Police officer testifies homicide suspect used racial slur

Homicide defendant Jimmy Bentley, left, and defense attorney Randy Knudson listen to testimony Tuesday afternoon at the Curry County Courthouse. CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks

By sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Editor’s note: The following report contains a racial slur.

A Christmas Eve murder suspect used a racial slur when he was taken into custody, a Clovis police officer testified on Tuesday.

Officer Paul Crowe testified he was escorting suspect Jimmy Bentley to a patrol car when Bentley asked, “He was a nigger, wasn’t he?”

Crowe said he was startled by the question. Bentley asked again, “He was black, wasn’t he?” Crowe said he didn’t answer, telling Bentley only to watch his head as he put him in the car.

“It was kind of a surreal moment. I wouldn’t forget that,” Crowe told District Attorney Matt Chandler in court on Tuesday, when asked if he was sure of what he’d heard.

The testimony came in the second day of Bentley’s murder trial at the Curry County Courthouse. Bentley, a 72-year-old Farmington man, is charged with shooting of Joseph Phillips, a 48-year-old black man. Bentley is white.

Prosecutors said the shooting was racially motivated.

The defense contends the shooting was in self-defense.

The defendant’s niece, who was standing near Bentley when Phillips was shot, also testified Tuesday.

Marla Edmonston said she didn’t remember anything but the sound of the shot.
A secretary from Albuquerque, Edmonston had gone to visit the Bentleys at the Econo Lodge where they were staying. Various family members were in town because the mother of Linda Bentley, the defendant’s wife, was in the hospital with pneumonia, Edmonston said.

Edmonston acknowledged she had consumed one or two drinks of vodka by then, and her observations might have been affected by alcohol.

All she remembered was the dome light inside a cab going on and then she heard a pop sound, she said.

“It sounded stronger in my left ear — it actually sounded distant. I don’t recall anything at all.

“I just stood there and said, ‘Oh my God, what did you do? Oh my God’ and he told me he (Bentley) felt threatened,” she said.

According to later testimony by investigators, Edmonston and Bentley would have been approximately six feet from Phillips when Bentley shot him in the face.

Edmonston said she never saw Phillips approach or heard any words exchanged between the victim and Bentley.

Under cross-examination, defense attorney Randy Knudson asked Edmonston if she ever saw Bentley leave the hotel room to go back into the parking lot where he allegedly pointed a gun at the cab driver. She replied, “No.”

The defendant, the defendant’s family and the victim’s mother spoke during an afternoon break in testimony. Sarah W. Phillips stood behind the defense table as Bentley reached across the railing and clasped her hand in his. He was looking intently into her eyes and speaking to her in a quiet, inaudible voice.

In the moments to follow, Phillips spoke with Bentley’s wife and mother-in-law, the women exchanging embraces, their faces marred with tears. Phillips placed an arm around Bentley’s mother-in-law at one point.

There are more than 30 witnesses, mostly law enforcement, remaining on the prosecution’s list before the defense begins its case.

The trial is scheduled through the rest of the week.

Testimony resumes today.

Excerpts from Tuesday’s testimony:

Marla Edmonston, niece of the defendant

After the shooting, Edmonston said her uncle and aunt went into the room and shut the door. She admitted during testimony that unbeknownst to her aunt and uncle, she hid a baggy of cocaine under the bathroom sink in the hotel room, which investigators found.

Detective Keith Farkas, Clovis Police Department

During a portion of a two-hour taped interview with Farkas played Tuesday, Bentley said: “This large taxi threw on his brakes. This colored guy came walking out and reached out, getting ready to, I thought, grab us. He was kinda grinning and laughing.”

Farkas also testified Bentley told him, “I didn’t mean to kill the guy. I’ve never killed anyone in my life.”

Farkas also said Bentley told him he did his best to “get rid of” Phillips.

Maria “Margie” Anderson, former Econo Lodge manager

Anderson testified she had just walked the property and returned to an apartment at the hotel she shared with her family when she heard the shot.

“He was a very nice man,” Anderson said of victim Joseph Phillips. “He was very polite and very educated.

“To see him there, it really bothered me,” she said.

Shane Sanders, former Clovis Police officer
Sanders testified he helped at the scene when Bentley was being taken into custody.

“He asked me if he could look at the individual on the ground and I said, ‘No,’” Sanders said. He then testified Bentley asked, “He was black, wasn’t he?” Sanders said he told Bentley, “Yes,” to which he replied, “That’s what I thought when I pulled the trigger.”

— Sharna Johnson