A jury recommended early Friday that Joseph Elledge be sentenced to up to 28 years in prison for killing Mengqi Ji, 28. The sentence came hours after the Boone County jury convicted Elledge of second-degree murder.
Sentencing was scheduled for Dec. 17. Circuit Judge J. Hasbrouck Jacobs cannot sentence him to more years than the jury recommendation.
After the sentencing phase concluded, Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight said his investigation into the case led him to understand that Ji was “kind, giving and selfless,” unlike her husband.
“It’s such a huge waste, that a life like Mengqi would be snuffed out by such a selfish psychopath like the defendant,” Knight said.
Knight had urged the jury to find Elledge guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence, but he said he was satisfied with the second-degree verdict. A second-degree murder conviction requires Elledge to serve at least 85% of his sentence before being eligible for parole.
Elledge's attorney, Scott Rosenblum, said Elledge and his family were aware during the trial that he was not going to be acquitted but had hoped the jury would convict him of manslaughter, KOMU-TV and KMIZ-TV reported.
“He knew that at the end of the day I wasn’t going be asking the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. He certainly wanted to avoid a conviction of murder in the first degree,” said Rosenblum, who added Elledge was grateful he will be eligible for parole.
Rosenblum said he and the family will meet in the next week to discuss whether to appeal the verdict.
Elledge had admitted during the trial to burying his wife’s body and misleading authorities for more than a year about Ji's whereabouts. He reported her missing in October 2019, prompting months of extensive searches. Her remains were found in a park near Columbia, Missouri, in March.
An attorney for Ji's family told the Columbia Daily Tribune before the trial started that they didn't plan to provide a statement, but said on Wednesday they were pleased with the prosecutor's efforts.
During closing arguments on Thursday, Knight told the jury that Elledge was a “stone cold killer” who was guilty of first-degree murder because he intentionally killed his wife.
Rosenblum argued that his client was awkward and made “unbelievably dumb” decisions after she died. But he said Elledge never intended to kill his wife and should never have been charged with murder.
During his trial, Elledge said Ji’s death was accidental. He said she fell and hit her head on Oct. 8, 2019, after he pushed her during an argument and he found her dead in bed the next morning. He said he panicked, put her body in the trunk of her car and did not report what happened while he tried to decide what to do.
He did not tell anyone, including Ji’s mother, about her disappearance.
On Oct. 10, with the couple’s young daughter in the car, Elledge drove to Rock Bridge State Park about 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Columbia, where they lived. There, he dug a grave and buried Ji at a site a half-mile from where he proposed to her. He then returned home and reported her missing.
Prosecutors used social media posts, audio tapes and a journal Elledge kept to document the couple’s volatile relationship. The evidence showed them frequently yelling at each other and arguing, with Elledge often criticizing his wife for her appearance and for how she treated him.
Elledge said that in the days before her death, he discovered Ji had been exchanging sexually suggestive messages with a man from China via social media. He also testified that the couple’s relationship suffered because of tension caused by her parents who moved from China to live with them after their daughter was born on Oct. 3, 2018.
The couple met in 2015 at Nanova, a company that makes dental products, where Ji was Elledge’s supervisor. They began dating the following year and eventually traveled to China, where he asked Ji’s parents for permission to marry her. The couple married in 2017.
Ji earned a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of Missouri in December 2014. Elledge was a student at the university when his wife died.