By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — An Alabama man was killed in a February 2011 drug deal gone wrong, said prosecutors Tuesday.
Neither side was willing to sugar-coat the facts — James Johnson, 27, died in room 220 of the Jonesboro Econo Lodge during a botched drug deal. Chaz Jensen Ballard, 28, and Singlee Soun, 26, are charged with murder and other felonies in his death. Their trial began Tuesday afternoon in Clayton County Superior Court.
Assistant District Attorney Travis Meyer said in his opening statement that Johnson was shot eight times.
“One shot to his neck ripped his trachea and larynx and he choked on his own blood,” said Meyer. “He had blood in his airway.”
But defense attorneys Karlyn Skall and Neil Smith argued the state cannot prove what happened inside that motel room.
“This case is about a drug deal, absolutely,” said Skall, who represents Ballard. “Mr. Ballard did run, he ran out of fear. What happened in that room? The state cannot prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt that Chaz Ballard shot James Johnson.”
Smith argued that “things went crazy” inside the room and Soun grabbed a rifle on impulse, not to use.
“Singlee Soun rode with Chaz Ballard to the Econo Lodge, not really knowing what was happening,” said Smith. “After the shooting, Singlee Soun jumped up, grabbed a rifle to get out the door if nothing else. If you find him guilty of anything, find him guilty only of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.”
After the opening statements, prosecutors called two other motel residents who testified to hearing the shots but not to seeing anyone running from the room. Meyer said the defendants were caught on motel surveillance cameras.
“Singlee Soun is seen running with a rifle and Chaz Ballard is trying to cover his face with a handgun in his pants,” said Meyer. “They thought they got away but they didn’t.”
Meyer said Ballard eluded capture until September 2012 but another witness led police straight to Soun within hours of the shooting. Meyer said a water bottle found at Johnson’s feet contained DNA that matched Soun’s.
The two defendants turned down a deal Monday to plead guilty in exchange for life with the possibility of parole.
The deal would have meant a minimum of 30 years in prison. But both men said Monday they’d take their chances with the jury. They could get life without parole if convicted.