Incriminating texts, previous threats to ex will be allowed at Lawrence woman’s murder trial

photo by: Nick Krug

Defendant Tria Evans, of Lawrence, second from right, sits with her attorney, Carol Cline, before Judge Kay Huff on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at Douglas County District Court. Also pictured is Christina Towell, Leavenworth, next to her attorney, Michael Clarke.

Story updated at 3 p.m., Jan. 3

Incriminating text messages that she swapped with her alleged co-conspirator may be shown to the jury during the upcoming trial of a Lawrence woman charged with murdering her ex and setting a fire to cover up the crime.

A judge also ruled Thursday that friends of defendant Tria L. Evans and the man she’s accused of killing could testify about hearing Evans threaten to kill him in the past.

Judge Kay Huff addressed those and other pretrial matters during a motions hearing Thursday in Douglas County District Court.

The trial for Evans, 39, is scheduled to begin Jan. 28. Prosecutor Amy McGowan and Evans’ appointed defense attorney, Carol Cline, both affirmed to the judge that they were ready.

Evans did make a last-minute request Thursday morning to fire her attorneys, Cline and appointed co-counsel Kenzie Singleton.

However, after consulting with the parties behind closed doors for nearly an hour, the judge denied that request and the hearing went on.

Joel Wales, 34, of Eudora, died on Nov. 3, 2017, at his mother’s house at 1104 East 1200 Road, where he was housesitting.

Wales was shot six times and died before gasoline was poured on his body and lit on fire, according to testimony at the preliminary hearing and information in an affidavit written by detectives. A neighbor heard yelling before hearing gunshots, seeing flames erupt on the front porch and then seeing a person running from the house to a car.

Evans — who had a child with Wales and a tumultuous relationship since the couple broke up — is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, arson and aggravated burglary.

Evans’ alleged co-conspirator, Christina L. Towell, 38, of Leavenworth, is charged with the same crimes. Her trial is scheduled for March.

Evans’ attorneys had argued that admitting texts pulled from Towell’s phone would be unfair because Evans won’t be able to confront Towell herself with further questions at trial.

However, Huff found that the texts were relevant to the case and could be read as referring to a conspiracy by the women to kill Wales. She said a previous higher-court ruling decided that there’s no requirement for cross-examination with such evidence.

At Evans’ preliminary hearing last year, and in reports prepared by law enforcement investigators, more than one acquaintance shared that they had heard Evans threaten to kill Wales before, the judge said. She said those statements also can be shared with the jury at trial.

One of those statements is expected to come from Joni Garner Sidney, a former friend of Evans who testified at her preliminary hearing that Evans had actually asked her if she would help her kill Wales. She said no and testified that she didn’t report the request to anyone because, at the time, she thought it was crazy.

McGowan argued Thursday that Evans’ request to Garner Sidney ended up being “a blueprint for what actually did happen.”

• The judge also addressed two media-related issues Thursday.

First, she denied a request by a media outlet to live-stream Evans’ trial, scheduled to last a week and a half. Both McGowan and Cline objected, with Cline noting that if that request were granted she wanted the jury to be sequestered to ensure that her client gets a fair trial.

Huff said she, too, thought live-streaming would elevate publicity to the point that it would be difficult to shield jurors from it. However, Huff said, the county doesn’t have the resources to sequester a jury.

“I am concerned that the jury would need to be sheltered more from it,” Huff said. “County resources do not stretch that far.”

Cline also brought up a Journal-World article about the case — specifically, focusing on the aforementioned text messages — that ran with a “large headline” on the front page of Sunday’s newspaper.

Cline said she was concerned about the publicity and was considering whether she needed to request a change of venue for the trial. However, she said, she had not had a chance to file any formal motion.

Huff said with no formal motion in front of her, she wouldn’t respond to the request in court.

Previous coverage

Dec. 30, 2018 — ‘When we taking care of this?’: Deleted texts show murder defendants talking before slaying of Eudora man

Oct. 15, 2018 — New evidence delays rural Lawrence murder and arson trial; defendant’s ex, fellow inmate claim she confessed to them

May 15, 2018 — Two women ordered to stand trial on murder, arson charges in Eudora man’s killing

May 11, 2018 — Victim’s mother blames his ex at hearing for defendants in rural Lawrence murder, arson case

Feb. 14, 2018 — Affidavit: Two women plotted to kill Eudora man and cover it up

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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