The first murder trial in Gaston County since the beginning of the pandemic is scheduled to begin Monday morning.
Eric Wilson Taylor, 54, will be retried on allegations that he drove across the center line on a road in Mount Holly and crashed into 61-year-old Vance Avery of Lincolnton on Feb. 5, 2015.
Avery died three days later.
Taylor's original trial was held in February 2017, and he was found guilty of second-degree murder and felony death by motor vehicle, and he pleaded guilty to repeat felony death by vehicle offender and violent habitual felon.
But there was a catch. According to court documents, Taylor's attorney conceded to the jury that he thought that the state's evidence supported convictions on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.
After he was sentenced to life in prison, Taylor appealed the guilty verdict, essentially arguing that he hadn't agreed for his attorney to concede to his guilt, and a judge agreed with him. He was granted a new trial.
Taylor's case is among more than 40 homicide cases that the District Attorney's Office is faced with, a significant backlog caused by a combination of factors — mainly the pandemic, as well as delays at the state crime lab, where evidence is tested, said District Attorney Travis Page.
Page said that he doesn't recall seeing a backlog of cases this significant since he started practicing law in 2009.
"I'm new to this office, but I did work here as an assistant DA, and I don't recall there being a backlog this significant in the time that I've been practicing law," said Page, who took over as district attorney in July.
Murder trials were halted at the beginning of the pandemic because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19, something that, should a juror become infected, could cause a mistrial.
"We've actually seen where serious jury trials in other jurisdictions had to be paused. There were mistrials declared because juror members had tested positive," Page said.
Right now, Page feels optimistic about the declining case numbers, and he said that the downward trajectory in cases warrants the resumption of murder trials.
"If jurors are uncomfortable, if jurors are concerned, I believe they will have the ability to wear a mask," Page said.
If a juror did test positive, "from what we've seen in other counties, there's the potential of a mistrial. We certainly hope to avoid that here. I think that's part of the reason there was a reluctance for an extended period of time to try more serious cases. It's one of those things where we hate to do it twice," Page said.
In April, another murder case is expected to go to trial, that of James Michael Rick, who is accused of killing his cousin with a crossbow, putting her body in a vehicle, and pushing it into Lake Wylie in 2019. He is charged with first-degree murder, and if convicted on that charge he will face a mandatory life sentence.
Page said he and other staff are working hard to move cases through the system. He divided staff into trial teams that are responsible for each session of court, and his office has hired additional prosecutors and other staff members to bulk their team up.
"It's not only being better organized and being better prepared, but it's also increasing our strength by numbers," he said.
He said that one of his long-term goals is to establish a crime laboratory in Gaston County, helping prosecutors avoid problems caused when there are delays in testing evidence at the state lab. Gaston County, he said, was found by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts to have managed to avoid significant backlogs of other types of cases.
"I think that's a testament to the willingness of everyone in this courthouse to work together to keep things moving, and I think at the end of the day, that's all that we want, to continue to do things as efficiently and fairly as we can in the pursuit of justice. After all, justice delayed is justice denied," he said.
Gaston County homicide cases still awaiting trial:
Jahqualyn Travis Goode is one of four men charged with first-degree murder in the death of Richard “R.J.” Abernathy, a former high school football who was shot in the chest during a drug deal gone wrong in July 2017.
Elmer Alexander Lopez is charged with first-degree murder in December 2017 stabbing death of Miguel Angel Valle Romero, who was stabbed nearly 40 times. He is alleged to have been driving a car while two others attacked Romero in the back seat, then pulling Romero's body out of the car and dragging him to woods near Crowders Mountain.
Andre Lavern Isaac is charged with first-degree murder, among other charges, in the death of Desta Hagos, a 43-year-old store clerk who had just moved to Gastonia from East Africa. Isaac is accused of conspiring to rob the Zula Express on East Ozark Avenue, where Hagos was working. Isaac was released from jail after posting $150,000 bail in December 2018. His co-defendant, Alontae Marquasian Cousar, pleaded guilty in the case and received a minimum prison term of 40 years.
James Flanagan is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping in the death of David Joseph Yates II. The 30-year-old Lincolnton man was found June 7, 2018, at 9:07 a.m. on the side of the road near the intersection of Ivey Drive and Ridgecrest Road in southwest Gaston County.
