Editor’s note: Below are updates for the third week of court proceedings beginning Monday, March 13, in James Irven Staley III’s murder trial in connection with the death of 2-year-old Jason Wilder McDaniel on Oct. 11, 2018, in Wichita Falls.
Wilder was found dead in Staley’s home, and law enforcement officials suspect the child was smothered with a pillow. Staley has maintained his innocence.
FORT WORTH, Texas — 4:02 p.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: A buzzer sounds in the courtroom, and everyone is wondering if this is it. Is there a verdict?
DA John Gillespie and Special Prosecutor Lisa Tanner return to the courtroom. Four Tarrant County deputies are in the courtroom now, including one that towers over 6 feet and could probably tackle three guys if needed. He is apparently new to the courtroom.
Make that five deputies now, including the towering one. A sixth one just came into the vestibule. Now it’s up to seven deputies and the heaviest show of security since testimony began.
Competition for seats in court has been fierce today, and this morning deputies did not even so much as allow spectators to stand at the back of the room. Now, the seating is not as tight at least on the right side of the courtroom.
Two deputies have taken up a position beside Staley, and one is behind him.
At 4:15 p.m., the judge says the jury has reached a verdict and will return. Senior District Judge Everett Young also asks for the two alternates, who were not part of deliberations, to be brought in.
The judge tells spectators that he expects order to be maintained, and if anyone cannot receive the verdict calmly, they can step out now.
At 4:18 p.m., the jury returns. Staley and his attorneys stand. Their verdict is guilty of capital murder.
There are gasps, but no outbursts.
The judge says Staley’s sentence is automatic. Young sentences him to “life confinement” without parole.
The judge tells him he has the right to appeal within 30 days.
Wilder’s mom, Amber McDaniel, reads a victim impact statement from the stand.
“I’ve waited four and a half years to look you in the eye, James Staley, to tell you my 2-and-a-half-year-old son is more of a man than you will ever be in this life,” Amber tells Staley.
Defense attorney Mark G. Daniel objects to another person reading a victim impact statement, saying the law only allows one to be read.
Judge Young says the law isn’t clear on that point, and he’ll allow another one to be read.
The statements are off the record.
So a woman named Amanda reads a victim impact statement from the child’s father, Bubba McDaniel.
The judge remands Staley to the custody of the Tarrant County sheriff.
“I did not kill Wilder McDaniel,” Staley says while being handcuffed.
Cries of, “Yes, you did! Yes, you did!” erupt in the courtroom.
“Order. Order,” the judge says.
People calm down, and the judge dismisses the court. Deputies lead Staley away, apparently to be confined in Tarrant County Jail.
2 p.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: Spectators are allowed to come back into the courtroom.
Staley and his defense attorneys are back at the defense table. The prosecutors are not present except for Special Prosecutor Eric Nickols.
The jury left the courtroom to begin deliberating about 11:59 a.m.
Defense attorney Mark G. Daniel walks by and calls at least one relative and/or friend supporting Staley to come out of the courtroom with him.
The courtroom is expectant and quiet. It’s likely the jury is continuing to deliberate. A buzzer sounds about 2:25 p.m. Apparently, the jury had a question of some sort.
The judge and a defense attorney gathered around a court reporter for a bit and then dispersed. The waiting continues. Some spectators speak in whispers, and three Tarrant County deputies remain in the courtroom.
The jury has now been deliberating about three and a half hours, including their lunch. It is 3:30 p.m.
11:05 a.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: Wichita County DA John Gillespie has the last nine minutes and 45 seconds of the prosecution’s time to give closing arguments, starting about 11:50 p.m.
In 79 days Wilder transformed from being a happy, healthy little boy, Gillespie says.
“The only thing that changed was this man came into his life,” Gillespie tells the jury, indicating Staley.
The DA says Staley abused Wilder twice in one night, noting the slap video and that Staley pushed the child out of the bed.
Staley staged the child’s body to look as if he fell from the crib, and he planned the child’s death, Gillespie says.
He tells jurors it’s up to them to see that Staley doesn’t get to make his own rules, as the defendant had said in an electronic message.
Just think about Wilder’s last minutes before he died, Gillespie says.
He goes on to talk about Amber finding Wilder on the floor.
