HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- The jury trial of a man charged in a 2019 drive-by shooting that left a five-year-old girl shot in the head began Wednesday.
Edwards, now seven-years-old, underwent multiple surgeries, months in the hospital, and had to wear a protective helmet for some time after the shooting.
Walton is charged with aggravated malicious wounding, malicious wounding, shooting into an occupied dwelling, shooting from a vehicle, and two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
If convicted, he could be sentenced up to a life in prison.
In his opening remarks, Henrico County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sean Breit-Rupe told jurors that this case was about “a single moment that changed the life of a five-year-old girl forever”.
Breit-Rupe alleged that Walton opened fire on people outside of Edwards’ grandmother’s home and the bullets hit one man, “an innocent bystander”, standing outside and Edwards, who was inside playing in the living room.
He added they would present analysis from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that connected Walton to the gun used in the crime and cellphone data analysis from the Federal Bureau of Investigation placing Walton at the home when the shooting happened. Breit-Rupe said that Walton told police that was he not there.
During his opening remarks, Walton’s attorney, Elliott Bender, said that while 90% of the case was not in dispute he questioned how the case was handled and asked jurors to look for bias and negligence amongst the evidence and witnesses.
He specifically mentioned two men who were allegedly in the car with Walton and said they have motive and bias to testify against his client. Bender added he was going to question how police conducted their investigation.
Bender also seemed to imply that his client was not the person responsible and said there were multiple guns fired that day, including from those who lived in the house, and that he wanted to get “the right person” not “a person”.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney called a total of seven witnesses to the stand on day one.
Several of the witnesses in the morning were first responders who either responded to the home or treated Edwards‘ injuries at the Oak Hill Plaza Shopping Center. After Edwards was shot, some of her family members drove her to the center looking for help.
One of the police officers who treated Edwards described her injuries as “horrifying”.
The jury also heard from Edwards’ aunt and grandmother who were in the home at the time of the incident.
Edwards’ grandmother, Tonya Harris, said had just laid down in her room when the shooting happened and said Edwards was playing with some of her other grandchildren in the living room.
She said she ran out to the living room and saw Edwards laying on the floor. She said her son picked Edwards up and she drove the two of them to find help. Harris said she did not think they would make it to the hospital in time so she pulled into the shopping center because she had seen fire trucks parked there in the past.
Harris also described how the shooting has changed Edwards and what the recovery process has been like. She said Edwards was in the hospital for at least three months and underwent at least three surgeries. She added Edwards had to wear a protective helmet for about six months afterwards and takes two medications.
Harris added that before the shooting, Edwards did not have memory issues but now forgets things and her mind “is in a thousand places”.
Meanwhile, Edwards aunt admitted under defense cross-examination that two people In the home, one of her brothers and her boyfriend, went outside after the initial drive-by shooting and shot back at those responsible.
Following lunch break, the remainder of the day featured testimony from a forensic detective who presented much of the evidence that he recovered in relation to the case.
This included cartridge casings, bullet fragments, guns, and ammunition. The casings were recovered the roadway in front of the home to the front yard, left side, and backyard of the house. While bullet fragments were pulled from cars on the property, the house itself, and from the ground in the backyard.
The detective added he found three guns and various amounts of ammunition from the house. He said all guns, bullets, and casings were sent to the ATF for analysis to see if any matched each other.
The detective said two additional guns were submitted to the ATF for analysis in the case, including one that was seized during an April 7, 2019 traffic stop.
During the cross-examination, the defense submitted additional photos related to evidence recovered at the scene. They also had the detective talk about fingerprint and DNA tests conducted on some of the firearms.
The detective was still being cross-examined when the trial was ended for the day.
The trial will resume at 10 a.m. on Thursday.
Day Two Expectations
At the end of day one, Henrico Circuit Judge Randall Johnson Jr. expressed concern about the speed of the trial and whether it would be finished in three days as originally scheduled. He told the attorneys that because of COVID-19 restrictions, the courthouse was limited as to the number of jury trials that could take place at one time and there were others scheduled for next week.
The Commonwealth’s Attorneys said they had nine more witnesses they intended to call and said they believed they could finish presenting their evidence on Thursday.
The judge said he intended to let Thursday’s hearing to go late in order to get that done.
Halfway through the first day of the trial, one of the 14 jurors was removed.
The juror informed the court that she realized she knew the woman who decorated Edwards’ helmet to look like a tiara. She added she had seen the woman’s Facebook posts about the case and watched the TV news story about it.
She told court she did not remember the facts of the case that were presented in the story and said she did not think it would affect her ability to hear the case and remain impartial.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Toni Randall told Henrico Circuit Judge Randall Johnson Jr. that she would rather be safe than sorry, referenced the history of the case, and requested the juror be removed from the jury pool.
This is the second attempt at Walton’s trial. The first was declared a mistrial in February because of a tainted jury pool.
Because of COVID-19, several precautions are in place in the courtroom. Everyone is wearing a mask except for the witness and whichever attorney is questioning them at the time.
The witness stand is disinfected after each person. The entire courtroom is also cleaned and disinfected during each break or recess in the trial.
Since social distancing between the jurors is not possible, they are separated by clear plexiglass walls.