Attorneys began selecting jurors Tuesday morning in what is expected to be an emotional murder trial for James William Tolbert III, who is accused of strangling his wife in May 1987.
Tolbert is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Lola Jane Heller-Tolbert, 26, a popular teacher and adviser at West High School. Opening arguments were expected to begin Tuesday afternoon in the trial, which is being heard before 3rd District Judge Raymond Uno.Heller-Tolbert's body was found May 5, 1987, under some debris by the Jordan River near 12th South. Tolbert, who led detectives to the body, became a suspect after police found blood in the victim's car, which Tolbert had driven to work that day.
She was reported missing the morning of May 5 by her mother, who watched the couple's 7-month-old daughter. When Heller-Tolbert failed to bring the baby to her mother's home, the mother went to her daughter's home at 1731 S. Wright Court. She found the baby sleeping but no sign of Heller-Tolbert.
The mother contacted school administrators, who were also wondering where Heller-Tolbert was.
Noticing that Tolbert's truck was in the driveway but Heller-Tolbert's car was gone, the mother drove to Tolbert's work, where she found her daughter's car. Police searched it and found bloodstains on a cardboard box in the trunk.
Tolbert told police he had taken his wife to a canyon on the city's east side because she wanted to be alone. He later changed his story and led them to the Jordan River, where they found her body. An autopsy determined she died of strangulation, possibly with the gold necklaces she was wearing. She also suffered a blow to the nose.
Prosecutors charged Tolbert with second-degree murder, which is a first-degree felony, because they believe the slaying was intentional and was committed in a manner clearly dangerous to human life or with depraved indifference to life.
Defense attorneys will argue that the crime did not rise to the level of murder. "We think it was manslaughter," said attorney Andy Val-dez. "It was a moment of lost control, a moment of emotional stress that we can reasonably explain and that falls within the manslaughter statute."
Valdez said the trial will be emotionally charged. "It's going to be a case about relationships, about two people who loved each other and about how one of them came to kill someone he loved."
Tolbert and his wife were married Feb. 26, 1986. But, according to friends and relatives, the marriage was unstable. Heller-Tolbert filed for divorce a year later and Tolbert had agreed to a default divorce. The two were scheduled to finalize the matter on June 3, 1987.