William Glenn Bell Jr., Carla Jean Black, Billy Wayne Brinson, Wade Nelson Nations, and Tristan Thomas West are all charged with first-degree murder in connection with Kenneth A. Pilgrim, whose body was found along the side of a road near Blacksburg, South Carolina, in August 2018.
Michael Patrick Ryan is charged with first-degree murder in the 2007 death of 65-year-old David Farrar, who was shot to death at his home in Mount Holly on March 20, 2007.
Justin Isaiah Bess and Hafees Yhanjuan Adams are charged with first-degree murder in the March 2020 shooting death of of Jaqualus Deontray Glover.
Ashley Michelle Abernathy and Marshawn Devon Sanders are charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle. The two are charged with the murder of Eric DeSean Glenn, who was fatally shot in June of 2020. Both Sanders and Abernathy are also charged with the attempted murder of a Gastonia woman, who police said they shot at with a semi-automatic pistol.
Chrishawn Deandre Jowers is charged with murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm by a felon in the June 2020 shooting death of 28-year-old Devonte Leon Hall.
Zkevis Jarta Williams is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 27-year-old Whitney Denise Petway, who was found shot to death at a Gastonia hotel in June 2020.
Robert Ahmaad Middleton Jr. is charged with first-degree murder in the July 2020 death of son, Deville Ahmaad Middleton, who was less than a year old.
Christopher Phillips is charged with first-degree murder in the September 2020 stabbing death of his 67-year-old grandfather, Darrell Boyce Phillips, at the mobile home they shared in Gastonia.
Jaquis Mill and Markevion Weldon are charged with first-degree murder in the September 2020 shooting death of 18-year-old Jabar Nichols Jr.
Valencia Ferrari McLean is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Willie Breeden, 33, who died in September 2020 of a gunshot wound to the chest. Breeden had previously been charged with shooting McLean in the year before his death, but the charge against him was dismissed when McLean claimed the shooting was an accident.
Christopher Adam Hooper and Ricky Shane Hooper were both charged with first-degree murder after an argument at Waffle House on South New Hope Road in October 2020 ended in the shooting of 38-year-old John Randall Bryant Jr, who died of a gunshot wound to the leg.
Marcus Anthony Meadows and Brittney Diane Gidney were both charged with two counts first-degree murder in the April 2018 deaths of Brenda Campbell Henson, 71, and Robert Metcalfe, 47, who were found dead at Henson’s home at 2511 Mary Ave., on April 4, 2018, by Henson’s daughter.
Jonathan Elijah Jones and Ramon Luis Lopez were charged with first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, and felony conspiracy in the November 2020 shooting death of Brenton Edward McCaskill, who was found dead in a house in Cramerton. Two others, Tyler Andrew Reno and Tyler Nathaniel Justice Leonhardt, were charged with accessory after the fact to murder.
Joshua Funk is charged with first-degree murder in the December 2020 shooting death of Mount Holly Police Department Office Tyler Herndon. Investigators say Funk shot and wounded Herndon with a handgun during an early morning shooting on Dec. 11, and Herndon later died at the hospital. Herndon had been with the Mount Holly Police Department for less than two years. He was killed two days shy of his 26th birthday.
Michael Barnes, Kaleb Carver and Alicia Kilgore are charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the February 2021 shooting deaths of Robert Lucas "Luke" Gibby, 22, Adam Kale Wood, 19. They are also charged with attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of 21-year-old Todd Payton Lee Waggoner of Winston-Salem, who was shot four times but survived. Waggoner is alleged to have been conspiring with Gibby and Wood to sell more than 10 pounds of marijuana that night -- one of the purposes of the group's meeting, according to prosecutors and court records.
Charles James Stiles, Jordan Cameron Moses and Derrick Lamar Johnson are charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the February 2021 shooting deaths of 50-year-old Christopher Brooks and 54-year-old Matthew Christopher Allison. They also each face an attempted first-degree murder charge related to a third person who was shot. The shootings appear to be drug-related, according to information disclosed at a court appearance for Stiles.
