TARRANT COUNTY (KFDX/KJTL) — The man sentenced to life behind bars for the 2018 murder of Jason Wilder McDaniel is appealing the conviction, claiming two key pieces of the prosecution’s case were obtained unconstitutionally.
James Irven Staley, III, 40, of Wichita Falls, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in March 2023 of capital murder after a Tarrant County jury found him guilty of smothering 2-year-old Jason Wilder McDaniel in October 2018.
Shortly after the verdict was read by presiding Judge Everett Young in the courtroom, Staley’s defense attorneys filed a notice that they intended to appeal the conviction.
After initially being declared “too poor to employ counsel” and several delays, the lead defense counsel for Staley’s appeal filed a brief with the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth on Thursday, November 2, 2023, that laid out the case for why the conviction should be overturned and a new trial should be granted.
Staley retains renowned appeal attorney as lead counsel
Upon being declared indigent, Staley was appointed a defense attorney for his appeal. However, in August 2023, Keith Hampton, a high-profile defense attorney from Austin, appeared on behalf of Staley to inform the court that he had been retained as lead counsel.
Hampton has been at the center of several major appeal cases in Texas throughout his career, including a couple accused of conducting satanic and ritualistic abuse at a daycare center who were later declared innocent of any wrongdoing.
The most noteworthy appeal case Hampton has served as lead counsel for took place in 2019 when a high school football star in Leander named Greg Kelley was fully exonerated after serving four years of a 25-year sentence for the alleged sexual abuse of a four-year-old boy.
The case of Greg Kelley is the focus of a five-part docuseries on Showtime called Outcry.
After being brought on as Staley’s lead defense counsel for his appeal case, Hampton was originally given a due date of August 23, 2023, to file his appellate brief on Staley’s behalf. He would end up requesting three extensions, eventually moving the due date to November 7, 2023.
The brief was filed by Hampton on November 2, 2023, laying out Hampton’s case for why Staley’s conviction should be overturned and a new trial granted.
Appeal asserts search of Mac Mini, phone unconstitutional
In Staley’s appeal brief, Hampton argued that “both the search warrant and its supporting affidavit violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” and because of this, the Second Court of Appeals “should therefore reverse the conviction and remand the case for a new trial.”
The appellate brief said the search and seizure of Staley’s electronic devices, including a Mac Mini, laptop, and cell phone, was “especially intrusive and especially egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause.”
All three devices were found inside Staley’s home during the execution of a search warrant on October 22, 2018, eleven days after Wilder was found dead.
The appellate brief said the detective who filed the affidavit to obtain a search warrant failed to comply with the statutory requirements for searches of phones. It said the affidavit failed to show probable cause for the search and seizure of Staley’s devices, and that because of this, Staley’s personal effects were allowed to be searched “without limitation, particularity, probable cause or any link between the suspected homicide.”
During Staley’s capital murder trial in March 2023, videos taken from the Mac Mini and text messages between Staley and Wilder’s mother, Amber McDaniel, were admitted into evidence and proved to be two of the key pieces of evidence upon which the prosecution built its case.
According to Staley’s brief, the affidavit for the search warrant failed to specify which devices were to be searched and why police had probable cause to search those devices, which caused the affidavit to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the search warrant should never have been issued and the evidence uncovered during the search should not have been admissible during Staley’s trial.
Search warrant the subject of controversy once again
This isn’t the first time the issue of the warrant allowing the Wichita Falls Police Department to search Staley’s Mac Mini, laptop, and cell phone found inside of his home has come up throughout this case.
In December 2022, a few months before Staley’s trial began, defense attorneys Mark Daniel and Teri Moore filed a motion to suppress the search warrant that led to the search and seizure of Staley’s Mac Mini, laptop, and cell phone, calling into question the validity of the warrant.
After a hearing on January 13, 2023, Judge Young denied the suppression motions filed by the defense, allowing the evidence obtained from the devices to be admitted during Staley’s trial. This evidence would prove to be vital to the prosecution’s case against Staley.
