PERRY -- Jurors will have to decide in an alleged murder-for-hire case whether the victim’s husband was the mastermind of the killing or the victim of a mentally challenged friend who took it upon himself to arrange it as a favor.
That is the crux of opening statements Tuesday from prosecution and defense attorneys in the murder trial of James “Eddy” Clements in Houston County Superior Court.
Joni Clements, 47, a clinical nurse for the 78th Medical Operations Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, was shot multiple times in the upper torso with a .22-caliber sawed-off rifle Feb. 8, 2011, in their Warner Robins home.
Eddy Clements, 56, a sheet metal mechanic for the 559th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Robins, is accused of hiring Richard Grant Sybert, 30, of Warner Robins, to kill Joni Clements in exchange for the promise of $1,000, a car and a date with a stripper.
Sybert’s father, Robert Sybert, 54, is accused of being the getaway driver and providing the gun used in the slaying. The father and son lived in a mobile home about two miles from the Clementses. The father had cleaned the Clementses’ pool.
District Attorney George Hartwig told jurors that the gunning-down of Joni Clements “is not the typical murder case” and that Eddy Clements “thought about, talked about, planned (and) premeditated” her murder.
Hartwig took jurors step by step through the prosecution’s expected evidence and testimony from witnesses.
But Laura D. Hogue, one of the Macon attorneys representing Clements, told jurors that the couple had planned to separate with the wife to move to Florida so their daughter could get in-state tuition for graduate school.
Hogue said Eddy Clements was unhappy in the marriage, often said unkind things to co-workers about his wife, and even said he wished she were dead. Eddy Clements did not mean what he said, Hogue told jurors, but his friend, Robert Sybert, whom Hogue described as “mentally challenged, illiterate and child-like,” took Eddy Clements’ words to heart and asked his son to kill Joni Clements.
“You do this for my friend Eddy and I know he’ll give us money,” Hogue told jurors in describing how Robert Sybert convinced his son to kill Joni Clements.
After the murder, Clements received an “eerie call” from Robert Sybert telling him that all his problems were over, Hogue said. Clements then took the wrong fork in the road by not telling police immediately his “sickening realization” that his friend may have killed Clements’ wife, Hogue told jurors.
Jorden Anne Clements, the couple’s daughter, testified that she planned to move to Florida with her mother so the daughter could get in-state tuition while her father remained in Warner Robins.
She also testified about an incident one week before the murder in which an intruder, wearing a dark hoodie, dark pants, and work shoes, tried to come in through the front door but fled. A Verizon representative testified that records showed calls between the Syberts and Eddy Clements on the day of the break-in attempt and on the day of the murder.
Mark Rodriguez, an aircraft mechanic who worked with Clements, testified that Clements asked him in 2006 if he knew anyone who “would do a hit -- a hit for money.” But Rodriguez also testified that he told an investigator for the defense within a week of the trial starting that he thought Clements asked the question more out of curiosity because Rodriguez had lived in Miami and had known drug dealers and gang members.
Travis Sybert, a cousin of Richard Sybert, testified that he called Eddy Clements the day after the murder with a concern that Richard Sybert may have had something to do with the murder. But Travis Sybert testified that Eddy Clements downplayed it and told him he did not think Richard Sybert had the heart to do such a thing.
Warner Robins police Sgt. Eric Gossman testified that he thought Clements had an odd response when, upon arriving home on the night of the murder, Gossman told him something terrible had happened to his wife. Gossman said Clements responded, “I’ve been at work. I have to clock in and I have to clock out. I have co-workers who can say I was there.”
Christopher Mixon, the boyfriend of Jorden Anne Clements, testified about finding the mother’s body and telling his girlfriend to call her father.
Jurors heard a 911 tape in which Jorden Anne Clements is heard in the background telling someone her mom had been shot. Mixon said he did not know if that person was Eddy Clements.
Jorden Anne Clements also testified that a key found near her mother’s body opened the front door of the family’s home. But she also testified that door could be opened without a key by using a credit card and that the door would then remain locked.
The prosecution contends that Clements gave Richard Sybert a key to the house and told him the night to commit the murder when his daughter would be away refereeing a soccer scrimmage. The Syberts are expected to testify against Clements in exchange for plea deals including removal of the death penalty for Richard Sybert and 30 years in prison for lesser offenses than malice murder for Robert Sybert.
Family and friends of Joni and Eddy Clements filled the courtroom. A relative of the Syberts was also present.
The trial is expected to continue through Friday.