The defense argued Tuesday that Jason Walters acted in self defense when he shot 18-year-old Christopher James Griffin to death the night of June 15, 2014, behind the EZ-Mart in Mineola.
Opening statements and testimony began Tuesday in the Walters murder trial more than five years after the killing. Defense attorney Cynthia Stevens Kent indicated that Walters will take the witness stand.
A jury of six men and eight women (including two alternates) was empanelled Monday at the Carroll Green Civic Center in Quitman, and the trial is being held at the Wood County Justice Center. The trial, now on its third judge and second set of prosecutors, has been beset by repeated delays, recusals and continuances.
Presiding over the case is Judge Joe D. Clayton of Tyler. Representing Walters are defense attorneys Kent, F.R. “Buck” Files Jr. and Brett Harrison. Prosecuting the case are Thomas O. Cloudt and Steven Todd from the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
In his opening statement, Todd told jurors that much of the evidence to be presented will be undisputed, and video evidence will show much of what transpired. Two men – Walters and Dietrich Flournoy – got into a starring match and intended to step outside to address it. But before he went out back with Flournoy, Walters retrieved a handgun from his car, Todd told jurors. Once out back, Walters pulled out the gun and shot Griffin in the neck, and he continued to point the gun at others at the scene, Todd said. The prosecutor told jurors he was confident they would find Walters guilty of causing Griffin’s death.
Kent took more than an hour to deliver her opening statement. She portrayed a scene in which Walters unwittingly walked into a gang operation, telling jurors “Jason Walters was the target of crash dummy mission.” The term “crash dummy mission” would be explained later by a Tyler gang expert, she told jurors.
She alleged that Flournoy was with fellow members of a gang called the Mineola Five Deuce Hoover Crips, who used hand gestures that night at the EZ-Mart to signal their intentions. She implied that Walters was being lured out back to be harmed.
Why didn’t he get into his car and leave after the dispute with Flournoy? Kent argued that Walters heard someone say “He’s getting away,” and Walters feared Flournoy and his associates would follow him home. Walters, she told jurors, wanted to “talk them down” and diffuse the situation. He decided to get his gun for self-defense.
Once out back, Walters heard Flournoy say, “We’ve got you now (expletive).” He became encircled and began to fear for his life. “He instinctively reacts to protect his own life,” she stated. “He reasonably believed it was his life of theirs.”
Former Mineola police officer Mario Arellano testified to being the first officer on the scene. After parking his patrol car at a nearby church parking lot, he walked to the rear of the EZ-Mart and saw Walters standing near Griffin with a gun in his hand. He ordered him to drop it, and Walters did so after the third command. He testified to seeing Griffin lying in a pool of blood. Arellano said he received the call from dispatch at 11:15 p.m. and was at the scene in a matter of seconds. The ambulance, he said, arrived at 11:27 p.m.
Arellano and fellow officer Gerardo Rodriguez, who testified later in the afternoon, spent several hours on the stand.
Rodriguez took Walters to the police department. At one point while they were walking to the officer’s patrol car, Walters told Rodriguez that he “didn’t mean for that to happen.”
He later told the officer that a man in sunglasses approached him inside the EZ-Mart and initiated a conversation. The man, identified as Flournoy, accused Walters of “cutting your eyes at me.” The two went outside and Walters said Flournoy kept “running his mouth,” according to the officer.
In the alley behind the store, Walters described to the officer how someone came up from behind him. He turned to push him and the gun went off, he told Rodriguez.
After shooting Griffin, Walters placed his hands over the wounds to Griffin’s neck to stop the bleeding.
“I didn’t mean for it to go off, for sure,” he told Rodriguez.
Prosecutor Cloudt then asked the officer if Walters ever mentioned being afraid for his life?
“No sir,” Rodriguez replied.
Did he mention another gun?
Earlier, Kent asked Arellano why none of those at the scene were searched and why none of their cars were searched. He replied that he had no reason to search them or their cars. Rodriguez, too, was asked the same question, and he gave the same reply.
Rodriguez did testify to detaining and handcuffing Flournoy at the scene because he refused to follow police commands.
“While he was cuffed, did you see people taking things out of his pocket?” Kent asked Rodriguez.
He replied that he did not.
EZ-Mart store clerk Blake Strohl, who was on duty the night of the shooting, recalled having difficulties with the gas pumps and insufficient change. She was dealing with those problems as well as trying to serve a long line of customers and did not see the interaction between Walters and Flournoy, she testified.
After the shooting, she said a woman named Destinee Gonzales came into the store imploring her to call an ambulance. Later, Walters also came to the door and asked that she call 911, saying someone had been shot, Stohl testified.
The trial is scheduled for 15 days.