A 3rd District Court jury deliberated 51/2 hours Friday to find James William Tolbert III guilty of second-degree murder in the strangulation of his wife.
Friends of the defendant and family members of the victim cried out when the court clerk read the verdict. Judge Raymond Uno set sentencing for Nov. 28 and ordered Tolbert to the Utah State Prison.The verdict was the most severe the jurors could have returned. Judge Raymond Uno told the four-man, four-woman jury it could find the 22-year-old defendant guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide in the slaying of Janie Heller-Tolbert. Or, it could find him not guilty in the death in May 1987 of the West High School teacher.
During closing arguments Friday afternoon, defense attorney Andy Valdez attempted to convince the jury that Tolbert's actions were the result of pre-existing stress that had been building inside the defendant ever since he met Heller-Tolbert.
Tolbert led police to his wife's body after leading them on several "wild goose chases" the day of her death.
"Place yourselves in Mr. Tolbert's shoes . . . and try to see what was happening emotionally inside of him," Valdez said.
Valdez then narrated the couple's love affair, which began when Tolbert was a junior at West High.
"We all know that's not acceptable behavior for a student or a teacher," Valdez said. "He kept everything inside to cope with it. He had to suppress his feelings so he wouldn't jeopardize his or Janie's position."
After his graduation, Tolbert moved in with Heller-Tolbert and the secret was out.
Tolbert perceived that the relationship was looked upon unfavorably by his lover's mother, who, he said, didn't like that fact that her daughter was living with a black man. Pressures and stress mounted when Heller-Tolbert became pregnant, the couple married and the mother-in-law tried to get them to abort the baby,Valdez said.
Eventually, the relationship worsened, Tolbert saw another woman, and the victim filed for divorce.
"Separation, accusations, jealousy, infidelity, alienation, isolation, distress, disturbance. If there was ever a case where someone acted out of stress or emotional strain that we can reasonably explain, this is it," Valdez said.
Tolbert's pent up emotions burst the morning of May 5, 1987, when an argument led to his wife calling him a "nigger" and saying he would never see their 7-month-old son again.
"They slapped each other around. They rolled onto the bed . . . and he pulls on her necklace. He rolls her over and there's nothing there.
"If he intended to kill her would he kill her knowing that the mother-in-law was going to be there in a matter of minutes. That's absurd," the defense attorney said.
But deputy Salt Lake County attorney Rick MacDougall said Tolbert's attempts to dispose of the body indicated the defendant's intention to kill his wife.
MacDougall also argued Tolbert's demeanor, which several witnesses said was calm, tells much of the story. Only once, MacDougall said, did Tolbert show that he was upset. "He was shaken out of the realization of what he was facing, not out of some deep concern over what he had done."
There was no reasonable excuse for Tolbert's actions the morning of the slaying. Marital problems are common to everyone, MacDougall said, and the reasonable response is not "murdering someone."