The realization hits her like lightening bolts: Wilder is lifeless, Gillespie says. At 9:10 a.m. on the morning Wilder was found, Staley got a text message from Amber Campisi, switching to Snapchat to joke around with her.
“You heard Wilder’s cries on the video, “No James,” and he told his PawPaw and other family members, “No James,” Gillespie said.
By your guilty verdict, you also will say, “No James! No James! No James,” Gillespie says going to stand in front of Staley and point his finger at him.
The judge dismisses the two alternates and recesses jurors to the jury room at 11:59 a.m. They begin deliberating on Staley’s fate.
People in the gallery get up and start to chat, and Gillespie and Tanner leave their table before the judge. They stand in the vestibule and chat for a moment. Then the two prosecutors leave the courtroom.
Staley remains at the defense table while his attorneys get up and leave the courtroom. During an earlier break, the defendant left the defense table and went out into the gallery where he received a hug from a woman who is one of his supporters.
The courtroom will be closed down for lunch at 12:15 p.m.
11:05 a.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: The jury returns from break, and Special Prosecutor Lisa Tanner begins giving her closing arguments.
Tanner says that Staley must be the unluckiest person in the world, considering Wilder died after Staley had made negative comments about Wilder and had been up for a couple of days.
“This isn’t the world’s most unlucky guy,” Tanner says.
About Amber, it’s the oldest story in the world, a girl who thinks she has the possibility for a brand new life, Tanner says.
“Amber thought she had found her prince charming,” Tanner says. “Mothers who are in that situation, the child often takes a back seat to the new love.”
Normally, there aren’t fatal consequences, she says.
“This is different. That’s because he is different,” Tanner says, indicating Staley seated at the defense table.
Tanner says Moore can read the messages from Staley in the most syrupy sweet voice, but you can’t throw a happy, smiley emoji on what’s in a person’s heart.
Amber owned her actions and was forthright, Tanner says.
As for Jason Odom — no relation to Amber — nobody knew about him for a year and a half, Tanner says. He said he had talked to Staley a long time, but phone records showed otherwise.
Amber told the detectives over and over that first night that she didn’t know when she went to bed, Tanner says.
Tanner says Staley — not Amber — had the power in the relationship. He browbeat her into quitting her job to her financial detriment.
The paper-towel buying indicates how Amber has no control, Tanner tells the jury. Staley told her the Target paper towels wouldn’t do and so she went to Walmart to get the ones he wanted, and she had to send Staley a picture to make sure she had the right ones.
Tanner says she doesn’t give a “flying flip” about whether Staley cried, but Staley did not comfort Amber the morning she found Wilder deceased.
Tanner starts talking about her in-laws, and Moore objects to that as being outside the case. The judge sustains it.
“They have gone to town on Tom Bevel, and he undoubtedly wrote a sloppy report. No doubt about it,” Tanner says.
But both of Wilder’s arms and legs had bruises on them, and Bevel misidentified a leg as an arm, but it didn’t change his conclusions, Tanner says.
Every time Bevel gives an opinion, he makes someone mad, Tanner says. That’s why it’s not your opponents who get to decide if you’re a qualified, relevant witness. It’s the judge.
But Bevel has been doing this a long time and trained at Scotland Yard, Tanner says.
He came to several conclusions, Tanner says. That includes finding an apparent palm print on the pillow. So if that’s a palm print, then all this talk about Wilder just fell out of the bed is poof! Gone.
Wilder bled from his mouth, and if a bleeding source hits a hard surface like falling from a crib, blood is going to go out, Tanner says.
If I dropped an egg on the hardwood floor, it will go “spoosh” and splash out, Tanner says. Bevel testified there was no sign of an impact from a fall in the bloodstain evidence.
At no time did Bevel ever say that Wilder was strangled inside of his crib, put back in his crib and taken out, Tanner says. She doesn’t know where that came from because no one ever said that.
Daniel objects, saying that was in Bevel’s report. The judge says the jury will go with the evidence they heard.
Bevel talked to the jury about there being a struggle and about blood breathed out, Tanner says. The autopsy also referred to a struggle based on Wilder’s injuries.
Tanner says defense counsel told the jury that he had to let jurors know there was an innocent way DNA could get onto evidence. But one definite way touch DNA could get on the pillow is if someone used it to smother Wilder.
Tanner tells the jury that Esperanza, who did housekeeping for Staley, did not show up on evidence even though she was making the beds and cleaning the sheets.
