A Wharton County jury will begin hearing testimony today in the trial of a man accused of killing a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden, marking the county's first death penalty trial in nearly 30 years.
James Garrett Freeman, 27, of Lissie could be sentenced to death if convicted of capital murder. He is accused of shooting game warden Justin P. Hurst, 34, of El Campo, following a lengthy police chase last year.
A jury of nine women and three men will gather in state District Judge Randy Clapp's court for the trial, which is expected to last about three weeks.
Former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler will assist Wharton County District Attorney Josh McCown with the case. Siegler, one of Houston's most high-profile prosecutors, resigned earlier this year after losing the race for Harris County district attorney in March's Republican primary.
Jurors will likely see video of the shootout that led to Hurst's death and the chase that preceded it — footage captured by cameras mounted in police cars involved in the 90-minute pursuit.
McCown had just bought video equipment for Hurst's patrol car three months earlier with money seized from criminals.
Freeman, a welder with no history of serious crimes, did not intend to shoot anyone, said his attorney, Stanley Schneider.
"The bottom line — any way you look at it — this is a tragedy because you have two families that have been destroyed," Schneider said. "How do you explain the unexplainable?"
McCown argued those who kill officers in the line of duty deserve the stiffest punishment possible.
"I personally believe those guys who get up in the morning and put on a badge and strap on a gun are entitled to expect that," McCown said. " ... I believe we owe them that.
"I believe that someone who kills a cop is just a little more culpable than, say, some thug who, in the heat of an armed robbery, kills someone," McCown said.
Hurst's mother, Pat Hurst of El Campo, declined to comment, and his widow, Amanda Hurst, could not be reached.
Justin Hurst died on his 34th birthday from a gunshot that ripped through his left arm and torso, an autopsy report shows.
A second shot, which struck his left buttock and exited his left hip, was not fatal.
He was the first Texas game warden shot to death in the line of duty since 1973.
The confrontation began late March 16, 2007, within a half-mile of Freeman's home as Justin Hurst and another game warden checked on night hunters.
Freeman sped away when the other game warden, who had seen a spotlight and heard a gunshot, approached his pickup, officials say. The game warden followed him. Justin Hurst, working at the other end of the county, later joined in the chase.
Seven patrol cars belonging to the game wardens, Wharton County sheriff's deputies, constables and Department of Public Safety troopers chased Freeman for 90 minutes in a route that meandered all over Wharton County and dipped into part of Colorado County. Toward the end of the pursuit, Freeman's truck tires were punctured when he drove over spikes troopers threw on the road.
Officials say Freeman then stopped his truck near a cemetery in Lissie, where he got into a shootout with the officers. After Justin Hurst was shot, Freeman tried to run but fell when officers shot him four times in the legs and elbow, officials say.
Justin Hurst was flown to Houston, where he was pronounced dead at 1:42 a.m. March 17, minutes after the chase ended.
"The way he lost his life, there was no sense in that — no sense whatsoever," said friend Larry Janik, a nuisance control hunter for Texas Parks and Wildlife who helps corral loose alligators.
"I was on the way home when I got the phone call. ... I don't get broken up a lot, but I cried like a baby when I heard," Janik said.
A dead opossum was later found in the area where Freeman had been parked when he first drew a game warden's attention.
Freeman had a history of only minor offenses before the shooting, such as a drunken-driving arrest in Fort Bend County in 2005 and traffic violations, Schneider said.
Freeman's family declined to comment.
He attended East Bernard High School, and his family has lived in Wharton County for several generations. His father, Jim Freeman, has owned a welding business in Lissie for 20 years.
To win a conviction, prosecutors must prove that Freeman intentionally shot Justin Hurst.
A 'Super Cadet'
Freeman's case is the first death penalty trial in Wharton since 1979.
The last was the trial of Donald Lee Vignault, who was sentenced to death for killing a Bay City convenience store clerk.
Vignault died on death row from lung cancer in 1997.
Justin Hurst, the married father of an infant boy, specialized in waterfowl and alligators during his 12-year career with Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Texas A&M University graduate worked at the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur and the former Peach Point Wildlife Management Area now named in his honor in Brazoria County.
When he enrolled in the Texas Game Warden Academy in 2002, he became known as "Super Cadet" among his classmates.
Quiet and softspoken, Justin Hurst was devoted to his family, friends said. His parents had moved to El Campo to join him and his wife several months before his death.
"He's a person who will be missed around our area for a long time," Janik said.http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6067593.html