Grimes County prosecutors dismissed a murder charge Tuesday against a man accused of killing Navasota community leader Lonnie Turner Sr. to pursue a more serious charge of capital murder.
James David White, 21, is accused in the Nov. 1, 2002, execution-style shooting of Turner Sr. A grand jury indicted him on the upgraded charge last week, according to court documents.
A mistrial was declared during White’s murder trial last October when jurors deadlocked 6-6 on whether to convict him of killing the Jones Funeral Home owner.
White claimed during the trial that Lonnie Turner Jr., the victim’s son, put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him if he didn’t shoot the father inside his Navasota home.
District Attorney Tuck McLain dropped the lesser murder charge Tuesday moments before jury selection for White’s second trial was to begin at the Grimes County Courthouse in Anderson.
Prosecutors likely will try White for capital murder sometime next year, McLain said.
Murder is punishable by up to life in prison, while capital murder carries the possibility of the death penalty. But McLain said he will not seek the death penalty against White.
The charge was upgraded to capital murder because White is accused of killing Turner during a burglary or robbery, according to the indictment.
McLain presented witnesses and cell phone records during the first trial in an attempt to show Turner Jr. could not have been with White on the night of the murder.
But Turner Jr.’s whereabouts could not be corroborated during a 20-minute period when the murder occurred. McLain said he could not discuss whether the prosecution has new evidence to introduce at a second trial.
District Judge Ken Keeling has issued a gag order that prevents McLain and White defense attorney David Barron from discussing the facts of the case with the media.
Barron said Tuesday he believes the dismissal of the lesser murder charge was a ploy by McLain to get a continuance so he can strengthen the prosecution’s case.
“I question his tactics,” Barron said. “This latest delay on the part of the state — I think my client has been denied a speedy trial because of it. It’s not the judge’s fault, it’s the prosecutor’s.”
White has remained at the county jail in Anderson since he was arrested for the murder in April 2003. He also faces two unrelated burglary charges and an aggravated robbery charge.
McLain said the dismissal was not an attempt to buy time and that he would have been willing to proceed with the capital murder case Tuesday had the judge allowed.
Keeling will have to rule on a change-of-venue motion filed recently by McLain before the trial can begin. The judge will schedule a pretrial hearing on the motion — which asks for the case to be heard outside Grimes County — for December, McLain said.
McLain said after last year’s mistrial that he would not seek to move a second trial. But extensive media coverage has made it difficult to find an impartial jury in Grimes County, he said Tuesday.
The prominence of those involved also has left a mark on the jury pool, McLain said. The case involves two of the most politically powerful members of Navasota’s black community.
Turner Sr. served as a member of the Navasota school board for 15 years before his death. Those who knew him also have characterized him as a behind-the-scenes financial supporter of community organizations.
White’s father, James Harris, owner of Harris Tire, has served as a justice of the peace and recently said he will run for Precinct 3 county commissioner Nov. 2 as a write-in candidate. Harris declined to comment Tuesday on the case.
McLain said that if the trial isn’t held in Anderson, it most likely will be moved to Walker or Madison county. Barron said he is still considering whether he will fight the change-of-venue motion.