Following the testimony of Dr. Suzanne Dakil on the ninth day of Staley’s trial, before the state rested its case, Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie requested Judge Young to supplement the ruling of the suppression hearing held in January 2023.
Judge Young said he thought they were months past the issue of the warrant, and Staley’s defense team argued that the cat was already out of the bag, and now Gillespie was asking Judge Young to expand his ruling.
Ultimately, Judge Young denied adding the supplement to his ruling, stating the findings of the January 2023 hearing were sufficient.
Appeal asserts affidavit for warrant was ‘bare bones’
In Staley’s appellate brief, the defense said the WFPD detective who filed the affidavit to obtain the search warrant “nowhere mentions any particular computer, laptop or cellphone, nor does he state probable cause to believe any specific computer, laptop or cell phone would contain evidence of the homicide.”
The brief said the affidavit is characterized in law as “bare bones,” claiming the WFPD detective declared “nothing more than his belief that homes contain computers.” Further, the appellate brief said the affidavit “went well beyond the scope of the seizure and search of these specific items.”
According to the brief filed by Hampton, the language in the affidavit “is mere stock boilerplate, which is invariably insufficient to meet the particularity and probable cause demands of the Fourth Amendment,” describing the affidavit as “cut and paste” and saying it is the worst possible practice.
The appellate brief cited several laws established in previous cases, particularly referencing United States v Mann (2010), which said that searches involving digital media must “exercise caution to ensure that warrants describe with particularity the things to be seized and that searches are narrowly tailored to uncover only those things described.”
Brief calls warrant ‘fishing license for rummaging’
The appellate brief contended that the search warrant issued from an affidavit in violation of the Fourth Amendment allowed “the police to search any and all stuff that was computer-related, a fishing license for rummaging on a scale the authors of the Fourth Amendment could never have conceived.”
According to the brief, the search warrant “gave exactly the sort of judicially unconstrained searches the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent,” it was a license for the police to forage all of Staley’s unidentified electronic devices.
The appellate brief continued to drive this point home, stating the WFPD detective “literally never asserted any belief, suspicion or conclusion that he suspected or believed anything in particular about any of the devices.”
According to the appellate brief, the prosecution’s arguments were “performative” when the defense’s motion to suppress the warrant was heard before the beginning of Staley’s trial.
The appellate brief accused the prosecution of “cherry picking” information contained within the affidavit and that with that information, they “came up with” reasons for Judge Young not to grant the defense’s motion.
The appellate brief claimed that “the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause was violated in all the ways that it can be” and that “word for word, the warrant was a rubberstamped general warrant.”
Brief calls evidence ‘fruits of the poisonous tree’
According to the appellate brief, “while the police fishing expedition ultimately revealed useful damning evidence, that evidence does not save the failure to comply” with the Fourth Amendment or statutes in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
The brief does not dispute the fact that “clearly incriminating evidence” was found on Staley’s Mac Mini and cell phone, but rather that the evidence “does nothing to support the search warrant in this case.”
According to the brief, the evidence admitted in Staley’s trial as a result of the search warrant, which arguably played the most important role in securing his conviction for Wilder’s murder, were “fruits of the poisonous tree” because they were the “direct result of illegal seizures and searches.”
The appeal brief said that evidence obtained from illegal searches is inadmissible, therefore, it was wrongfully admitted into evidence during the trial of Staley, and therefore, the Second Court of Appeals should reverse the conviction.
What’s next in the appeal process?
As of the publication of this story, Staley remains behind bars in the Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo as he awaits the eventual ruling from the Second Court of Appeals.
Now, the prosecution is expected to file its response to Staley’s appellate brief on or before December 4, 2023, the due date given to them by the Second Court of Appeals.
No hearing dates have been set in Staley’s appellate case as of the publication of this story.
This is a developing story. Stick with Texoma’s Homepage for updates as more information becomes available.