Murder trial underway in Crenshaw Co.

Published 3:27 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2012

After a number of postponements, the capital murder trial of John Lewis Thomas, Jr. began last Thursday morning at the Crenshaw County Courthouse.

Thomas, along with Antonio Jamar McNear, has been charged with three counts of capital murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of robbery in the first degree following an attempted robbery in Highland Home in 2008.

On Aug. 27, 2008, Charles Doug Kelley and Patricia Anne Barginere were shot with a .38 caliber pistol during a robbery at Kelley’s Grocery and Market.

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In 2009, both men pleaded not guilty on all charges by reason of mental defect or disease.

The two men are being tried separately, and there are two possible penalties for capital murder: a life sentence without parole or death. The first part of the trial is only to determine guilt or innocence, but if Thomas is found guilty, the sentencing phase will begin with the same jury.

Proceedings for Thomas began two weeks ago, but a jury was not struck until last Thursday morning.

Following the swearing in of the jury, both the prosecution and the defense gave their opening arguments.

According to assistant district attorney Jessica Ventiere, the day of the alleged murder began like any other.

Following a regular delivery to the store from a meat truck, a white pickup truck driven by a heavy-set black male and a tall black male pulled into the parking lot, Ventiere said.

“Then Betty [Kelley] heard what she knew was a gunshot from her porch,” Ventiere said.

She then said that Kelley looked into a back door to the store before running back to her home and calling 911.

Ventiere also said that Steve Jackson and Gary Shirley, two passers-by, were the first to enter the store and find Charles Kelley and Pat Barginere dead.

“The ABI [Alabama Bureau of Investigation] and the sheriff’s department processed the scene and collected evidence,” she said. “You’re going to hear from an ABI investigator, the Alabama Department of Forensics, and Dr. Stephen Boudreau, the state medical examiner.  After you hear the evidence, I will ask you to find the defendant guilty.”

In the defense’s opening statement, Bill Rayborn said that Thomas, also known as J.J.,  was in court because of a tragic set of events.

“J.J. is presumed innocent at this point in time,” he said. “I ask the jury to listen and weigh the evidence.  Your decision is the most important in this man’s life.”

The first witness was Betty Kelley, the owner of Kelley’s Grocery, but her testimony was played via videotape.

Because of health reasons, including Parkinson’s Disease, Kelley’s deposition was held three weeks ago and recorded.  Kelley was not present at the trial.

Kelley testified that after hearing gunshots from the store, she looked in a back door and saw Barginere behind the meat counter.

She also said that she heard someone say, “There’s another one we’ve got to get,” before running out of the store and back toward her home, which is adjacent to the store.

Kelley said that shots were fired at her, but that she made it into the house and called 911 before hanging up and going back to the store to check on her son and Barginere.

On cross examination, defense attorney Brandon Sellers, whose law office is located in Greenville, tried to find out if any medications Kelley was taking in 2008 or since could have affected her memory, but Kelley said that in 2008, she only taking “more or less Tylenol.”

The court also heard the testimony of Steve Jackson, who works for Quint-Mar Water Authority in Lapine.

He testified that he was sitting in his truck at the intersection of Highway 331 and Meriwether Trail when he heard gunshots but couldn’t tell where they came from.

As he drove by Kelley’s Grocery, he said he saw the defendant’s truck pull out quickly, and that he turned around and went back.

Jackson said he found the two bodies, called 911 and stopped others from entering the store.

Gary Shirley, another Quint-Mar employee, was traveling not far behind Jackson, and he testified that he saw the defendant’s truck turn onto Meriwether Trail at a high rate of speed before he received a call from Jackson that he needed help at the store.

On Friday, the court heard from Crenshaw County investigators Ronnie White and Heath Truman and ABI investigator Johnny Senn.

On Monday, the defense cross examined Senn, and the court heard from Phyllis Rollan, a retired section chief for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, who had performed DNA testing.

Rollan testified that the controls for the testing did not indicate any errors, and that she was told the clothing tested came from Thomas and McNear.

She said she was also provided with DNA samples from Kelley and Barginere, but that no DNA from either was found on the clothing sample from Thomas.

Dr. Stephen Boudreau, the state’s medical examiner, also testified that because of evidence he found during the autopsy, he could say that both victims were shot at a distance of between 18 and 24 inches.

Testimony is expected to continue throughout this week.