A jury found 20-year-old Jayda Fortune guilty as an accomplice of manslaughter, dodging the state’s allegations of second-degree murder, for repeatedly punching Jaron James, 23, causing his death at the L Motel.
When the verdict was read Thursday, some in the courtroom shed tears and others were silent. Fortune later walked out of the room without handcuffs and joined her family and friends on the lawn outside. Judge Mark Moran reaffirmed that she may be released from jail ahead of her sentencing date, citing Fortune’s former release conditions and her presence at every case hearing thus far.
The verdict marks the end of Fortune’s trial, in which multiple witnesses spoke about how they saw Fortune repeatedly punch James in two separate instances in September 2017. Fortune will now face anywhere from three to 12 and a half years in prison, based on Judge Mark Moran’s decision at sentencing. The verdict Thursday has brought answers to more than half of the state’s allegations in the L Motel murder case, which at the time left four Flagstaff teenagers charged with murder.
Fortune’s co-defendants Kayson Russel, 21, and Fortune’s ex-boyfriend Lawrence Sampson-Kahn, 20, both pleaded guilty to a lesser offense of negligent homicide and received three years of supervised parole.
Mirelle Gorman, 18, is now the only alleged accomplice left in the state’s L Motel case that has yet to plead guilty or face trial. Her trial was most recently set to begin on Oct. 15, 2019.
Fortune's and James' families both declined to comment.
Fortune’s lawyer Gregory Parzych argued that Fortune was a 17-year-old girl at the L Motel, defending herself from a man who was 23 years old and had allegedly sexually touched her. Parzych also argued that Fortune did not know that James would die from his injuries.
Prosecutor Ammon Barker argued that Fortune was guilty of second-degree murder because she knowingly caused serious physical injury, even if she did not know it would lead to James’s death. Barker filed subpoenas to force testimony from Fortune’s co-defendants Russell and Kahn, who had already pleaded guilty.
Russell said he had heard Fortune and Gorman allege that James had touched them in the motel that night, although he did not see anything, and the two began beating James. Several witnesses at the party, including Russell, described seeing the two women hit James in the face for a minute, and described the hits as “one after another.”
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Over 10 minutes later, the women came back and began hitting James in the face a second time, Russell said.
“We just let it happen for a couple seconds, to let them calm down, I guess. And we finally pulled them off the second time,” Russell said while on the stand.
“Was Jaron able to do anything to defend himself at that point?” Barker asked from behind a wooden podium during the trial.
“No,” Russell responded.
The prosecution often asked witnesses about the beating, asking if at any time James was able to defend himself. Most replied that he was too drunk to do so.
Erin Daniels, who works at the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s crime lab in Flagstaff, testified last week that James’ blood was found on Fortune’s shoe, Gorman’s shirt and Sampson-Kahn’s shoe. Barker used that testimony to support his allegation that they were primarily involved with James’s beating.
Michael Madsen, assistant medical examiner, testified and described how James’s death was not the cause of any one punch, but likely due to many punches. He described James’ cause of death as a subdural hematoma, which means bleeding in James' skull slowly put pressure on his brain, forcing him into a coma and to eventually die.
“A situation where you have a number of impacts, you can’t say which one, which specific one, could cause [death],” Madsen said on the stand. “But at the same time, the reality is multiple blunt force injuries are likely contributing to the situation.”
Fortune’s sentencing hearing is currently set for August.