At murder trial, friends testify about finding body

Posted Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Jo Beth Marchand had called the Presbyterian Night Shelter home for seven years.

So when church friends helped her move into an apartment through a Fort Worth Housing Authority program, she was thrilled and worked hard to follow the rules and keep it tidy.

"She was really concerned about doing everything right because she didn't want to lose her apartment," said Lynda Tarwater. "She didn't want to go back to the shelter."

So Tarwater and Terri Byrd were naturally alarmed when, after being unable to reach Marchand, they entered her locked second-floor apartment and found the mattress just inside the front door and chairs and tables rearranged.

When the two ladies checked Marchand's closet to see if her clothes were missing, Tarwater spotted a comforter on the floor. She pulled it up to see her friend's body wrapped inside, naked from the waist down.

"I was so shocked that I just dropped the blanket and I said, 'There she is, Terri' and I just walked out the door and called 911, hoping she was still alive," Tarwater said. "I expected she was dead but you hope."

The emotional accounts of discovering Marchand's body that Dec. 2, 2011, morning marked the first day of testimony in the capital murder trial of James Wesley Brooks Jackson, who is accused of strangling Marchand during the course of sexually assaulting the woman and burglarizing her home.

Because prosecutors have waived the death penalty, Jackson will face an automatic life sentence without parole if found guilty. The case is being tried in State District Judge Scott Wisch's courtroom.

'I was worried'

Friends described Marchand as a slightly mentally challenged woman who was capable of living by herself but received help in managing money.

In opening statements, prosecutor Sheila Wynn said that Marchand had been left homeless after her mother, with whom she lived with, died.

Tarwater, a criminal defense lawyer, testified that she was doing Christian ministry at the shelter when she met Marchand.

"She had never married. She had no children. She had no siblings. Her father had left her when she was born so she never really knew her father and her mother was dead so she had nobody," Tarwater testified. "She kind of attached herself to me and I loved her."

Through Tarwater, Marchand met Byrd, who came to serve as Marchand's volunteer case manager. The two women helped Marchand move out of the shelter and into an apartment at the Oak Timbers complex, a senior living facility south of downtown.

Though gregarious, Marchand was also guarded, friends testified. She had only a few close friends, kept her apartment door always locked, and only left her apartment to attend church or take the bus to the grocery story or the library to check out Nancy Drew mysteries.

Sally Sloan, who volunteered as Marchand's guardian in financial matters, testified that she had last talked to Marchand shortly before 6 p.m. Dec. 1, 2011, when she told Marchand she would be stopping by after working late to give Marchand her monthly bus pass and cash stipend.

Two hours later, when Sloan called repeatedly to say she was on her way over, Marchand didn't pick up the phone.

"That fact that it had been approximately two hours, my thought was maybe she thought I wasn't coming at all and just went to bed," Sloan said.

But the next morning, Sloan still couldn't reach Marchand by phone.

"At that point I was worried," said Sloan, who then alerted Byrd and the complex's assistant manager. "... I started having a bad feeling then."

The assistant manager testified that she let herself into the locked apartment to look for Marchand but found only the apartment in disarray. At Marchand's friends' request, she later went in a second time to see if Marchand's money was still in the apartment. She found the woman's cash still hidden under the ice tray in the freezer but coins kept near Marchand's bedside were gone.

Not long after, Byrd and Tarwater arrived to look around, discovering Marchand's body hidden in the closet.

As Tarwater called 911 from the patio, Byrd testified, she knelt down by her friend's body and stayed there until paramedic arrived.

"I began to pray for her and Linda asked me to check her pulse," Byrd testified. "... Part of her neck area felt warm but the rest of her body was cold."

Crime scene contaminated?

In opening statements, Wynn, who is prosecuting the case with Bryan Hoeller, said Jackson initially denied knowing Marchand but later told homicide investigators that the woman had come onto him after she came home to find him burglarizing her apartment.

"He said she came on to me. This woman who has never had a boyfriend in her life, comes home to a burglar in her house and has sex with him. ... That's what the defendant tells police," Wynn said.

Wynn said Jackson also told detectives that Marchand had a phone cord charger around her neck when she approached him. He said he was pulling the cords around her neck when she tripped and fell, ultimately making a horrible noise as he drug her across the bedroom floor.

"He didn't think she was dead and he didn't mean to kill her," Wynn said Jackson told investigators.

She said evidence in the case, however, will show "his actions speak much louder than words."

Later in the afternoon, homicide Detective Jeremy Rhoden testified that Jackson's name first surfaced as a suspect in the case in March 2012 after the department received lab test results back.

Defense attorney Warren St. John did not give an opening statement. During cross-examining of witnesses, however, he focused on the fact that there was no forced entry evident at the apartment.

He also suggested that the crime scene may have been contaminated by the two friends who discovered Marchand's body -- one touched the dead woman's body and the other moved the blanket concealing Marchand.

Crime Scene officer James Jeanes testified that upon a return trip to the apartment on Dec. 3, he was able to lift three fingerprints from the crime scene, including from a flower vase that investigators determined had been moved to the top of the entertainment center.

Wynn said in opening statements that Jackson was linked to the crime through fingerprints found on a vase, DNA on a chair cushion and through a hair found on the comforter that concealed Marchand's body.

Throughout the day jurors were shown photos of the crime scene and pictures taken at the morgue of some of Marchand's bloody clothing and parts of her apparently battered body.

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