Miley, who ran from the basement level of their apartment to the first floor, Nenner said.
Nenner contended that in trying to quiet Burleigh’s screams, Miley put his hands on her neck and strangled her.
Burleigh had just started her first week as a junior at Temple as a transfer student.
Davis Trinh, then also a Temple student and a friend of Burleigh’s for about five years, testified that Burleigh had planned to spend the night at his apartment after they went out. He told jurors they stopped at one bar before going to Pub Webb on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. She was still there with other friends when he left and returned to his apartment and fell asleep, he testified.
Jurors saw video from the bar showing Burleigh and Hupperterz sitting, chatting, and drinking together. They were the only customers at closing time. They left the bar together shortly after 2 a.m. Aug. 31 and walked around the corner to Hupperterz’s apartment.
Halle Benson, then a Pub Webb bartender, testified that she saw Hupperterz, who was a regular at the bar and known by his nickname of “Cali,” and Burleigh together that night. She didn’t know Burleigh, but said Burleigh looked “frustrated” because it appeared that she had been trying to text and call someone about 1:30 a.m., but couldn’t reach that person.
Noelle Sterling, a Temple graduate student, who lived in the apartment above Hupperterz’s, told jurors that she woke up around 4 a.m. when she heard a girl screaming.
“I could tell you it was like a woman screaming in a horror movie, but that wouldn’t do it justice,” she testified. The screaming continued for more than two minutes, she said.
Sterling called 911, and Temple police arrived, but she said she told them it was hard to tell where the screams came from.
Trinh testified that he woke up in the early hours of Aug. 31 and realized Burleigh had sent him text messages seeking help.
At 1:18 a.m., she wrote: “... might need help.”
Three minutes later, she texted, “Can u pls help me," followed immediately by “If ur dead I get it it’s cool but like I’m needing help.”
At 1:36 a.m., she texted: “help.”
Trinh broke down as he read the texts, which were shown to jurors on a large projection screen.
Under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Danielle Burkavage, Trinh said he tried texting and calling Burleigh about 2:30 a.m. after he saw her texts. He then tried contacting other friends and couldn’t sleep.