In the opening statements of Billy Ray Turner's first-degree murder trial, both the prosecuting and defense attorneys asked the jurors a question: What does it take to kill a man?
According to Shelby County Asst. Dist. Atty. Paul Hagerman, the murder of Memphian and NBA star Lorenzen Wright took a plan and an evil heart — not Turner's heart, but that of Wright's ex-wife, Sherra Wright.
Hagerman painted a picture of Turner, 51, who was Sherra Wright's yardman, as a key participant in the plan to lure Wright from his Atlanta home to Memphis, and then to the grassy field in southeast Shelby County where he was shot to death just after midnight on July 19, 2010.
Sherra Wright, Hagerman argued, did not have a criminal history. But she did have jealousy, greed, and "$2 million reasons."
"So she had to reach out to people that she trusted or that were indebted to her," Hagerman said.
Turner, he said, was Sherra Wright's friend, yardman, and secret love interest, and those three qualities left him vulnerable to Sherra Wright's manipulation.
Jimmie Martin, Sherra Wright's cousin, was an individual with a shadowy criminal history and who was indebted to Sherra Wright.
Sherra Wright, Hagerman said, had paid for Martin's bond and his attorney fees as he moved through his trial for murdering his girlfriend (Martin is currently serving a sentence on this conviction). Together, Martin and Turner completed the triad of Wright's killers.
Hagerman played the audio of the 911 call that pinged to a Germantown dispatcher. The audio contained what was likely Wright's last word, an expletive, followed by 11 gunshots.
Dispatchers who fielded Wright's call tried calling him back to no avail; they were unable to pick up Wright's location, and did nothing more, according to the federal complaint filed when Wright's family filed a $2 million lawsuit against the City of Germantown (the family settled with the city in 2013 for $135,000).
Because the dispatcher waited nine days, Hagerman said, police missed the initial chance to gather bullet casings and the gun they belonged to, which was found tossed in some bushes. Police would have questioned Sherra Wright and possibly found the last text she sent, to Turner, before the crime was committed. They would have also found blood on a barbed wire fence that did not belong to Wright.
But because the City of Germantown failed to do so, Hagerman said, the three conspirators in Wright's death had time to come up with a plan to clean the crime scene and align their stories.
As Wright's body decomposed in the blistering July sun, his three killers also had time to retrieve the murder weapon and drop it into a lake in Walnut, Mississippi, where it would stay for several years while the case grew cold.
Defense points to Billy Ray Turner's life and Jimmie Martin's past in rebuke of murder allegation
Turner's defense attorney, John Perry, also opened with his own version of the same question.
"What does it take to kill a pillar of this community?" Perry asked. "What would it take to kill a seven-foot basketball star?"
The answer to those questions, Perry said, are found in examining motives and evidence that finger Sherra Wright and Martin as Wright's killers, not Turner.
It was Martin, Perry said, who changed facts frequently when talking to investigators. It was Martin who described Turner as Sherra Wright's "secret love interest." And it was Martin who stood to benefit from immunity from prosecution in Wright's death, a permanent, "get out of jail free card."
Turner, Perry argued, was not a straggler with limited means who showed up to cut Sherra Wright's grass. He was instead a business owner, with his own truck and his own equipment. He also owned a motorcycle, another sign of a well-established life.
Turner's criminal history includes a year and a half stint in prison in his early twenties. But, Perry said, he lived his life "straight as an arrow" after his release.
The kind of person needed to orchestrate Wright's murder, Perry said, is the same person who is sitting in prison right now for killing their intimate partner — Martin. The same kind of person who would ask Turner to borrow his car, and in turn set him up.
"It takes a punk's heart, that's sitting in prison right now, for taking a firearm and shooting his fiancé, that he lives with, to death," Perry said.
As Perry continued his attempt to prime Martin as the more likely suspect, he pointed to Martin's information to investigators as automatically suspicious because of the timing — 23 days after being convicted for murder.
And in the time between his initial statements to investigators in 2012 until after the gun was found in 2017, Turner changed the details of his story.
"The state of Tennessee made a big ol' mistake," Perry said, "They gave [Martin] a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. They signed a contract that says no matter what you say... if it changes, if it weaves, if it bobs...there's nothing new we're going to do to you."
Investigators referred to Martin as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in 2018 until a hearing for Sherra Wright, when Martin was named. Perry called the idea of an unindicted co-conspirator a "farce."
Text exchanges mentioning logistics around Wright's murder date occurred between Martin and Sherra Wright, not Tuner, Perry said. When the jury does listen to the testimony of a convicted killer, they will likely see the truth.
"The jury will have to jump over hurdles, consistently, to find Billy Turner guilty," Perry said.
Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal and can be reached at email@example.com.
This story will be updated.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Lorenzen Wright murder trial opening statements from Billy Ray Turner