Convicted killer Lee Turner Jr. was brought to tears Tuesday, as were relatives of the two CarQuest Auto Parts workers he shot to death during a 2011 robbery, as the penalty phase of his capital murder trial got off to an emotionally charged start.
Prosecutor Tracey Barbera rested the state’s penalty phase case at noon Tuesday after the wives and other relatives of Edward “Eddie” Gurtner III, 43, and Randy Chaney, 55, testified how that tragic Sunday — March 27, 2011 — altered their lives forever.
Turner’s court-appointed attorneys then called seven witnesses of their own, including one of Turner’s former high school basketball coaches in Illinois where Turner temporarily relocated after Hurricane Katrina, before state District Judge Richard Anderson recessed the trial until Wednesday morning.
Turner, 25, was found guilty Monday on two counts of first-degree murder. The defense did not call any witnesses during the trial’s guilt phase.
Barbera told the East Baton Rouge Parish jury Tuesday that the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment in the case.
Scott Collier, one of Turner’s attorneys, argued Turner is not beyond redemption and should be sentenced to life in prison without parole at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Michael Stallings, a former basketball coach at Johnston City High School in Illinois, testified for the defense that he was shocked when he learned two years ago about Turner’s case.
“That’s not the Lee Turner I know,” he said through tears, noting that Turner was quiet and very passive. “I wish he could have stayed there (in Johnston City). Maybe he wouldn’t be here. I don’t know what happened. I wish I could change it.”
Turner cried toward the end of Stallings’ testimony.
Johnston City High School custodian Randy McIntosh testified that Turner dated his daughter for the short time he lived in the town. Turner still keeps in touch with his daughter, he said.
“He was like family to me. He had a big heart,” McIntosh said. “Lee has a lot of good in him. My heart just breaks. It’s breaking.”
The most emotional testimony came from Elizabeth Gurtner, Lola Chaney and other members of their families.
Elizabeth Gurtner, who was married to Eddie Gurtner for nearly 20 years, testified she and the youngest of her two sons, Raymond “Jamie” Gurtner, found her husband’s body inside the warehouse of the CarQuest on Airline Highway near Siegen Lane. Jamie Gurtner was 13 at the time.
“When he found his father, he shut down,” she said. “He went from making A’s and B’s and C’s to straight F’s that year.”
Elizabeth Gurtner said she cannot erase from her head the images of her husband lying on the warehouse floor.
“I don’t sleep. It’s been that way since,” she said.
Lola Chaney had been married to Randy Chaney for 26 years and said they shared an anniversary dinner the night before he was killed. Their anniversary was March 9.
“He loved being a father,” she said. “He was really proud of both (Heather and Trevor) of them.”
Heather Chaney Parsons and her husband, Scott, welcomed a baby girl in May 2013.
“I just can’t make y’all understand how much he would have loved her,” Parsons said of her father.
“My dad was just a beautiful person. To lose Daddy was just like shattering my world.”
Eddie Gurtner’s stepfather, James “Nick” Dunman, told the jury that he considered Eddie Gurtner his son and said his slaying left “a giant hole in our lives.”
“Loved by so many, and so much was taken away from us,” he added.
Trevor Chaney said his father loved cars, yard work and cooking.
“A lot of people miss him,” he said.
Edward “Joey” Gurtner IV said his father is the reason he graduated from high school, something his dad never did.
“He taught me everything I know. He was there for me. He pushed me to finish high school,” he said.
Joey Gurtner said his father didn’t live to see him finish restoring the 1980 Chevrolet Camaro that the two had been working on together.
“I couldn’t touch it for about seven months after this happened,” he said, but finally was able to complete the restoration. “I cried. He’d have been so happy.”
Barbera argued at the start of the penalty phase that Turner’s actions on March 27, 2011, were “intentional, deliberate, violent, tragic, deadly, selfish and with complete disregard for human life.” She said Eddie Gurtner and Randy Chaney were “stolen from their family members.”
Collier argued that Turner has taken part in faith-based programs while incarcerated for the past four years at Parish Prison and “so badly wants to redeem himself.”
Anne Siesal, a former principal at the New Orleans elementary school that Turner attended, testified via video hookup that Turner was a talented artist, quiet and reserved, and not a troublemaker. Turner’s attorneys displayed canvas banners he painted in 2001 and 2005 that were taken to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans.
Patricia Kaschalk taught Turner in his early elementary school years and remembered him as quiet and withdrawn but also said he appeared to bottle up anger.
“Sometimes I could see the steam coming out of his head,” she said. “He sometimes seemed a little angry.”