VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Justin Cornell is breaking his silence about being found guilty of murdering and dismembering his ex-girlfriend and co-worker Brianna Armstrong.
Cornell was arrested and charged with Armstrong's death just days after her body was found in trash bags scattered throughout the Great Dismal Swamp, but according to Cornell, he is innocent.
"A huge mistake is taking place someone has something way wrong. It's surreal I can't even explain it," said Cornell. "Its just at any moment I still think I am going to wake up from this terrible nightmare."
Justin will not be waking up from his nightmare anytime soon, he has been sentenced to 40 years behind bars for the Chesapeake massage therapist's brutal death. Despite the conviction and sentence, Cornell maintains his innocence.
"I'm not guilty, I didn't kill Brianna, I couldn't do something like this," he said.
According to Cornell, he and Armstrong were friends before their relationship took a romantic turn. The two both worked at the area spa, Knuckles & Knots as massage therapists. He says the two bonded over work and grief.
"She like anyone who has had a loss was very sensitive to those issues," said Cornell. "She had lost her mother and brother a few years before and that was something that we connected on. I lost my brother in 2000."
Despite their common ground, Cornell says the relationship only lasted a few months. He broke it off in February.
"I could tell that she was into the relationship a little bit more than I was," explained Cornell. "I thought it was unfair to her, to let her get anything but as much love and she gave back."
After the split, Cornell says they remained close friends.
"We still spoke every day, we still texted every day. It was fantastic to maintain that relationship," he shared.
When Armstrong didn't show up to work on May 7, Cornell says he grew concerned. The same went for her friends and family who made a Facebook page for Armstrong as well as missing person fliers.
Cornell's first contact with police came a few days after Armstrong's disappearance. He says they came to his Peake Court home and asked to look around, in case Armstrong was hiding out there. Cornell said he cooperated with police.This request came shortly after Armstrong's car was found in the Newpointe Shopping Center which backs up to Cornell's apartment complex. Armstrong's keys were still in the ignition, her shoes and cellphone were also in the car.
When Armstrong's body was found in pieces near the Great Dismal Swamp, Cornell's interactions with police changed. Police executed a search warrant at his home days after the gruesome discovery was made.
"At one point, police showed me pictures of items that they had found at the swamp. Specifically my trash," said Cornell. "I acknowledged right off the bat. Hey that looks like my stuff, where was it? Why do you have it?"
According to police, Justin's trash was found in the same garbage bags where Armstrong's body parts were found. Cornell claims that can be explained.
"I take my trash out to the dumpster at the complex its not locked its not guarded its just open to the public," explained Cornell.
He also believes that someone was coming after him, trying to frame him for Armstrong's death.
"Obviously someone wants to make it look like I did it. Obviously someone has something against myself and against Brianna and I can only imagine that it has to do with the relationship that we had," said Cornell.
Police didn't buy Cornell's explanation. Hours into the search of his home, Cornell was led out of his home in handcuffs, his belongings taken into evidence.
"I had to go on the defensive very quickly and let them know I didn't put it there," explained Cornell. "I wouldn't I couldn't do something like this."
Cornell was charged with second degree murder and denied bond. He stayed at the Virginia Beach City Jail until his trial which began nearly a year after Armstrong's body was found, never telling his side of the story.
"I never testified and I should have," said Cornell. "I should have told my side of the story from the beginning to the media and I should have testified at the trial."
After days of testimony from forensic experts, Armstrong and Cornell co-workers and Armstrong's husband, the jury began deliberating. Within an hour and a half, they returned a guilty verdict.
"The only way I could cope with it was with the love and support of my family and friends which have never left me and have always been by my side. Have always known that there is no way this is me."
Cornell says he plans on proving he didn't kill Armstrong with his next legal battle, an appeal.
"I am hopeful and optimistic because I will be exonerated," said Cornell. "It will take some time but the truth always comes out and the truth will come out."
News 3 reached out to Armstrong's father about Cornell's statements. He says he is not surprised by Cornell's innocent claims but does not believe them.