By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
The murder trial of Jimmy Bentley began Monday afternoon after most of the day was spent in jury selection. The only witness to take the stand was a former cab driver who saw the shooting.
Wiping tears from his eyes, Richard Barry, 42, identified the man in a photo of Joseph Phillips’ crumpled body lying in a hotel parking lot as that of his Christmas Eve cab fare.
Barry wiped tears from his eyes and grabbed a tissue, listening to his own voice ring through the silent courtroom as District Attorney Matt Chandler replayed the 911 tape from that night:
“He’s dead. … He’s coming after me. I can’t stay here, I can’t stay here! He’s laying right here on the ground. … No, he’s not moving at all.”
Barry described the moments before the shooting when he picked up Phillips, 48, at the Econo Lodge on Mabry Drive.
He had been driving for Phillips since October, picking him up at the bus station when he and a coworker arrived in Clovis, he said.
That night, Phillips had gotten into the cab with a lit cigar, which wasn’t allowed, Barry said.
He stopped the cab so Phillips could extinguish it, pulling up near Bentley and his niece outside their room. Barry said when Phillips got back in the cab he commented to him, “I hope we didn’t upset those people,” referring to how close he had pulled to them.
Barry said Phillips asked him to stop, then got out, walking around the cab toward Bentley.
Barry also got out and watched Bentley pull a gun up and point it at Phillips, shooting him in the face, he said.
“It was just a matter of seconds and he hit the ground. When he shot him, he just went limp. I hesitated and (Bentley) came over still holding the gun. He told me I needed to leave,” Barry said.
“He (Bentley) just turned around and walked back like nothing had ever happened,” he said.
Bentley, 72, a white man, is charged with second-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
During opening arguments, prosecutor Christina Tatum told jurors they will hear during the trial that Bentley confessed to killing Phillips, a black man, making racist statements about the victim when questioned by police.
Defense attorney Randy Knudson told jurors Bentley was afraid for the safety of himself and his family, having observed what he perceived to be drug activity at the hotel earlier in the day.
Bentley never meant to kill anyone — his gun went off accidentally, Knudson said.
The trial resumes today.