Another important thing about the DNA, is if Amber’s DNA was all over the pillow that the defense would say that was totally innocent? Tanner says.
“She did it!” is what the defense would tell the jury, Tanner says.
Dr. Stephen Hastings, a medical examiner, told the jury that he thinks Wilder was murdered, and that signs of smothering would not show up in an autopsy, Tanner says.
She encourages the jury to go back and look at the autopsy report and read the last page where Hastings writes out his opinion about Wilder’s death.
Tanner says the petechiae on Wilder was in many places and much more than would appear in case of decomposition. Plus, Hastings testified he could see them from two feet away. He also testified about the abrasions in the mouth.
In addition, defense counsel belittled Dakil, who spends her life trying to determine what factor child abuse plays in incidents involving children, according to Tanner.
She wonders if the defense was going to bring them an expert, did they have to go three states over to find someone who hasn’t treated a small child since the Reagan administration and decided to become an expert because he had been on a jury.
“It seems so bizarre,” Tanner says.
She tells the jury that Galaznik provided no medical opinion.
From seeing the horrible video in which Staley appeared to slap Wilder while he was sleeping, the child did not lose consciousness, Tanner says.
But the defense expert wants jurors to believe Wilder died from an injury that caused a bruise, Tanner says.
In August, Staley and Amber discuss about putting Wilder in a Pack ‘N Play, and Staley says Wilder can get out of it. Amber says he never has before.
In other messages, Amber says she doesn’t think Wilder will try to get out of the crib, and Wilder has no history of trying to get out of the crib.
Tanner says an officer thought he saw blood on the railing, but the pictures show there was no blood.
Once again, Wilder’s cries from the slap video ring out in the courtroom. Tanner says that the child says, “Let me down,” on the video. She indicates that is further proof that Wilder didn’t try to climb out of his crib.
Weeping can be heard in the courtroom.
One of Amber’s police interviews is played in which she says, “Oh, my God!” and realizes that there has been foul play in her son’s death, according to Tanner.
10:20 a.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: Daniel sits down, and defense attorney Terri Moore rises to address what she calls “the elephant in the room.”
She says the slap video was shown by prosecutors to inflame the jury. She urges them not to find someone guilty of something that there is no evidence for.
“You need to stop and look at this case. You must step back from it, and when you do, you will see that there’s reasonable doubt,” Moore says.
Just because children don’t die as a result of falling from a crib every day, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, she says. It does happen.
Step back and look at what evidence they have brought besides the inflammatory slap video, Moore says.
The electronic messages provided to the jury fall short of proving that Staley hates anyone or murdered anyone, Moore says.
“They cherry picked,” she says.
By the same token, we read through those messages and tried to bring you the other messages — “the ones of love,” Moore says.
You see the joy Staley took in the “ridiculous pooping video” Amber sent him, Moore says.
And that is from October, she says. That is from a man who is talking about finding a house with four bedrooms to fit everyone in.
“James as he sits in that seat right at this very moment has the presumption of innocence,” Moore said.
Amber told police that Wilder fell out of the crib, and she told her mom that same thing, Moore says.
Moore contends Detective Nelson later planted a seed in Amber’s mind about foul play.
Even though she’s got in her mind Staley must have done something, she is still telling them everything was fine, Moore says.
It was not until the end of January after Amber and Bubba McDaniel, Wilder’s father, are back together and they’ve filed a lawsuit, and that’s the first time anyone heard anything about their being trouble the night before Wilder died, Moore says.
She contends that Amber doesn’t tell the truth about the Jason Odom phone call because it doesn’t fit with her story that there had been a big feud between her and Staley the night before Wilder was found dead.
Moore says Dr. Galaznik came to court to talk about a viable possibility about what happened to Wilder based on science.
Everything fits that little Wilder busted his lip on the crib, leaving blood on the rail, trying to get out of it, taking a tumble, hitting his head on the floor, becoming unconscious and not resuming breathing, Moore said.
The WFPD did “a sloppy job” on the crime scene investigation, but blood on the crib rail was noted, Moore says.
We convict people based on impartial, objective evidence — not by whipping people up emotionally, Moore says.
Amber went off looking for the Catboy toy, so how do you know Wilder didn’t decide to go looking for his mom, Moore says.
There’s a first time for everything, she says. As for petechiae, they are nonspecific and are very much part of the decomposing process.
