James Easling Jr. ordered to prison after jury convicts him of two counts of first-degree murder

·5 min read

Three years to the day after James Bryon Easling Jr. shot and killed his estranged girlfriend and her friend, a jury Thursday voted to convict him of capital murder charges.

During his trial, Easling, 35, admitted to the July 21, 2019 fatal shootings of Amber Smith, 27, with whom he shared a home in the 1300 block of 20th Court Southwest, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, who was at the home with her at the time.

Prosecutors at trial said Easling arrived home before 1 p.m., found Smith and McAuliffe together in her bedroom and during an argument, fatally shot them both.

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The jury of 10 men and two women deliberated for just over one hour before finding Easling guilty of two counts of first-degree murder with a weapon after four days of trial.

Circuit Judge Dan Vaughn sentenced Easling to two consecutive life-in-prison terms without the possibility of parole.

Vaughn ordered Easling to serve the two life terms one at a time, not to send a message, he said, but “because senseless murders warrant it.”

After the verdict was announced, Easling sobbed nearly uncontrollably as Smith and McAuliffe family members spoke of their grief and loss.

Photo of Amber Smith, 27, who was a victim in a double shooting death.
Photo of Amber Smith, 27, who was a victim in a double shooting death.

Jeremy McAuliffe’s father, Timothy McAuliffe, told Easling he was “thoroughly appalled by your careless actions.”

“I have two grandsons now that have to grow up without their father … Now your little boy gets to grow up without you because of your stupid actions,” he said, facing Easling in court.

“My son, who I adopted at 12 years old … you have taken that from me,“ McAuliffe said. “Sir, I wish you nothing but disgrace in jail. I have no remorse for you … And I also pray for your soul.”

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Easling testified for several hours beginning on Wednesday and told jurors the shootings were committed in a heat of passion, and he never intended to hurt anyone.

During questioning by his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dorothy Naumann, Easling admitted being armed with a Glock 9 mm handgun when he entered the home he shared with Smith, their toddler son and her mother, Susanna Star.

He said he often carried the gun after his car was burgled months earlier. He'd gone to the house to get clothes for work after spending the night before with a female friend.

When he opened Smith’s bedroom door and saw her with McAuliffe, he was “heartbroken,” he said, his voice strained with emotion.

James Bryon Easling Jr., accused of being the gunman in the July, 21, 2019 shooting deaths of Amber Smith, 27, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, gets emotional before his defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dorothy Naumann, Thursday, July 21, 2022, at the Indian River Courthouse in Vero Beach. “I was upset with seeing her in bed with another man,” Easling Jr., said. “I felt heartbroken because I loved her.”
James Bryon Easling Jr., accused of being the gunman in the July, 21, 2019 shooting deaths of Amber Smith, 27, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, gets emotional before his defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dorothy Naumann, Thursday, July 21, 2022, at the Indian River Courthouse in Vero Beach. “I was upset with seeing her in bed with another man,” Easling Jr., said. “I felt heartbroken because I loved her.”

He told jurors he was more angry than he’d ever been before.

“I can't even describe it, just seething,” he said. “My entire body, it was just insanely tense. I couldn't rationalize anything. It just kept replaying in my head … seeing her in bed.”

On Monday, Star testified that she saw Easling fire a single shot at her daughter as the two bickered in the kitchen of her rented home in Indian River County.

When Smith fell to the floor, Easling stepped past her, Star said, and then fired a second round into a bedroom, killing McAuliffe, of Vero Beach.

Jeremy McAullife leaves behind two children: Robert, 2 and Peter, 5 months old. He was a loving family man, his father said.
Jeremy McAullife leaves behind two children: Robert, 2 and Peter, 5 months old. He was a loving family man, his father said.

Smith and McAuliffe were both servers at Carrabba's Italian Grill, 1285 U.S. 1, in Vero Beach

'Heat of passion'

Under cross examination by Assistant State Attorney Brandon White, Easling said after shooting McAuliffe, he put the gun down, removed the magazine and exited the house.

James Bryon Easling Jr., accused of being the gunman in the July, 21, 2019 shooting deaths of Amber Smith, 27, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, demonstrates how he shot Jeremy McAuliffe while on the stand before Assistant State Attorney Brandon White, Thursday, July 21, 2022, at the Indian River Courthouse in Vero Beach.
James Bryon Easling Jr., accused of being the gunman in the July, 21, 2019 shooting deaths of Amber Smith, 27, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, demonstrates how he shot Jeremy McAuliffe while on the stand before Assistant State Attorney Brandon White, Thursday, July 21, 2022, at the Indian River Courthouse in Vero Beach.

Star had already fled the home to call 911, she testified Monday.

Easling insisted he was still in a "heat of passion" from shooting Smith when he fired at McAuliffe.

James Bryon Easling Jr., accused of being the gunman in the July, 21, 2019 shooting deaths of Amber Smith, 27, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, demonstrates how he shot Jeremy McAuliffe while on the stand before Assistant State Attorney Brandon White, Thursday, July 21, 2022, at the Indian River Courthouse in Vero Beach.
James Bryon Easling Jr., accused of being the gunman in the July, 21, 2019 shooting deaths of Amber Smith, 27, and Jeremy McAuliffe, 26, demonstrates how he shot Jeremy McAuliffe while on the stand before Assistant State Attorney Brandon White, Thursday, July 21, 2022, at the Indian River Courthouse in Vero Beach.

“So not only now have you seen something that threw you into a tizzy, but now you've also shot two human beings, right?” asked White, who described the killings as premeditated murder.

“Yes,” Easling replied.

He told jurors several minutes after he saw Smith and McAuliffe in her bedroom, he argued with her in the kitchen. She loudly ordered him out of the house.

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He claimed she tried to reach for a knife in the sink but he blocked her with a chair.

When he believed she was reaching for an exacto knife stored with art supplies on top of the refrigerator, he feared she would use it against him, he said.

“That's when you pulled out the gun?” White asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

The loaded handgun was tucked into his waistband, Easling said.

“You raise that gun, right?” White pressed.

“I didn't raise it," he said. "I pulled it out in one swift motion. When I did, I didn't point it at her. It was pointed to her direction and that’s when it went off.”

Easling then stood up and raised his arm in a downward angle to show jurors how he held the gun as Smith was shot.

“You had to pull the trigger, right” White asked.

“By accident,” Easling said.

“You pulled it by accident?” White repeated.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

He was arrested shortly afterwards outside the house.

Before Vaughn imposed his punishment, Easling admitted that "regardless of the circumstances, it is my fault."

"I'm truly sorry for what happened that day," he said, leaning forward as he sobbed loudly.

When Star addressed Easling, she said she'd thought of him as a son. He had continued to live in their home long after his romantic relationship with Smith ended.

"I tried to treat you as a son. Amber and I both helped you, we build you up when you put yourself down," Star said. "We always tried to build you up and I'm empty. I mean, this is what you've done to all of us."

After court, Naumann said the tragedy illustrated that “people need to be more responsible with their gun ownership.

“They need to know themselves. And if you think you have an issue … if it's an anger issue, a mental health issue, just know and recognize your own line,” she said. “And realize that you shouldn't possess or own a firearm.”

Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Reach her at melissa.holsman@tcpalm.com.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: James Easling Jr. testified he killed in 2019 during heat of passion