Murder trial in Walter Phelps homicide begins

Opening statements made in Walter Phelps murder trial

ALBANY — The trial of two men charged with the murder of an Albany business owner in 2010 began Monday with opening statements from the prosecution and defense.

Jordan Harris and Ezekial James have been accused of robbing and shooting Walter Phelps at his place of business, P&P Garden and Hardware on Slappey Boulevard, on the morning of July 3, 2010. Phelps died two months later.

In her opening statement, Chief Deputy District Attorney Heather Lanier argued that Harris and James conspired to rob Phelps and P&P Garden and Hardware to fund a “shopping spree” with two other individuals at a Ralph Lauren/Polo outlet in Lake Park.

Lanier also contended that the Phelps died in September 2010 from complications arising from the gunshot wound he sustained in the robbery.

Johnnie Graham, defense attorney for James, argued in her opening statements that James has denied any involvement in the robbery and the purchase of goods using Phelps’ stolen credit card. She said prosecutors would not be able to present any physical or documentary evidence linking him to the crimes.

Graham contended that the state had nothing more than accusations about James’ involvement, based primarily on the testimony of Jumon Carter, who told investigators that he overhead discussions planning the robbery and also was present during the shopping trip to Lake Park.

“The heart of state’s case depends upon your believing the testimony of Jumon Carter,” Graham told the jury. “That’s what’s going to be critical.”

Marcus Roberts, an attorney who works with public defender Leisa Johnson, who is defending Harris, told the jury that the two questions they needed to be concerned with in regard to Harris was who shot Phelps and how Phelps died.

Roberts said the state did not properly handle the initial robbery investigation and called into question proper identification of Harris by Phelps before his death or by witnesses to the crime. He also called into question the cause of Phelps’ death, saying that it was from a pulmonary embolism that the state would have to prove was caused by the gunshot.

After opening arguments the state began its case first calling to the witness stand Phelp’s widow Shirley Phelps. Lanier attempted to question Shirley Phelps about statements her husband made to her about the robbery prior to his death. Phelps was unable to answer after Johnson objected to the line of question stating that any answer would be hearsay.

After clearing the courtroom Lockette heard arguments from the prosecution and the defense about the admissibility of Shirley Phelps’ statement, ultimately ruling that while the testimony would have met a hearsay exception in Georgia law, notice should have been given to the defense of the testimony and therefore the objection was sustained.

Unable to question Shirley Phelps about statements made to her by her husband, Lanier focused primarily on questions surrounding the time line of events observed by Shirley Phelps and questions about Phelp’s health before and after the incident on July 3.

Lanier also questioned Phelps’ son, Mike Phelps, who worked at P&P Garden and Hardware, about his father’s typical daily routine, his overall health before the incident and about his involvement with his father the day of the incident through the time of his death.

Two members of the Albany Police Department at the time of the incident also testified to what was discovered at the crime scene on the day of the incident.

The state is scheduled to continue presenting its case on Tuesday beginning at 1 p.m. at the Dougherty County Judicial Building.