Commonwealth v. Justin Keith Cornell; Judge Imposes Maximum 40-Year Sentence for Murder

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Colin D. Stolle, Commonwealth's Attorney for the city of Virginia Beach, announced today that Justin Keith Cornell, 39 years old, formerly of the 500 block of Peak Court in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was formally sentenced by Circuit Court Judge William R. O'Brien for Second Degree Murder.  On May 27, 2016, Cornell was found guilty following a five-day jury trial. The jury recommended the maximum punishment of 40 years and a fine of $100,000, and today, Judge O'Brien formally imposed that sentence. 

The Commonwealth's evidence proved that between May 7 and May 31, 2015, Justin Keith Cornell killed Brianna Armstrong, a co-worker with whom he was in a romantic relationship.  Armstrong was last seen by her husband on May 7, and unbeknownst to him, she went to Cornell's apartment off Newton Road in Virginia Beach that evening.  When she did not return home the next morning, Armstrong's husband soon filed a missing persons report with police and a search ensued. 

On May 14, 2015, Armstrong's car was found in a shopping center near Cornell's apartment.  When Virginia Beach police went to Cornell's apartment to interview him, the doors and windows were all open.  They found clothing belonging to Armstrong.  There were knives and swords all over the home.  Investigators noticed a large stain on the carpet in Cornell's hallway. Cornell initially denied seeing Armstrong recently, but later changed his story and admitted he had seen her on May 7.  Receipts for cleaning supplies and a carpet cleaner were later recovered from his apartment.

On May 31, 2015, a man riding his bike near the Great Dismal Swamp found human remains and called the police. Through DNA tests and dental records, the body was identified as Brianna Armstrong.  She had been decapitated and disarticulated, meaning her body had been severed at the joints instead of the bones. Cornell was a massage therapist who had undergone extensive training in the anatomy of the human body.  He also had posters depicting diagrams of the muscles and bones of the human body hanging in his apartment.  Multiple items belonging to Cornell were found with Armstrong's remains.  Some of the items include trash, a receipt with his name and address, and underwear which was later determined to contain Cornell's DNA.  Also found at the swamp with Armstrong's remains were green plastic particles that were scientifically analyzed and found to be consistent with that of a Christmas tree found in Cornell's home.  A small blood stain containing Armstrong's DNA was found on the carpet in Cornell's apartment. Further, a search of Cornell's phone showed that just seven (7) hours before the discovery of Armstrong's remains, Cornell performed a Google Map search of the exact location within the Great Dismal Swamp where Armstrong's body was found.

Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Scott C. Vachris and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Adam J. Lantz prosecuted this case. Please contact Macie Allen if additional information is desired.​