The murder case against a local man accused of fatally shooting a motorist after fleeing the scene of an accident last month will soon be reviewed by a grand jury to see if an indictment is warranted.
Mobile County District Judge Joe Basenberg said last week prosecutors presented “significant” evidence supporting their claim that 31-year-old Trenton Thornton shot and killed Patrick Edwards after fleeing the scene of an accident he caused on Michigan Avenue around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4.
As Lagniappe has reported, 911 dispatchers received a call from Edwards’ fiancé, Exiomara Goins, after Thornton tried to drive away from the accident. Court filings and dispatch records indicate Edwards and Goins followed Thornton’s car for nearly two miles and then into a dead-end street on Central Drive.
According to Glenn Barton, a homicide detective with the Mobile Police Department (MPD), Goins told police in a “frantic” interview later that evening that Thornton was sitting with his headlights off at the end of the street. When Edwards went to confront him, Goins said she stepped out to see what was going on.
“She said she saw her fiancé walking over to the vehicle that had just struck them telling the person, ‘Stop … wait for the police,’” Barton testified during a March 13 hearing. “When he approached the driver’s side window, [Goins] says she saw her fiancé get shot through the window.”
Under cross-examination later, Barton suggested some of what Edwards was saying to Thornton before the shooting may have been captured on MPD’s 911 recordings. That could prove to be a substantial piece of evidence if Thornton claims he was defending himself from a perceived threat.
Barton said Goins’ statements to police and surveillance footage from a nearby home indicate Edwards got back into his vehicle after being shot and attempted to drive away. He said there is also evidence that additional shots were fired as Thornton drove around Edwards’ vehicle and left the scene.
According to Barton, there was a fair amount of physical evidence recovered from the scene as well as from Thorton’s grandmother’s house, where he was later found and arrested. Those items included bullet fragments found in Thornton’s car, broken glass shards, a handgun, a rifle and other items.
Barton said family members told police they’d seen Thornton — a former United States Marine — with a gun earlier, and he “may have post-traumatic stress disorder.” Thornton reportedly didn’t respond to verbal commands to come out for some time and then, worried he might still be armed, Barton said a SWAT team and K-9 Unit were called to the scene. He eventually surrendered to police peacefully.
Thornton’s attorney, Chase Dearman, has raised concerns on multiple occasions about the incident, because police did not have a search warrant or an arrest warrant when they confronted Thornton with heavily armed officers. Barton has maintained it was warranted given the unknowns of the situation.
The case has been closely followed by members of Edwards’ family and friends — more than a dozen of whom were present in court for the probable-cause hearing last week. Some had to be briefly quieted by Basenberg as Dearman appeared to argue the shooting may have been self-defense.
He noted “two people, who had been following him at night and into a dead end, got out of their car and then approached his vehicle,” and asked Barton what MPD had done to investigate whether Thornton’s actions were taken in self-defense. Barton said the evidence suggested it was not.
Responding to questions from the defense, Barton said no weapon was recovered with Edwards’ body or in the car he and Goins were driving. He also said there was no bullet damage to Thornton’s vehicle nor any other evidence there was some kind of exchange of gunfire between the two men.
As he did during a previous bond hearing, Dearman attempted to highlight Thornton’s career in the Marines, but Basenberg reminded him his client’s prior service to country has nothing to do with whether or not there is enough evidence to send his murder case to a Mobile County grand jury.
“That has nothing to do with a preliminary hearing,” Basenberg said. “This is not the defense of a trial. This is not a forum for hearing evidence of or making a ruling on any kind of self-defense claim.”
Ultimately, Basenberg opted to send the case to the grand jury, though it is unclear how long it might take for a decision to come down. Grand jury members could elect to “no bill” the charges Thornton faces but could also indict him for murder, shooting into an unoccupied vehicle and leaving the scene of an accident.
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