The felony murder trial of a Newnan man came to a screeching halt Thursday after Coweta Superior Court Judge Travis Sakrison declared a mistrial.
Willie Louis Turner II was facing charges of felony murder and possession of a stolen handgun for his alleged involvement in the shooting death of Travalas Acres in February 2016.
During the state’s examination of Major John Lewis with the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office, evidence was introduced containing audio taken from phone calls Turner made from jail days after his arrest.
These conversations were allegedly a violation of a ruling made by Sakrison at the beginning of the trial, which specifically barred the introduction of any statements made by the defendant about speaking to law enforcement.
During phone calls made from jail to family member Gloria Moss, Turner is heard saying, “they’re coming after me every day.” It was never clarified who “they” were, but it was enough for Sakrison to take issue with the evidence being a violation of the order.
Assistant District Attorney Kevin McMurray said the purpose of introducing the phone calls to the jury was to indicate that Turner was denying his involvement to Gloria Moss – the mother of Jemelle Moss, another passenger in the car during the murder.
“These statements are being made to others, not law enforcement, so my understanding is that it was fair game,” McMurray said. "He’s denying he was there. We can’t do that through (conversations with) law enforcement, so we had to do it through her.”
After calling for a lengthy recess, Sakrison returned to hear arguments from both sides regarding the recordings.
Assistant District Attorney Jillian Brasfield told Sakrison she helped review the recordings and believed the conversations offered an alternative method of getting a statement from Turner that didn’t involve statements made to law enforcement.
“These calls were made during his time in general population,” Brassfield said. “We were excited to introduce this in response to the court’s ruling and not being in violation.”
However, Sakrison thought otherwise.
“This is certainly frustrating, someone has lost their life and this should not be left to the whim of legal strategy and gamesmanship,” he said. “The intent of my rule was for no one to reference statements to law enforcement from the defendant, period.”
While Sakrison believed the move was not an intentional act on behalf of the state, he believed irreparable damage was done by the recordings being played in front of the jury.
“I’m not going to find misconduct on behalf of the state, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re all sitting here and it happened in front of the jury,” Sakrison said. “As frustrating as it is to say this, it’s in the interest of justice that I have to declare a mistrial at this point.”
Following the ruling, Turner’s lawyer, Charlie Cauble, unsuccessfully petitioned the court for a reduction in bond for his client, which currently stands at $500,000.
Several family members of Travalas Acres openly wept as they left the courtroom, and both sides expressed their desire for closure following the declaration.
“We’re certainly disappointed with the outcome,” said Cauble. “We wanted the jury to make the decision this week – not the court, but goal remains the same. All we want is justice.”
District Attorney Pete Skandalakis said his office intends to retry Turner, although a date has not been set.
“I’m disappointed with the court’s ruling today,” Skandalakis said. “I believe the law supports our position that the defendant’s jail calls are admissible evidence and the jury should have been able to hear them.”
Clay Neely: firstname.lastname@example.org, @clayneely