Victim testifies at trial despite head injury
A Jones County jury found a local man guilty on all counts in a case that was fortunate not to have been a murder trial.
The jury was out a few minutes less than an hour March 1 before finding James Mark Slater guilty of two counts of aggravated assault and both counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
He received a sentence of 20 years each for the aggravated assault counts and five years each for the two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. The aggravated assault sentences were ordered to run concurrently, and the possession of firearm charges are to run consecutively for a total of 30 years to serve.
Slater was arrested Feb. 12, 2021, following a shooting that put the victim in the hospital for 10 days. The man who was shot in the head by Slater was able to take the witness stand in the trial to tell what led up to the shooting.
The witness showed the visible scar on the top of his head and testified that he continues to suffer the effects of the shotgun blast.
Slater was represented at the trial by defense attorney Tim Lam. Assistant District Attorney Cara Fiore was the lead prosecutor in the case assisted by Assistant District Attorney Macelyn Williams.
Superior Court Judge Terry Massey presided over the case.
Williams gave the opening statement for the state.
The first witness was Aaron Smith. He testified that he lived in Jones County at the time of the shooting, and Slater was his former boss. Smith said Slater accused him of stealing tools and an army bag from him.
The witness said he had borrowed the bag and had one of Slater’s tools that he fully intended on returning. He went on to say the defendant was aware that he had borrowed the bag to transport his tools.
Smith said he saw Slater’s van at the victim’s house and went inside to talk to the defendant.
The witness’s version of what happened next was Slater greeted him with a shotgun pointed at his head.
“I knew he was going to shoot,” Smith said.
A struggle over the gun took place. He said the victim came outside yelling at Slater to put the gun down, and the defendant fired the gun. Smith said he thought the shotgun was pointed up, but that was not the case.
“I don’t think he intended to shoot him,” the witness said. “I think he shot to get me to let go of the barrel.”
Smith became emotional when describing seeing the victim fall to the ground. He said he did not realize the victim was shot until he saw all the blood. The witness said he yelled for his girlfriend, who was waiting for him in her car, to bring the car around and call 911.
Smith said he got towels to try to stop the bleeding, and they headed for the fire station.
“I didn’t think the paramedics would make it to him in time,” he said.
The witness said the firefighters at the station started helping the victim as soon as they pulled up.
Fiore asked Smith if he brought a gun to the victim’s house, and he said no.
The 911 call made by the witness was played for the jury. The call was made on the way to the fire station because of poor cell service at the scene of the shooting.
“I knew if I let go of the gun, he would have shot me,” Smith said, with his head in his hands.
Lam cross-examined the witness asked about his frame of mind when meeting Slater at the victim’s house. He also questioned Smith about carrying a gun with him. The witness said he never carried a gun to the worksite and did not have one with him that day.
The victim was the next witness. He testified that Slater had the shotgun with him when he showed up at his house. The witness said Slater told him he was going to break Smith from stealing his tools.
“He had a shotgun; I took it he was going to shoot him,” the victim said.
The witness said, when Slater heard Smith outside, he went out of the door.
“I heard Aaron say something about the gun being pointed at him, and I went outside. I heard the gun go off, then I felt it,” he said.
The victim described Slater’s gun as a single shot, 12-gauge shotgun. He said that was the only weapon he saw.
Tiffany Hartley, who was Smith’s girlfriend at the time, took the witness stand and corroborated Smith’s and the victim’s testimony. She also said Slater’s girlfriend was a relative.
Harley said she and Smith were no longer together, and she had not seen him in about a year.
The witness said she also worked for Slater, and he was sending her texts and messages on Facebook the day of the shooting, accusing Smith of stealing his tools and army bag.
The text messages were read in court, and the audio messages were played.
“Don’t take him to the worksite; he’ll be shot,” one of the messages stated.
Harley said she let Smith out of the car at the victim’s house after they saw Slater’s van. She said she heard a gunshot a few minutes later, and then she saw Slater come around the house with a gun in his hand.
The witness said she heard Smith yelling that the victim had been shot. He helped him get in her car so they could take him to the fire station.
Lam asked Hartley if she ever saw Smith with a gun, and she said no.
Lt. Wesley Ransom with the Jones County Sheriff’s Office testified to meeting the victim, Smith and Hartley at the fire station and then going to the scene of the shooting. He said the victim was transported by ambulance to the hospital.
The final witness for the state was JCSO Investigator Lt. Kenny Gleaton, who was the lead investigator in the case. Gleaton said he responded to the scene after hearing the call on the radio. He said the building was surrounded and scene secured.
The investigator said no one was inside the building or on the property. He said, when Ransom arrived with Smith and Hartley, he asked what had happened. Gleaton said they provided the name of Slater as the shooter, and a lookout was issued for his van.
He said Slater was found in Monroe County and taken into custody an hour and 20 minutes later.
Pictures of the scene were displayed for the jury during the investigator’s testimony. Perhaps the most disturbing of which was a picture of the doorframe with a hole and remnants of the shotgun blast that included locks of human hair among the pellets.
Gleaton said the pellets from the blast were stainless steel, not lead. He said a warrant was secured for Slater’s van, and five shotgun shells filled with stainless steel pellets were found in a drawer under the driver’s seat.
Lam asked if the victim’s house was searched, and Gleaton said it was. He said the search was primarily looking for the shotgun, but it was not found. To date, the shotgun has not been recovered.
The state rested, and the defense started its case after lunch. Slater was the only witness.
The defendant’s version of the shooting differed from the other three witnesses who had been present when it took place.
Slater said Smith took the army bag he had ordered online. He said he did not let anyone use the bag. The defendant also said, in addition to stealing his tools, Smith took the shotgun that belonged to his girlfriend, who he called his wife.
He gave a long, winding account of when and how he thought Smith had stolen the shotgun. Slater portrayed Smith as a ‘ninja wanna-be’ dressing in black and routinely carrying firearms.
The defendant said he was not irate with Smith; he was disappointed. The witness said the victim was in his bed doing drugs when he arrived, and it was Smith who came to the house with a gun and pointed it at him.
Slater said he was there because he had rented a warehouse from the victim and made it sound like that made it his property, although he admitted nothing had been finalized.
It was the defendant’s contention that Smith was the one who shot the gun. He also said it was his idea for Smith and Hartley to take the victim to the hospital. Slater said he went in the other direction because he thought they would take the victim to the hospital in Forsyth.
Slater did admit when he was stopped by the Monroe County officer, he had a good idea why.
The jury actually found Slater guilty of an additional count that appeared on the verdict form in error. That was the count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, which had been planned to be a separate proceeding.
Massey postponed the sentencing until March 3 to allow the state and defense to research the issue. Lam moved for a mistrial when the error was discovered, but the judge denied the motion. The fact that Slater was a convicted felon was mentioned during his testimony and was brought up by Lam in his closing argument, prior to the jury’s deliberation.
At the March 3 sentencing hearing, Fiore announced that the state and defense had come to an agreement. She said the state vacated the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon charge.
The prosecutor went on to say the state agreed not to charge Slater as a recidivist, which would mean he would serve every day of the sentence. In return for the possibility of parole, the defendant would waive his right to appeal the verdict.
After questioning Slater to make sure he understood the negotiated agreement and was entering into it freely and voluntarily, the judge signed the order.