Calling James Worley “one damaged man,” defense attorney Mark Berling told jurors in the Sierah Joughin murder trial on Tuesday that something happened to his client two years ago that “caused his train to go off the track.”
After a one-day delay, the sentencing phase of the capital murder case began with Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman telling the jury if they found the aggravating circumstances outweighing the case’s mitigating factors, “you must find the death penalty be imposed.” Haselman then rested the prosecution’s case.
Berling wrote the four possible sentences for Worley on a large drawing board. He then ripped away the section where he had written the possibilities of a life sentence with parole, suggesting the jury wouldn’t consider those options.
“I’m not going to insult your intelligence…or anyone’s,” he said.
Worley was found guilty last week on 17 counts in the Joughin case including abduction and aggravated murder. He is convicted of kidnapping the 20-year-old Metamora resident during an evening bicycle ride on July 19, 2016, murdering her, and burying her in a cornfield.
Berling told the jurors they would hear Worley described as odd and weird, and added, “We’ve all met people like that, a little weird.”
He said he wanted them to understand just how damaged Worley had become. “About two years before this occurred, something caused his train to go off the track,” he said.
“We are looking for 12 people…who will listen to us to make the right decision for justice,” Berling added.
Gary Ericson, a mitigation specialist, told the court he conducted a comprehensive search of all public records related to Worley. He said the defendant lived off his 96-year-old mother’s Social Security payments but was a conscientious caregiver with an attention to detail.
“She was needing his help and his sleep was impaired, but I don’t know if (that) bothered him,” Ericson said.
He also played a tape of a lengthy interview conducted last year with Worley’s sister, Cynthia Barlow, a sergeant and supervisor in the traffic division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Barlow delved into the family’s turbulent history that included an alcoholic father who physically abused their mother, Florence, when he drank.
“They’d argue. He’d get violent with her. He actually pushed her around,” Barlow said. “They weren’t very compatible.”
She recalled an incident in which her mother replaced part of the clear liquor in his father’s glass with water. Enraged, he chased her with a butcher’s knife. During another violent episode their father tore the telephone from the wall when their mother tried to call for help. Barlow recalled another time when the police intervened and took their father away.
Their parents divorced in the 1960s, and their mother married Gradon “Jack” Shepherd, a gruff military veteran whom Barlow said raped her. She said Worley “respected him. He spoke highly of his stepfather.”
She remembered Worley as a somewhat hyperactive, very social child with a gift for gab and a mischievous side. She said he seemed to crave attention after his younger brother Mark was born, and performed unremarkably in school.
“He would just sit and look out the window. He wouldn’t pay attention,” she said.
Barlow said she can’t adequately describe her feelings when told by authorities of Worley’s arrest in the Joughin case.
“I can’t comprehend that he did it. It’s just a total shock,” she said. “I never felt shock like that in my life. I could never think that was possible, that Jim would do that.”
She said Worley never told her he watched pornography. “Jim never mentioned anything to me, and knew I wouldn’t approve of it. As far as I know, he was never into pornography.”
Barlow said Worley enjoyed watching action movies, adding, “Maybe he’s watching too much violent stuff.”
Thomas Mossing, who has been acquainted with Worley for 30 years, said he was “a chatty kind of guy, had his own opinions.” He said he eventually distanced himself from Worley, but found the accusations against him out of character. When interviewed by the FBI during the Joughin investigation, Mossing told them, “He just went off the deep end.”
Jack Roschmann, who has known Worley for 30 years, said his friend “had a crazy side” when they hung out in the 1980s. “He acted young, having a good time,” he said.
When pressed by Berling to clarify how “crazy” the defendant acted, Roschmann said, “He was crazier than most.”
A third Worley acquaintance, William Gombash, said he felt for years that Worley was on the edge. “I thought it was just a matter of time before he snapped,” Gombash said.
John Fabian, a forensic and clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, met with Worley Feb. 14-15 of this year.
“This is a very complicated case. I would say that Mr. Worley has a number of mental health issues. He’s a very inadequate person,” Fabian said.
He described Worley as dysfunctional and having psychological issues that were never explored. He said as a small child the defendant would sit on the family driveway and stare into space.
Fabian categorized Worley as “an average guy” with an IQ within the 50th percentile of the population. But he also said Worley has an anti-social personality disorder, has a dependence on marijuana, and suffers from low self-esteem, self-doubt, depression, paranoia, and narcissism. He described Worley as detached from relationships, perceiving people around him with suspicion, and acting exceedingly positive, which includes exaggerating his abilities.
“He’s a very inadequate guy,” Fabian said.
Worley’s attack on Joughin was sexually motivated, he said, driven by sexual sadism connected with a fetish disorder. He said Worley has a dark fantasy life exacerbated by an emotional loneliness that detaches him from people and relevant relationships.
“His emotional development is somewhat regressed,” he said.
Fabian touched lightly on whether Worley’s mental faculties could be affected by family history. His brother Mark was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
He also brushed hesitantly on Worley’s relationship with his mother, saying in criminal cases such as Worley’s “there’s often dysfunction between mother and son. Something was missing or something was awkward about their relationship.”
Following cross-examination, Judge Jeffrey Robinson asked Fabian whether it’s unusual that Worley remembers his childhood as better than it was.
“He portrays himself in a positive light, in a Pollyanna, everything’s fine role,” Fabian said. “Bottom line, he’s never dealt with or processed any of this.”
The jury will begin deliberating a sentence on Wednesday.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.