WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Justice was finally served for 2-year-old Wilder McDaniel on Monday, March 13, 2023, when James Irven Staley, III, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie has been asked many questions since coming home from prosecuting the case in Fort Worth, perhaps none more than why he didn’t seek the death penalty sentence for Staley.
A defendant convicted of capital murder will be sentenced to either life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Those are the only options for punishment.
However, Gillespie took the death penalty off the table in 2021 when a motion was filed informing Staley’s defense team that the prosecution wouldn’t seek that punishment.
“It’s my decision to make,” Gillespie said. “I made it after consulting the family.”
The topic of the death penalty is often polarizing both politically and socially, but Gillespie’s stance isn’t why he sought an alternative sentence for Staley.
“I do believe in the death penalty,” Gillespie said. “But, I also wanted to be smart about how we went about this prosecution.”
Gillespie said the case against Staley, while it was clearly compelling enough to convince a jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, lacked a critical element needed to warrant a death sentence; a single piece of evidence so strong, it makes his guilt virtually irrefutable.
“In this day and age, you do not want to seek death unless you have what they call a lay-down at guilt-innocence,” Gillespie said. “We did not have a confession, we did not have an eye witness.”
During an interview between Gillespie and digital reporter Josh Hoggard on Thursday, Gillespie said the case against Staley was built on many compelling pieces of circumstantial evidence.
Although it is widely believed that circumstantial evidence cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Gillespie said that’s actually a misrepresentation of the truth. According to Gillespie, direct evidence is either an eyewitness testimony or a confession. Everything else, from DNA and forensic evidence to the relationship between the victim and the defendant, is considered circumstantial evidence.
Despite what its name might imply, circumstantial evidence is defined as evidence pertaining to the circumstances of the crime committed. A common misunderstanding of circumstantial evidence is that it has less validity than direct evidence.
Gillespie explained that although direct evidence and circumstantial evidence hold the same weight under Texas law, a majority of false convictions that occur are a result of bad eyewitness testimony.
According to Gillespie, each piece of circumstantial evidence is akin to a piece of a puzzle. One piece of the puzzle can’t stand by itself, but when every piece is put together, a clear picture is created.
“The fact that it was a circumstantial evidence case went into my thinking on whether or not to seek death,” Gillespie said.
Another issue Gillespie says he wanted to avoid altogether was turning the already highly publicized case into a way for Staley to become a celebrity.
“The Kardashians and everybody else lined up saying he’s falsely accused, that’s what they do with death penalty cases,” Gillespie said. “The last thing I wanted to do would be to turn that psychopath into a martyr.”
Gillespie said the circumstantial evidence created a picture of a person who was above the law due to his family’s wealth.
“He said in one of the text messages that I used in closing arguments that he makes his own rules and no one can tell him what to do,” Gillespie said.
According to Gillespie, forcing Staley to live every single day behind the bars of a prison cell with no freedom and no escape for the rest of his natural life would be a sentence worse than death.
“Frankly, with a guy that has been in charge of everything that’s called the shots, living in a cell like the animal that he is for the rest of his life, being told by other people what to do… I think that’s probably the worst thing that could happen to him,” Gillespie said.
Stick with Texoma’s Homepage for more from Wichita County District Attorney John Gillespie regarding the capital murder trial of James Irven Staley, III.