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Murder Verdict Returned for Unborn Child

Murder verdict returned

Darrell Todd Maurina

Prosecutors ask jurors to give death penalty to Luther Martin for death of Waynesville High School student Jerae James

Guilty of murdering a Waynesville High School student.

Guilty of murdering her unborn baby.Image

Those were the dual verdicts handed down Tuesday evening by a Pulaski County jury after about three hours of deliberation in a case that has been repeatedly delayed since October 2001 when Jerae James, then 17 and a student at Waynesville High School, was found dead inside the trunk of her burned-out car in a field near the St. Robert sewage treatment plant.

Jurors found Luther D. Martin, 25, guilty of first-degree murder and reconvened Wednesday afternoon to consider prosecutors’ arguments that Martin should be given the death penalty.

While the case has repeatedly been postponed since Martin was arrested in 2001, it progressed rapidly after the jury was selected last week and attorneys’ arguments began Monday morning. Circuit Court Clerk Rachelle Beasley had reserved more than two weeks for the trial that lasted only two days.

During the penalty phase of the trial, prosecutors will ask the same jurors who convicted Martin of first-degree murder to sentence him to death; defense attorneys will ask the jury to impose a lesser sentence. Beasley said she expected both sides to conclude their arguments by Wednesday evening.

Martin, at the time a member of the 5th Engineer Battalion stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, was arrested on Oct. 12, 2001, just days after James’ burned-out car was found on Oct. 9 by a passing sheriff’s deputy. Prosecutors say James died on Oct. 7 and was killed by smoke inhalation since the fire in her car burned out before it reached the trunk. According to police reports at the time, James’ car was set on fire using torn-out pages from a military manual.

Evidence presented at the trial by prosecutors also showed that a phone bill in Martin’s name with his address was inside the car and didn’t burn up because the fire went out before it consumed the passenger compartment.

Two other former soldiers in the 5th Engineers have also been arrested in the case. Stephen V. Ragas, 24, of New Orleans, La., and Donald Robinson, 27, of Cincinnati, Ohio, both of whom are now out of the Army, were taken into custody in October 2005. Ragas faces another first-degree murder trial next fall.

Defense attorneys painted a different story, arguing that James may have died elsewhere and been dragged into the vehicle. Noting the lack of rigor mortis on her body, defense attorneys said she may not have died on the night of Oct. 7 and may have died closer to the time when the body was found on Oct. 9 inside the car.

Jerae James’ mother Jennie James testified Monday that she went to the apartment of Dominic Tolbert while hunting for her daughter and Tolbert came out without fully opening the door to block outsiders’ view of the apartment interior; Jerae James’ friend Jamie Robertson testified that the two had gone together to Tolbert’s apartment on Oct. 7, that Jerae James had sold drugs there, and that she had a “big wad of cash” after the transaction. Retired police Sgt. Ralph Roark testified that Jerae James’ cell phone had Tolbert’s number in it but not Martin’s.

That phone was last used at 8:47 p.m. on Oct. 7 to call 911, according to testimony by Sgt. Michael Rogers of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Tolbert, who was transported from a federal prison in California last week, was a hostile witness Tuesday and refused to even identify himself by name, asking court officials to call him “the king” rather than by his given name or by his nickname of “Doo-Doo.” Defense attorneys noted that neither Jerae James’ mother nor her friend Jamie Robertson had ever heard Jerae James mention Luther Martin’s name and argued that Martin may have been framed by others trying to draw attention away from themselves.

Robert J. Ahsens III, an assistant attorney general with the state of Missouri who prosecuted the case, acknowledged that others may have been involved with the murder but said that’s an issue for another day. Ahsens noted that Jerae James had meticulously wiped down her recently purchased car and said that helped investigators gather fingerprint evidence later in her death that incriminated Martin.

“When Jerae wiped her car down that day she created a clean slate for her killer to leave his signature,” Ahsens said.

Colleen Stevens, a friend of the James family who is serving as their spokeswoman, said the family was pleased by the murder verdict and hopes the jury decides that Martin should be sentenced to death.

“It’s been five years, it’s been a long time coming, and it’s overdue,” Stevens said. “There are still more people out there who are guilty.”

While all of those arrested in connection with the murder were soldiers, Stevens said the family doesn’t blame the Army for their conduct.

“Of course we don’t blame the military; Jerae’s father served,” Stevens said. “There are bad people in the civilian world as well as the military.”

Source Waynesville Daily Guide