SLAYING A CRIME OF PASSION, JURY TOLD

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 19 1988 12:00 a.m. MDT

Janie Heller-Tolbert called her husband a "nigger" the morning of May 5, 1987 - told him he would amount to nothing, blamed him for ruining her life and then slapped him in the face, a defense attorney told a 3rd District jury Wednesday morning.

"At that point, he lost control," said Kerry Eagan, attorney for James William Tolbert III.Tolbert is charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of his wife, a West High School teacher.

"He slapped her in the face, lunged at her . . . grabbed her by the gold chains around her neck . . . and in a short period of time James had strangled her to death," Eagan said.

Eagan told the jury his client killed his wife but that the crime was the result of "an emotional or impassioned state of mind," making it a manslaughter rather than a murder.

Prosecutor Rick MacDougall, however, told the jury that the homicide was committed knowingly, intentionally and without justification.

Eagan recounted for the jury in opening arguments the turbulent relationship that Tolbert and his wife had lived since the winter of 1984, when the defendant was a junior at West High School. Upon Tolbert's graduation in 1985, Heller-Tolbert invited him to live with her in her house at 1731 S. Wright Court.

The victim's mother, however, opposed the relationship from the start, Eagan said.

"She hated the fact that her daughter was living with a black man," the defense lawyer said.

Because of Heller-Tolbert's close relationship with her mother, Eagan said the mother-in-law's feelings toward Tolbert caused a great deal of hardship. A subsequent pregnancy further strained the relationship.

Lola Heller wanted her daughter to get an abortion, but at the last minute the couple decided to keep the child, the defense lawyer said.

In February 1986, the couple married. Tolbert quit Weber State College to work and support his child, Eagan said. But tensions continued between him and his wife's parents who frequently visited the house.

"He felt his skin was the wrong color, that he wasn't welcome in his own home," Eagan told the eight-member jury.

The marriage deteriorated, and in February 1987 Janie Heller-Tolbert filed for divorce. Reconciliation failed, and on May 3, the couple agreed to proceed with the divorce.

Two days later, Tolbert rose early to get ready for work, entered his wife's room to kiss her. "For whatever reason, Janie spoke to James in a manner that hehad never heard from her before," Eagan said.

The argument escalated, and she was strangled to death in her bedroom.

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