Jonathan Woods did not take the stand during the sentencing phase of his capital murder trial. Had he done so, 10th Judicial District Prosecutor Thomas Deen planned to use jail telephone recordings to impeach him.
In phone calls recorded after his Wednesday afternoon conviction in Drew County, but prior to his Thursday afternoon sentencing, the 32-year-old Warren man referred to the woman he fatally shot as “ole girl” and said, apparently in jest, that he would be a “kingpin” when he gets to prison.
When Woods made those remarks he was facing a possible death sentence for the March 14, 2014 kidnapping and shooting death in Monticello of Samantha Poole, the 30-year-old Cleveland County woman he said he loved.
In his opening statement Tuesday afternoon, Woods’ defense attorney, Bob Depper of El Dorado, told a Drew County jury that there was no question that his client killed his “on-again, off-again” girlfriend Samantha Poole.
“The question will not be ‘did he shoot her,’ the question will be ‘how did it come about,'” Depper said.
Depper said Woods knows that he shot Poole, not because he has a recollection of it, but because no other person could have done it.
Woods, the only witness Depper would call to testify during the guilt phase of the trial, testified Wednesday that he had “snorted” meth the day of the murder and blacked out during the crimes. Describing the events that led to the kidnapping and shooting, Woods testified that he and Poole drove from Cleveland County to Bradley County, where he got into an altercation with three Mexicans, punching one and putting the man in the hospital. After the altercation, he said, he got his gun and drove to Monticello with Poole. While in Monticello, he said, Poole broke his cell phone and he became angry. He testified that he remembers pulling into the Save A Lot grocery store parking lot in Monticello, but doesn’t remember anything else until he was shot by a police officer.
On cross-examination, Deen questioned Woods about his prior treatment of Poole, his inconsistent statements after the shooting, his alleged “blackout”, and his drug use.
“Have you ever heard of anybody (doing meth) having a blackout then shooting their girlfriend four or five times in the back?” Deen said, calling Woods’ alleged blackout a “convenient excuse.”
What Woods claimed to not remember was witnessed by shoppers at the grocery store and recorded on the store’s surveillance camera, police car cameras, and 911 calls. Through those recordings and eyewitness testimony, jurors would see and hear it too.
One eyewitness testified that she and her husband were at the grocery store on the night of March 14, 2014 when she saw a man (later identified as Jonathan Woods) pulling a screaming woman (later identified as Samantha Poole) by the hair. Poole, who had a bruised face, was screaming “Help me!” as Woods dragged her out of the store.
The witness called 911 and followed her husband outside where her husband was trying to get Woods to release Poole. Poole was screaming “He’s going to kill me!” as Woods forced her at gunpoint into the driver’s seat of a car. The witness heard a gunshot. The gunshot, as well as Poole’s screams could be heard on the 911 recording.
Meanwhile, police were dispatched to the store, just a short distance from the police station. As police arrived, the car started to pull away and James Slaughter, then a deputy with the Drew County Sheriff’s Office, pulled in front of the car and blocked the road while a Monticello police car blocked it from the rear. The video from Slaughter’s police car, which had no audio, showed Woods shooting Poole. Slaughter testified that Woods shot Poole at least four times before he shot and wounded Woods.
Poole had gunshot wounds in her back, arm, leg and side. By the time the ambulance arrived, Poole was not breathing and had no pulse. She was given an IV with fluids and transported to the hospital, but could not be resuscitated.
In his closing arguments Wednesday during the guilt phase of the Woods’ trial, 10th Judicial District Chief Deputy Prosecutor Frank Spain methodically reviewed the charges against Woods, explaining and illustrating how the state had proven its case.
Bob Depper, Woods’ defense attorney, argued for a second-degree murder conviction, saying the state incorrectly interpreted the evidence. He suggested that Woods is not guilty of kidnapping because Poole had the opportunity to escape when he walked around the car–after forcing Poole into the driver’s seat–to get into the passenger seat. He also suggested that Woods was not trying to kill Poole, that they were moving toward each other inside the car and the gun discharged.
Deen wrapped up the state’s closing arguments.
“Sometimes in the very place in which we reserve for our society to find the truth, I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” Deen said, “I feel like after listening to this imaginary, fanciful recitation that I just heard, that this is upside-down world; that what is right is wrong.”
Deen maintained that the defense’s case is fiction, full of red herrings and paper tigers.
“The state can’t afford to live in this fictional world that you find defendants residing in,” Deen said.
Deen dismissed Woods’ claim that he had a blackout “that miraculously began when the crime was committed and ended at the moment he got shot.”
“He knew what he was doing,” Deen said, asking the jury to find Woods guilty of kidnapping and capital murder “because he is guilty of those offenses.”
The jury began their deliberations at 3:15 Wednesday afternoon and returned from the jury room at 4 p.m. finding Woods guilty of kidnapping and capital murder.
Circuit Judge Sam Pope dismissed the jury for the night and the trial resumed on Thursday morning for the trial’s sentencing phase when the jury heard testimony from Poole’s mother and Woods’ mother, father and brother.