“The prosecution needs to answer the question whether or not Wilder could have fallen from that crib while Amber and Staley were drinking and taking a swim.
Bevel said there were no swipe marks on the pillow, but if Wilder were being smothered, there should be swipe marks.
“Their case does not meet the burden of beyond a reasonable doubt,” Moore says.
Staley threw the phone at Amber because he wanted to do CPR on Wilder, Moore says. If there had been “clear and convincing” proof, but Dr. Stephen Hastings, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, called the manner of death undetermined — not homicide.
Dakil is not “all that and a bag of chips” because she doesn’t have the education to override the opinion of a medical examiner, Moore says.
“That is not hardcore evidence. That is her coming in here being an advocate for a child,” the defense attorney says to the jury.
She urges jurors to take the hypotheses and personal opinions out and to look at the evidence.
Moore tells the jury the proper verdict is not guilty.
Senior District Judge Everett Young gives the jury a break at about 10:55 a.m. and tells them they will hear from the prosecution again when they return.
9:48 a.m. Monday, March 13: Defense attorney Mark G. Daniel is giving closing arguments before a jury.
He says his greatest fear is there is a propensity to paint a real broad brush. But you don’t paint with a broad brush, he says.
Daniel tells them there must be no doubts left in their mind.
“The law requires concrete proof of facts to the point that there is not one single question,” Daniel says.
They have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Daniel says Staley has a foul mouth and bad sense of humor but also a soft side.
If you look at the text messages from Staley, you see somebody planning for a future with Amber and their kids.
You also know Staley is capable of slapping a child, Daniel says, going on to indicate that’s not what Staley is charged with.
He moves on to discuss Amber Odom McDaniel finding the child, saying he’s not suggesting Amber did anything.
But Amber says she went to sleep and didn’t know where her phone was, but we all know it was found in her bed, Daniel says. She is on the internet and is part of a conversation in the background between Staley and Jason Odom in the hours leading up to the discovery of Wilder’s body.
Jason Odom is no relation to Amber.
We also know Wichita Falls Police Department Detective Chad Nelson portrayed Staley as not sorrowful enough and not crying enough after Wilder is found deceased, Daniel says.
But Staley was seen crying and dry heaving the morning of Oct. 11, 2018, by WFPD Sgt. Charlie Eipper, Daniel says.
Staley has been characterized as not cooperative, but he was actually cooperative with police, In addition, he was going to give police a full interview, but his attorney, Bruce Harris, told him not to.
Prosecutors talked about how cooperative Amber was in providing her DNA and other evidence, Daniel says. But law-enforcement officials never asked Staley to supply that voluntarily.
“They just go get a warrant every time,” Daniel said.
Then they can come to court and say they had to get warrants for Staley’s DNA and other material, the defense attorney says.
Daniel goes on to criticize WFPD’s collection of evidence at the crime scene and allege that there was contamination by transference of material.
As for Wilder’s autopsy, it was deemed undetermined by several medical examiners, Daniel said.
He also says the petechiae found on Wilder’s body could have been caused by decomposition. Daniel says there’s no injury on certain areas of Wilder’s face.
Daniel says that Dr. Suzanne Dakil contends Wilder was strangled, and she leaped to the conclusion there were injuries indicating that.
But there was no external hemorrhage or damage to the neck, Daniel says.
Daniel alleges Gillespie angled to find out what the DA’s Office could use to change the autopsy findings to homicide instead of undetermined.
The DA’s Office found Dr. Suzanne Dakil, but her opinion did not change the autopsy finding of an undetermined manner of death, Daniel said.
Dakil is a child abuse pediatrician who testified as an expert witness for the prosecution last week. Gillespie said in an October 2020 press conference that information provided by her helped push the case toward an arrest.
Dakil testified last week that Wilder died of asphyxiation at the hands of another.
While Dr. Stephen Hastings, the medical examiner who performed an autopsy on the child’s body, may have said his opinion was that Wilder’s manner of death was homicide, that was his personal opinion and not his medical opinion, Daniel says.
The defense attorney tears into forensic expert Tom Bevel’s work as sloppy and untrustworthy, contending he got it wrong about what U-shaped bloodstains showed.
Daniel said there was a U-shaped pattern from blood flowing out of Wilder’s mouth onto the floor, and Bevel contends it was echoed elsewhere.
