NORMAN — A judge found James Arion Smith guilty of first-degree murder Friday after a week-long trial in district court.
Smith was charged with the crime following the shooting death of University of Oklahoma student, Nathaniel Ewing, 20, in April 2017.
Smith confessed and later pleaded guilty in 2018 and was sentenced to life in prison, but he withdrew his plea after a court decision dealing with juvenile murder defendants was issued.
The ruling requires prosecutors show aggravating circumstances, and that a juvenile murder defendant cannot be rehabilitated before life in prison without parole can be imposed.
Witnesses testified earlier this week that Smith planned to rob Ewing of marijuana. Alleged accomplices Cody Tuberville said Smith told him they were going to buy marijuana and needed a ride. He then drove Smith along with three others — Tyrek Ladrius Turner, Armani Ashanti Morgan and his unnamed family friend — to purchase marijuana unaware of what was about to go down, he said during the trial this week.
Tuberville, originally was charged with first-degree murder in concert with Smith before pleading down to accessory to murder one nonviolent and taking 10 years in prison and 10 years probation.
Prosecutors presented fingerprints that belonged to Smith on Ewing’s car, shell casings from a gun in and around the vehicle and social media messages between Smith and accomplices.
The defense said Smith was a vulnerable 17 year old who was afraid of the gang he was trying to impress.
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Austin said it was Smith who planned the crime that day.
“James Smith reached out to Tyrene and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “Smith got out of the car and asked for the gun. James Smith walked up to that car and leaned it and said give me the money and James Smith pulled the trigger and ended it. He started it and he ended it. He sent a bullet ripping through the body of Nathaniel Ewing, ripping him and killing him.”
Smith’s attorney, Troy Cowin, was critical of the Norman Police Department detective’s methods when they questioned his client. Detectives Brett Willer and Derrick Hopkins questioned Smith about the crime the day after Ewing died, The Transcript reported Thursday.
Cowin accused detectives Friday of lying to Smith to coerce a confession when they said, “I’m just here to help you, man. I’m just here to help.’ Blatant lies by these detectives,” he said. After an initial hour-long interview, Smith, who was was handcuffed in an interview room without a shirt, was then confronted with an accomplice who told him to confess, Cowin said.
“They couldn’t get a confession out of James,” he said. “So what did they do? They did something that’s apparently never been done before. He goes out and gets a co-defendant friend that’s higher up in the gang to come in here and tell us what we need to know.”
Cowin said his client was intimidated and scared of the gang member, but Austin argued the court heard no evidence that a gang was involved. She further pointed out that Smith never said he did not intend to shoot Smith or that he was frightened of retaliation.
In his closing comments, Chief District Judge Thad Balkman said the testimony of accomplices and evidence at the scene proved Smith’s guilt.
“That one ounce of marijuana resulted in this tragic homicide April 23, 2017 and has changed the lives of all, if not most of all, the people’s lives in this courtroom,” Balkman said.
The judge said he did not ignore practices used by detectives.
“I am not thrilled by some of the interview tactics that were used by the detectives, and I hope they aspire to improve how such interviews are conducted in the future,” Balkman said. “However, Mr. Smith’s confession to the murder shortly after hearing Tyrek Turner was made voluntarily.”
Smith will appear for a sentencing hearing at 9 a.m. on Nov. 16.
Mindy Ragan Wood