James William Tolbert III went into his bedroom the morning of May 5, 1987, to kiss his wife, not to kill her.
That was his testimony Thursday as he emotionally recounted the events that led to the strangulation of Janie Heller-Tolbert, 26, a popular teacher and adviser at West High School.Charged with second-degree murder, Tolbert, 22, testified that he had slept on the living room floor the night before and got up early, as usual, to prepare for work.
Before he left, he went into their bedroom to kiss his wife goodbye. She responded with a verbal assault.
"She told me how I had ruined her life, that she should have listened to her parents and that she shouldn't have ever married a (expletive deleted) nigger," Tolbert testified.
Heller-Tolbert then told him that he would never see their young son, Christopher, again.
"I said, `You can't do that.' She said, `You just watch and see,' and then she hit me. And I hit her," said a sobbing Tolbert, who leaned forward and exclaimed into the microphone:
"I lost control! I didn't want to kill her!"
Tolbert said he and his wife rolled onto the bed, and she ended up on her stomach. He held his hand to her neck and squeezed.
"I felt the necklace and I pulled on the necklace . . . I rolled her over and she wasn't moving."
Defense attorney Andy Valdez then asked him why he put her body in the trunk of her car?
"I couldn't just leave her there. Her mother was coming."
"Why didn't you take her to the hospital?" the defense attorney queried.
"I didn't have time to think . . . it wasn't real. This hasn't happened to me every day of my life."
Heller-Tolbert's body was found in some debris near the Jordan River the afternoon of May 5, 1987. Prior to that, Tolbert had led police on a "wild goose chase" in an east-side canyon, according to testimony.
Valdez and co-counsel Kerry Eagan are attempting to convince the eight-member jury that Tolbert did not kill his wife knowingly or intentionally but that he acted under emotional or impassioned stress. Therefore, they contend, Tolbert should be found guilty of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, instead of murder, a first-degree felony.
A psychologist hired by the defense testified that at the time of the slaying, Tolbert was suffering from three mental disorders, one of which was "brief reactive psychosis," during which a person loses contact with reality and rational thinking.
The defense also called three character witnesses, all of whom testified that Tolbert was a truthful and non-violent person.
In addition to relating the facts of the slaying, Tolbert told the jury that he had come from a broken home, and was abused by his father, finally being placed into a foster home at age 17. Active in student government and a member of the school basketball team, Tolbert met Janie the winter of his junior year.
The relationship, he said, was never accepted by Janie's mother. When Janie got pregnant, her mother insisted on an abortion, but the couple refused. He said that caused a great deal of stress in their subsequent marriage, which was ending in divorce when Janie was slain.
The trial was expected to go to the jury Friday afternoon.