But Bevel’s conclusions were inaccurate, according to measurements provided by the defense, Daniel says. In addition, the theory that the death scene was staged is incorrect.
Instead, the evidence is consistent with a fall, Daniel said.
“They brought you DNA like it means something,” he said.
At least, you know when you have moved in and out, and touched something, then your DNA will be around there, Daniel says. And that’s just innocently occurring touch DNA.
He also notes that some DNA found that was Staley’s was not robust.
There was no indication of strangling on Wilder’s body — contrary to what Dakil concluded, Daniel said. Dakil also based her opinion on nonexistent smears on the pillow.
We know the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences doesn’t do amylase testing, but four years later, we know Detective Nelson brought evidence to SWIFS and requested amylase testing, Daniel said.
Amylase testing is conducted to check for the presence of saliva.
He says the pillow, the supposed murder weapon, should have been tested for amylase.
With all the messages showing Staley’s foul mouth and bizarre sense of humor the jury has seen, Daniel urges jurors to look at those from Oct. 1 to Oct. 10 to see what was really going on in Amber and Staley’s relationship.
Their relationship lasted about three and a half months in 2018.
He pushes the defense theory for Wilder’s death to jurors.
“Everything you see is just consistent with him falling out of bed and having an accident,” Daniel says.
He says: “There are no winners in this.”
Amber has lost her child, and Staley’s name has been splashed around in every conceivable manner, mostly negative, Daniel says.
But when jurors follow the law, everybody wins, Daniel says.
9:15 a.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie is giving closing arguments before the jury.
The courtroom is at capacity as the point nears when the jury is expected to deliberate on a verdict of guilty or not guilty in James Irven Staley III’s murder trial in an eighth-floor courtroom at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center in downtown Fort Worth.
Before Gillespie began closing arguments, Senior District Judge Everett Young read the charge to the jury. The charge instructs them about their role and how to weigh evidence, as well as provides the allegations against Staley.
They are to consider whether to convict Staley or find him not guilty of first-degree murder or of capital murder of a person younger than 10. In case of conviction, jurors are to choose between those two charges.
Murder is punishable by up to life in prison. Since the DA’s Office waived the death penalty, a capital murder conviction would bring life in prison for Staley.
6:15 a.m. Monday, March 13, 2023: The jury is expected to hear the judge read the charge and listen to closing arguments when court proceedings begin at 9 a.m. today in the murder trial of James Irven Staley III at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center.
Staley is accused of murdering 2-year-old Jason Wilder McDaniel on Oct. 11, 2018, in a Wichita Falls home. The child’s mother, Amber McDaniel, found him dead on the floor of a bedroom in Staley’s Country Club area home, according to testimony. Wilder was below the crib he had been put to bed in.
Senior District Judge Everett Young will read the charge, giving jurors instructions on what to consider when weighing whether to find Staley guilty or not guilty.
The charge will lay out the allegations against him and notify jurors if there are lesser included offenses they can consider.
Then jurors will hear closing arguments from the defense and prosecution. Next, they will retire to a jury room to deliberate Staley’s fate. The 12 jurors must unanimously agree on a determination of guilty or not guilty to reach a verdict.
Staley is charged with first-degree murder and capital murder. It’s up to the jury to decide which one if they opt to convict him. First-degree murder is punishable by up to life in prison.
Since the Wichita County District Attorney’s Office has waived the death penalty, Staley would be sentenced to life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder.
Staley maintains his innocence of the charges.
Nine days of testimony in the murder trial began Feb. 27 and concluded Thursday last week. Most of the testimony was for the prosecution’s case. Prosecutors’ theory is that Wilder was smothered with a pillow in his crib.
Then his body was moved to the floor below the crib to stage a death scene to make it look as if the child fell from the crib.
The defense put five witnesses on the stand Thursday. The defense theory is that the child attempted to get out of the crib by himself and sustained fatal injuries, perhaps a concussion.
The trial has been an emotional journey for Wilder’s family members. Detailed testimony about the morning he was found dead, how he might have died and about his injuries have been part of the trial, as well as graphic autopsy photos.
Trish Choate, enterprise watchdog reporter for the Times Record News, covers education, courts, breaking news and more. Contact her with news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Twitter handle is @Trishapedia.
This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: Blog: WEEK THREE live updates for Staley trial