Rickey Allen Holdsclaw is charged with first-degree murder in the March 2021 shooting death of his 72-year-old wife, Judy Allred Helms, who was shot at their home near the North Carolina/South Carolina state line and later died at CaroMont Regional Medical Center.
Leon Doral Currence is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Virgil Stokes Jr., who was found dead in his Gastonia home in April 2021.
Keon Latroy Pernell is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Cherie Shavon Ingram, who was found dead in a wooded area in the 400 block of North Broad Street in April 2021.
Richard Emory Darnell Brown Jr. is charged with first-degree murder in the April 2021 shooting death of a 17-year-old boy, whose name was not released because of his age.
J'Kwon Markell McCoy is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 41-year-old Francia Magally Martinez, who was found dead in her car on Jan. 21, 2021 as Gaston Police officers investigated a vehicle down an embankment at 1019 W. 10th Ave., near Bethlehem Christian Ministries. McCoy was 16 at the time he is alleged to have killed Martinez.
Marvin Christopher Neal and Donald Wheeling are charged with first-degree murder in the April 2021 death of Michael Lee Moore, a 36-year-old Bessemer City man.
Joshua Wiley and Lewis Detter are charged with first-degree murder in the June 2021 death of Alan Dale Johnson, 37, who was found dead in his vehicle. He had been shot in the head.
Tahj Matthias Ji’Reh Wall is charged with first-degree murder, possession of a stolen motor vehicle, robbery with a dangerous weapon and concealing a death in the May 2021 death of Curtis Hopper, who was found dead in a Steele Creek neighborhood but is thought to have been killed in Gastonia.
Kendra Odums is charged with first-degree murder in the May 2021 death of 24-year-old Rhonschocki Markee Flack Jr., who was shot in the head at a Cherryville apartment, where he was found critically wounded. Flack later died at the hospital.
Brandy Kachelle Wilson is charged with first-degree murder in the September 2021 death of Jacob Scott Stroupe, 36, who was found dead in the driveway of his home on Old Spencer Mountain Road. Stroupe and Wilson were romantically involved and have children together. Stroupe died of stab wounds, police said.
Elijah Kevon Robinson is charged with first-degree murder in the September 2021 death of 50-year-old Lamar Fitzgerald Crawford, who was found lying in the road on Gaston Avenue in Gastonia suffering from a gunshot wound.
Daniel James Moxley is charged with first-degree murder in the November 2021 shooting death of 58-year-old Kathy Smith, Moxley's neighbor, who was found dead in her home on Thanksgiving Day.
Aaron Lamar Alexander faces more than a dozen charges, including first-degree murder, in the December 2021 shooting death of Carlton Rainey, who died of a gunshot wound to the chest. Rainey is Alexander's ex-girlfriend's stepfather. Alexander is also accused of shooting and wounding his ex-girlfriend, Quintera Farr, who was pregnant.
Jordan Tre Chambers is charged with second-degree murder in the November 2019 shooting death of 22-year-old Avery Marquavis Ponder of Cherryville.
Ivan Christopher Williams is charged with second-degree murder in the July 2018 shooting of Xavier Cordell Blanding.
Sebastian Lee Barnett is charged with second-degree murder in an April 2020 wreck that killed Dorothy S. Pickelsimer, 66, of Dallas.
Jeremy Quintrel Lewis is charged with second-degree murder in the April 2021 death of 7-year-old Gabrielle Jones, his niece. His attorney, Noell Tin, described the shooting as an accident.
Donnie Ray Cobb was arrested on a litany of charges that include second-degree murder and driving while impaired in a street racing wreck that killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas.
Santonio Azanier Eskridge is charged with second-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon in the September 2021 shooting of Nivia Danner, a 14-year-old freshman at Hunter Huss High School.
Jenna Michelle Melton is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the January 2021 death of her 3-year-old daughter, Anna Lee Tadych, who prosecutors say was exposed to toxic levels of methadone before her death.
Gracie Eaves was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of 6-year-old Liam Lagunas, who was killed in a wreck allegedly caused by Eaves and another driver, who were street racing.
Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 704-350-5716 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by subscribing here.
This article originally appeared on The Gaston Gazette: Gaston County to hold first murder trial in 2 years