Opening statements begin in case of murdered UNF employee

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Jurors may find the defendant “putrid” and “despicable,” his attorney says, but they should not convict him of first degree murder.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An emotional support dog took the stand alongside the wife and daughter of a murdered University of North Florida employee on a difficult first day in the trial of his accused killer.

Joe Brenton, 47, was shot and killed in the doorway of his Northside home in September 2016, hours before he was set to testify at the burglary trial of Jecorian McCray.

McCray, who was in jail at the time, is accused of enlisting his then 17-year-old brother to carry out the crime.

“He might have been behind bars at the Duval County Jail,” Assistant State Attorney Joel Cooper told jurors, “but in the early morning hours of September 21, 2016, he might as well have been standing right next to his brother, leaning over his shoulder, whispering in his ears.”

Cooper detailed a series of plans he said McCray hatched to prevent Brenton from testifying, including burning down his house with a Molotov cocktail and bribing him  — something McCray’s ex-girlfriend will testify to on Thursday. Jurors will also hear several jail telephone recordings that prosecutors say amount to a “confession” as McCray urges his brother to “drop your nuts and ammo up.”

“He gets very specific, and says, this is how I want you to do it,” Cooper told jurors. “When the daddy comes to the door, wet that sh*t up,” he quoted McCray saying. “Boom, boom, boom, boom, ya feel me? It’s my life over those Crackers’ lives.”

McCray and the Brentons were longtime neighbors on V.C. Johnson Road, and seemingly friends. McCray’s little brother Dakarai Maxwell, who police say wielded the AK-47 that killed Brenton, was a childhood playmate of Josie Brenton. She testified she and Maxwell attended Garden City Elementary School together and were “best friends.” Her mother, Venus Brenton, testified that she called Maxwell “Dee” or “son” and called McCray “Cory.” Both men visited the Brentons’ home.

But that relationship soured in September 2014, after Maxwell and McCray were caught on surveillance video burglarizing the Brenton’s home. That case was set for trial the day Joe Brenton was killed. That morning, around 2:45 a.m., someone knocked loudly on their door. Brenton answered and was instantly shot multiple times, in his head, chest and arms.

“It was a lot. A lot of shots,” testified Josie Brenton, who was 17 at the time. “I screamed, ran to my room, hid under the blanket and called 911.”

The 911 call, an agonizing 10 minutes, was played for the jury in its entirety. While waiting for rescue to arrive, Josie Brenton can be heard describing her father’s injuries and attempting chest compressions, even as blood poured from a gaping chest wound. As the call played, she reached down several times to pat emotional support dog seated next to her on the witness stand.

“Attempted CPR, couldn’t proceed,” she told prosecutor Joel Cooper. Asked why, she responded, “His mouth was clenched shut and I was pretty sure he had brain matter in his mouth.”

McCray’s defense attorney Michael Bossen acknowledged the 911 call was wrenching to hear. “You’ll remember [it] forever,” he told jurors. “It breeds deep, heartfelt emotion. Sympathy. Empathy.” But he encouraged jurors not to let their verdict to be guided by feelings. 

“You may not like Jecorian McCray, based on the things that he said. You may find him despicable. You may find him putrid. You might find him hateful. But your emotions about the case, your feelings about the case, are not legal reasons to convict somebody.”

Bossen emphasized that the crime was physically carried out by someone else. “All you hear from Jecorian McCray are words, no actions.”

Since his arrest, McCray has been arrested an additional five times in jail on charges ranging from attempted escape, to battery, to lewd and lascivious conduct. Those cases are pending.

The guilt phase of the death penalty trial could conclude Friday. If McCray is convicted, the penalty phase will continue into next week.

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