The Packet

He was 24 at the time and says he was trying to fit in with others in a new town. His attorneys say he has mental issues that might make those peer pressures more severe.

Prosecutors say he was with a group of men coming to Mississippi from Reform, Ala. to “hit-a-lick” — burglarize and rob folks in a home of whatever they could get.

An all-white jury brought in from Marshall County began hearing testimony Wednesday in a case that could decide whether Joshua Taylor, who is now 29, is guilty of capital murder. If he is found guilty of that crime, the jury will hear additional evidence before sentencing him to either life in prison or the death penalty.

If the jury decides on something besides capital murder, the jury — 12 jurors and two alternates — could pick lesser-included offenses ranging from first- or second-degree murder to manslaughter.

Taylor is among five people charged in the death of 19-year-old William Stallings, who was shot in the back of the head as he slept on a couch in a trailer on Harrison Road in New Hope in eastern Lowndes County.

The others are Cameron “CJ” Merriweather, who also is charged with capital murder, and Brandon Brown, 31, Johnny Brock Jr., 28, and Richard Lee, 25, who all are charged with accessory after the fact of capital murder.

The group is accused of driving to Stallings’ home in Taylor’s Crown Victoria on May 20, 2011, kicking in the door and ransacking the place while Stallings’ mother screamed at them to stop.

Merriweather is accused of firing one shot from a .380 caliber handgun into a wall before giving the gun to Taylor, who then went down a hallway to the room where Stallings was asleep.

Originally, three other people were arrested after Lowndes County investigators said they received false information from a woman who was angry at a man and linked him and his friends to the slaying. Once investigators quickly cleared up that false information, they further pursued evidence and tips that led them to the West Alabama suspects.

Wednesday’s opening witnesses included Lowndes County sheriff’s deputies who investigated the case.

When first questioned by Lowndes detectives, Taylor initially denied any involvement. But once he was charged and brought to Lowndes County, his story slowly began to change, according to testimony from Investigator Eli Perrigin.

At the time of his arrest four days after the shooting, Taylor initially said he was busy trying to steal a flat-screen TV while one of the other four — he didn’t know which one — fired the fatal shot.

After almost 90 minutes of interviews in Lowndes County by Perrigin and Tony Perkins, Taylor finally confessed to firing a shot in an effort to wake Stallings to find out where more valuables were hidden.

Other members of the group, and Taylor’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, also had implicated him during interviews.

The jury listened to the audio and video of the interview Wednesday afternoon. Near the end of the session, Taylor tearfully broke down and related the shooting.

It came after Perkins told him, “You don’t seem like a cold-blooded killer to me.”

The gun never was recovered although deputies searched a wooded area near Taylor’s apartment in Reform where he said he’d tossed it. Shell casings were found inside the trailer. Fingerprints on those casings match some of the suspects.

The trial is expected to last at least until Friday and possibly Saturday. Depending on witnesses, it could go into next week. The jury must first decide the capital murder issue and if it finds Taylor guilty of that, it then must decide between life in prison or the death penalty.

Lowndes County Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens has said he will extend court to 6 p.m. some nights to try to get the case completed by the weekend.

Kitchens granted a change of venue because of extensive publicity surrounding the case at the time of the shooting. Marshall County, located in Northwest Mississippi just outside of Memphis, was chosen to pick a jury because its racial makeup and demographics are similar to Lowndes County.

Taylor’s attorneys, Lowndes County Public Defender Donna Smith and her co-counsel, Bill Stennett of Tupelo, and District Attorney Scott Colom and Assistant District Attorney Armstrong Walters spent all day Monday and part of Tuesday interviewing potential jurors before the 14 members were selected.

Despite a 50 percent black population in Marshall County, the jury ended up all white because many of the black potential jurors were disallowed by Kitchens because they said they couldn’t impose the death penalty.