NEW BOSTON, Texas–During two days of pretrial hearings in the case of a Texarkana man accused of strangling his girlfriend to death in 2021, the state argued for high security, the disruptive defendant was given a new lawyer and the judge determined the defendant is competent to face a jury.
Travis Alston Turner, 29, is accused of strangling Jennifer Rose Garrett, 29, to death on Aug. 12, 2021, in a residence in the 6200 block of Summerhill Place in Texarkana, Texas. In expectation of jury selection set for the end of the month, 202nd District Judge John Tidwell conducted two days of pretrial hearings Thursday and Friday to resolve questions about Turner’s competency and a request by the state to have him restrained during the trial because of his alleged pattern of violent behavior both in and out of jail.
A third issue arose during the hearings when Turner blurted out that he wanted to represent himself and made a threat to physically harm the defense attorney who had been retained by his family to represent him, according to court officials. Upon hearing the threat from Turner, Little Rock lawyer Ron Davis made a motion to withdraw from the case, which Judge Tidwell ultimately granted.
Turner has been verbally disruptive at pretrial hearings in the past and this week he was removed from the courtroom when he would not stop shouting at witnesses.
“The defendant appears in court and is a constant disruption and problem. He screams and yells out at the Judge and the other participants in the hearing,” a notice filed by the state said. “The defendant will yell to the point where the attorneys cannot hear the Judge’s instructions or orders.”
A defendant may be deemed incompetent if unable to understand the charges against them and the court process or if incapable of assisting their lawyer with a defense because of intellectual limitations or severe mental illness. Turner’s private lawyer and the state had asked for mental health evaluations of Turner to aid in the determination but Turner refused to cooperate on three occasions, according to a notice filed by the state.
The law assumes a defendant is competent unless evidence showing otherwise is presented. Tidwell made a ruling that Turner is competent.
A New Lawyer
As Judge Tidwell issued his finding of competency, Turner announced that he wanted to represent himself and threatened to assault his now-former lawyer Ron Davis. Defendants may represent themselves if the court allows it but Turner’s volatile and allegedly violent conduct led First Assistant District Attorney Kelley Crisp and her trial partner, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Richards, to object to the possibility.
The prosecutors pointed out that if allowed to move freely about the courtroom while questioning witnesses, Turner would be close to witnesses, jurors and court staff and expressed concern that their safety could be compromised, noting Turner’s history of combative and violent behavior.
Judge Tidwell denied Turner’s request to represent himself, noting the security worries. Judge Tidwell appointed Assistant Public Defender Bart Craytor to represent Turner going forward.
Prosecutors filed a motion in early December asking the court to make on-the-record findings about Turner that would allow for increased security at his trial which referred to his allegedly “continuous aggressive and violent” conduct in the Bowie County jail.
Criminal defendants typically appear before a jury at trial in street clothes without restraints to avoid giving an impression of dangerousness that could lead to undue prejudice. Prosecutors have asked that Turner be shackled and possibly chained to the floor through the use of a bolt installed in the 202nd courtroom for the trial several years ago of a prison inmate who killed a guard and had assaulted countless others. They also suggested the use of a shock device for Turner which can be hidden beneath clothing but which can be activated if a defendant becomes physically aggressive.
The state’s motion notes that jailers and transport deputies have allegedly struggled with Turner’s combative behavior on a routine basis.
“Attempts to remove the defendant from his cell, for any purpose, generally results in a use of force by the jail staff,” the motion said. “On Dec. 21, 2021, the defendant assaulted Sgt. Stephen Driksell and CO Devonte Kenney. The defendant used a closed fist to repeatedly strike each of these officers in the head and face.”
Turner’s alleged jailhouse violence has led a supervisor to order staff to take protective actions when dealing with Turner, including outfitting in protective gear and bringing additional officers whenever he must be taken out of his cell, even for routine cleaning or a court hearing.
Bowie County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Robby McCarver, Captain Nathaniel Johnson, transport deputies Gary Whiteside and Cole Ogden, along with Bowie County District Attorney’s Office Lance Cline testified about Turner’s alleged violence at the hearings this week.
Arrests involving the shooting of a man in Arkansas and an assault of Turner’s own mother were also brought to Judge Tidwell’s attention.
Turner is facing felony terroristic act and battery charges in Miller County, Arkansas, in connection with a Feb. 26, 2021, shooting that sent one man to the hospital while another managed to escape unharmed. Seven spent shell casings were recovered from that scene, according to Crisp’s motion.
While free on bond on the Arkansas charges, Turner allegedly assaulted his mother and threatened to kill and strangle her, resulting in a misdemeanor family violence charge in Bowie County which remains pending.
“Sixteen days after the defendant made bond on the assault family violence charge, he murdered Jennifer Rose Garrett,” the motion alleges. “Because of the defendant’s history of assaultive offenses, the continued and repeated acts of violence and aggression, including his attack on correctional officers, evidence exists to support the implementation of additional restraints on this defendant, including, if it becomes necessary, an electronic immobilization device.”
Turner has allegedly been filled with anger since his father died in early 2021 because he believes he is entitled to more of his estate than he received, the notice alleges. The notice from the state includes alleged accounts of Turner grabbing and walking out with files at a local title company involving properties owned by his father.
Judge Tidwell granted the state’s motion for additional security during the trial and an order detailing the specifics of what measures will be used is expected in the next week.
Depending on Judge Tidwell’s decision regarding security measures, Turner could be outfitted with a stun belt, shackles, handcuffs, or other restraints. A larger-than-usual number of law enforcement officers could be ordered on hand for security as well.
Jury selection is currently scheduled for Jan. 31. If found guilty of murder in Jennifer Garrett’s death, Turner faces five to 99 years or life in a Texas prison.
He is currently being held in the Bowie County jail with bond set at $3 million.