TARRANT COUNTY (KFDX/KJTL) — More than four years after the tragic death of 2-year-old Jason Wilder McDaniel, the trial of the man accused of his murder began on Monday in Tarrant County.
Testimony got underway in the capital murder trial of James Irven Staley, III, on Monday, February 27, 2023, in Auxillary Trial Room A on the eighth floor of the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center, located in the heart of Downtown Fort Worth.
Around 50 men and women were present in the gallery for the first day of trial proceedings, excluding the attorneys, judge, and jury.
Motions prior to opening statements
Several motions were discussed outside of the presence of the jury to begin proceedings on Monday morning, the first of which involved the State admitting items into evidence.
The defense team for Staley then made a motion that they wished to object to several of the named jurors being selected. Presiding Judge Everett Young noted how untimely that objection was. Defense attorney Mark Daniel then requested to object to four jurors, then three, then two, and finally, one, all of which Judge Young denied.
Finally, a motion in limine was filed by the defense on February 21, 2023, to exclude forensic analysis and opinions stated by witnesses that aren’t qualified to do so.
The defense contends several witnesses will seek to offer evidence and opinions that they are not qualified to offer, and those witnesses who are not licensed by the Texas Forensic Science Commission are by law prohibited from offering such opinions. The defense said this includes law enforcement officials testifying in regard to results of “presumptive tests” conducted at the scene of an alleged crime.
The State mentioned that this statute does not apply to Crime Scene Reconstructionists, which the defense referred to as “trash science.” The State said they do not expect their witnesses to go beyond their ability to answer question, and Judge Young granted the motion.
The jury is sworn in by Judge Everett Young
The jury of seven women and five men was sworn in by Judge Young just after 10 a.m. on Monday morning. He then instructed the jury to avoid reading any media reports on the trial, in an effort for them to maintain their impartiality.
The jury was selected on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Two alternates were also selected during the voir dire on Thursday and Friday.
Staley tells the jury he’s innocent
Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie, on behalf of the State of Texas, began by reading the indictment to the jury of the charges against Staley, the first of which is the charge of capital murder.
“Members of the jury, I am not guilty,” Staley said when asked to enter his plea to the charge of capital murder.
Staley then reiterated his innocence after Gillespie read the second count of the indictment, of felony murder. “Jury members, I am not guilty,” Staley said to the men and women of the jury.
The State presents its opening statement
Prosecutor Lisa Tanner, on behalf of the State of Texas, began her opening statements by reading word-for-word some of the text messages sent by Staley regarding Wilder McDaniel, including many that referred to the child using explicit language.
“He [Wilder] should’ve been, this past Saturday, celebrating his seventh birthday,” Tanner said to the jury.
The State went on to describe the nature of Wilder’s birth, and how Amber and her now husband Bubba McDaniel were not married at the time and had not planned to have a child. Then the State informed the jury, “You’re probably not going to like Amber that much.”
The State then explained Staley’s background and the amount of wealth his family has due to his grandfather, James Irven Staley, and his role in the Burkburnett oil boom. “He was born on third [base] and lived like he hit a triple,” Tanner said.
Tanner then went into detail about how Staley and Amber McDaniel came to be in a romantic relationship, then laid out a timeline for how their relationship developed and noted that it was short and intense, beginning in the summer of 2018. She also noted that over that short time, from July 24, 2018, to October 10, 2018, there were 9,751 text messages between the two.
Tanner said Amber McDaniel has some blame in this case due to the red flags she ignored but said her time is coming when she’ll have to face a jury for her role, and that she will be testifying in this case with no plea deal on the table for the charges currently pending against her.
The State then informed the jury of some of the evidence they plan to present, including several of those text messages, forensic analysis of the crime scene, and evidence found on a Mac Mini seized during a search warrant conducted on Oct. 22, 2018.
One piece of evidence in particular that Tanner mentioned to the jury they’d be viewing is a video found on Staley’s computer of Staley abusing Wilder, then hiding from him. She then apologized to the jury for the fact that they’d be watching said video at some point during proceedings.
Tanner said the video does not prove Staley killed Wilder in 2018, but she said it does reveal the heart behind some of the derogatory comments he made about the child, and showed his extreme dislike of the child.
The State concluded by referencing a phrase Wilder would often mutter, “No James”, and said Wilder was trying to tell people what was happening, but nobody listened, and she urged the jury to listen to Wilder now.
Staley’s defense team counters
During the opening statements presented by Staley’s defense team, attorney Mark Daniel said the State would have a great argument if it were at all accurate, alleging that the State basically chose experts based on them giving the opinions they wanted.
Daniel went on to say that things were apparently great between Wilder and Staley and that he would often take Wilder and his four-year-old daughter to the park and buy them new toys often.
The defense then said Staley was a person with a foul mouth and a dark sense of humor who has said and done some very stupid things, and the State is going to use those facts about him to cause the jury to dislike Staley, so they disregard the need for evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict him.
Daniel then told the jury about inconsistencies with Amber McDaniel’s statements given to police during interviews, while also making a note that a child of Wilder’s size was too big to be in a crib according to the American Pediatric Association.
The defense also alleged inconsistencies with the State’s opening statements regarding the testimonies of certain officers with the WFPD regarding Staley’s level of cooperation with law enforcement in the days and weeks that followed Wilder’s death, alleging he in fact was cooperative with law enforcement, and even gave consent to search after Wilder was discovered to be deceased.
Daniel concluded his opening statements by urging the jury to find Staley not guilty and “put an end to this incredible nightmare.”
Witnesses called to testify
After the court was dismissed to recess for a lunch break, the State called its first witness, the grandfather of Wilder McDaniel and father of Amber McDaniel, who testified of times he heard his grandson say the phrase, “No James”, and recalled when he and Amber picked Wilder up from daycare early the day before Wilder died.
Wilder’s grandfather testified that the last words he heard his grandson speak before his death were the words, “No, James.”
The State then called an EMT who was working for AMR in 2018 and responded to the scene where Wilder was found dead. The witness noted how Amber’s reaction to finding Wilder dead in the home was marked by screaming, hysteria, and by Amber repeating, “my baby’s dead.”
The witness then testified that Staley seemed unphased and was standing with his arms on the top of the doorway when paramedics arrived at the scene.
“I never saw him comfort her,” the witness said on the stand. “He was very standoffish.”
The State then called two officers with the Wichita Falls Police Department who responded to the scene on Oct. 11, 2018, who both noted Staley’s reaction and the fact that he was not comforting Amber as she grieved the loss of her child.
One WFPD officer later testified that he saw Staley gripping the back of the couch and eventually heard him begin to dry heave and observed him breathing into a plastic bag.
The defense responded to all three accounts of Staley’s reaction to the discovery of Wilder’s body, noting that not everyone handles tragedy in the same way.
The final witness to take the stand on Monday afternoon was a crime scene technician with the Wichita Falls Police Department, who took over 1,300 photographs of the scene, over 50 of which were shown to the court.
Several of those photos were of various rooms within Staley’s residence on Irving Place in Wichita Falls, but the final 10 images shown to the court were photos of Wilder’s body, which drew tears from several members of the gallery and brought at least one juror to tears as well.
The photos showed Wilder’s body in a state of decomposition and discoloration, with rigor mortis already setting in.
Proceedings are set to resume on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, at 9 a.m.
This is a developing story. Stick with Texoma’s Homepage for updates as the capital murder trial of James Staley in connection to Wilder McDaniel’s death takes place at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center in Fort Worth, Texas.