Reading from a statement she prepared for the jury, Poole’s mother, Terry Bearden said the family’s deepest wounds are re-opened every time Poole’s 7-year-old daughter, Kamryn, cries out for her mother.
“Every now and then she asks why Jonathan killed her mama, forcing us to ponder once again how to explain that the person who once professed love for her and her mother, took her mother from her,” Bearden said.
Because Karmyn has a mild learning disability with autistic features, understanding abstract ideas are more difficult for her than for many children. “She struggles to grasp ideas of having an afterlife, but tries to take some comfort in waiting for God to bring her mama back as she has come to understand our explanations,” Bearden said.
Karmyn is now attending a school in Little Rock better equipped to help her reach her full potential. “She’s making great progress, jumping over barriers every day, every week, and every month, and she asks me to take pictures of her school awards and events so she can show them to her mama when she comes back,” Bearden said, reading her statement to the jury.
Bearden also spoke of the grief and hatred she now lives with as a result of her daughter’s murder. “I try very hard to set aside the hatred that I feel,” she said. “I hope one day to be able to more fully accept what’s happened and to be able to move to some level of forgiveness, but I don’t mind sharing, at all, that I’m not there yet — nowhere near there.”
Bearden said she prays daily for those who witnessed her daughter’s murder. “Forever they will remember that night,” Bearden said. “Where is their measure of justice? Where is their peace of mind? How do we return their lives to some semblance of normalcy? What about the law enforcement officer who had to shoot him? What about our emergency responders who had to try desperately to save my daughter after she was already gone? They also have to live with the memory of this brutal, senseless murder. They are in my prayers as well.”
After Bearden concluded her statement and thanked the jurors for their service, Depper asked her about her comment regarding her wish to someday move to some level of forgiveness. “Is that correct?” he asked.
“As a Christian, I think that would be good for my soul,” she said. “However, I’m willing to face my maker with the hatred on my soul.”
Woods’ mother, father and brother also testified.
Woods’ mother identified photos of Woods at different ages, including one at church. She testified that her son visited her every day and attended church with her almost every Sunday. “He was raised up in the church,” she said.
Woods has been married once and has four children ranging in age from three to 14. Three of those children live in Warren and another lives in Arizona.
“My son is not a bad person,” she said. “He just got to hanging around with the wrong people.”
She said she had never seen Woods and Poole fighting, but knew they had “disagreements.”
Asked how she knew they had disagreements, Woods’ mother said had been at her son’s home following one of those disagreements. She said that she tried to get Poole to allow her to take her home because Poole and her son seemed to be arguing all the time. “I told her, ‘Samantha, please let me take you home because this ain’t gettin’ no better; seems like y’all arguing all the time (inaudible), and she says, ‘I don’t want to go home because I love him.'”
Woods’ father, James Woods, Sr. characterized his son and Poole’s relationship as “up and down” while Woods’ older brother, James Woods, Jr., characterized the relationship as sometimes volatile.
“I knew they loved each other, but they were volatile sometimes,” Woods, Jr. said. “They got along, but you’d see them fussing and fighting in the morning and that evening, they were back the same. Did I understand it? No. But it seemed to work for them.”
Woods, Jr. said his brother and Poole stayed together despite his parents attempts to separate them. “Whatever they had, it seemed to work for them,” he said.
Jonathan Woods did not testify during the sentencing phase of the trial, but Deen said he had planned to use telephone recordings from the jail to impeach him.
At the bench when the jury was not in the courtroom, Deen disclosed to Judge Pope and Depper that he had learned of phone calls Woods had made from the jail. In those calls, Woods referred to Poole as “ole girl” and said, apparently in jest, that he’d be a “kingpin” when he got to prison.
“I disclosed it to opposing counsel to give him the opportunity to listen to the recordings and let him know that I would use the tapes to impeach (Woods) if he testified,” Deen said.
After Poole’s mother and Woods’ family members testified, Pope gave the jury its instructions. In those instructions, Pope outlined the aggravating and mitigating factors the jurors could consider in their sentencing deliberations.
The two aggravating factors the jury could consider were whether Woods knowingly created a grave risk of death for one or more persons in addition to the victim and whether the crime was committed in an especially cruel manner.
The mitigating factors the jury could consider were whether Woods, during the crimes, was under extreme mental or emotional disturbance; under unusual pressure or influences or under the domination of another person; impaired as a result of mental disease or defect, intoxication or drug abuse; his youth; and his lack of significant prior criminal activity.
Deen believed the special aggravating factors called for the death penalty.
“It’s a rare case and it ought to be a rare case,” Deen said, referring to the death penalty. “In the state’s view, this is that rare case.”
Depper, in his closing argument, asked the jury to exercise Christian forgiveness.
While acknowledging that individuals should strive to forgive, Deen said the argument that the jurors, as individuals, would violate Christian tenets if they didn’t exercise Christian forgiveness doesn’t hold water because, as jurors, they are acting as agents of the state and the state is not in the forgiveness business.
About two hours later, after weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors of the crimes, the jury returned a 40-year prison sentence for the kidnapping and life without parole for the murder.