Waller trial opening statements present diverging timelines

The trial for Tristan Waller, 22, began on Tuesday morning at the Union County Courthouse.

Waller is accused of capital murder in the shooting death of 27 year-old Brandon Parker and the attempted capital murder of El Dorado resident Randy Miller, both charges stemming from a shooting incident that occurred on June 5, 2019.

Waller’s trial began at 9 a.m. and jury selection stretched to around 1:20 p.m. on Tuesday. Two alternate jurors were selected in addition to the 12 jurors.

Following jury selection, prosecutors for the state and Waller’s defense attorney laid out the foundations of their respective cases for the jury through their opening statements.

The prosecution includes 13th Judicial District deputy prosecuting attorney Carla Gibson, as well as deputy prosecuting attorney Floyd Thomas. Thomas said he returned from retirement to assist the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office with a case backlog exacerbated by COVID-19.

Waller’s defense attorney is Sylvester Smith.

Thomas led with opening statements for the prosecution. The prosecution and defense each presented a narrative of the events of June 5, 2019 that follow roughly similar timelines but diverge at crucial points, specifically which party fired first and who they fired at.

Both sides agree that two parties — Tristan Waller and Chancin Hooks, and Randy Miller and Brandon Parker — were present at the crime scene on June 5. Hooks and Miller are both listed as witnesses for the prosecution but were not called to testify on Tuesday.

Prosecution’s opening statement

Thomas asserted that Waller spent the night with Chancin Hooks on June 4 and “stayed up partying;” and the following day, Waller told Hooks that they were going to meet with Brandon Parker to buy some quantity of the prescription drug Xanax, Thomas said.

According to the prosecution, Waller at some point told Hooks that he is “tired of B.P. [Brandon Parker’s nickname] ripping me off” and said he would “get even” with him.

Hooks and Waller drove to an isolated, wooded location in Urbana — later called “The Hangout” by the defense — and backed their vehicle onto a road at that location to meet Parker, according to Thomas.

Parker, Thomas said, contacted Miller and notified him of two potential buyers of “100 Xanax,” asking Miller to accompany him to the wooded location in Urbana.

Miller rode with two friends from El Dorado to the “Blue Building,” a community center and meeting place in Urbana where people were already gathered that day, Thomas said. Miller met with Parker some time later at this location and accompanied him to the meeting with Hooks and Waller, heading south to the wooded location, according to the prosecutor.

Parker parked “almost nose to nose” with Waller’s vehicle upon arrival at the wooded location, Thomas said. Waller stood on the driver’s side and Hooks on the passenger side as they conversed with Miller and Parker, according to Thomas.

A Xanax pill was “introduced” and Waller and Hooks broke and tasted it and expressed doubt as to whether the pill was genuine, according to Thomas. Hooks and Waller, Thomas said, told Parker and Miller that they were not interested in purchasing the drugs, believing them to be counterfeit.

Miller and Parker then left the location to return to the Blue Building, Thomas said, but soon received a call to return to the location where they left Hooks and Waller.

Upon returning, the two allegedly found Hooks standing in the same location while Waller had moved to a “wooded, brushy area” nearby. Waller approached their vehicle, Thomas said, and an unclear action happened, possible the passing of money or discussion.

Then, according to the prosecution, Waller produced a .380 caliber handgun and fired six times into the vehicle occupied by Parker and Miller, striking Parker several times and Miller twice. Parker was struck twice in the chest and also received a “flesh wound” due to a bullet passing through his palm, as well as a grazing wound on his chest.

Thomas said Miller did not have a gun but instead saw a .45 caliber handgun in Parker’s vehicle and at this time seized it and fired back, first firing a shot through the windshield of Parker’s vehicle at Hooks. Miller then fired, Thomas said, at Waller “over the top of the vehicle.”

Miller then saw Parker slumped in his seat, “unresponsive,” and was forced to push Parker over, put the vehicle in reverse and put his foot “over Parker’s [foot]” and reverse out of the location and drive back to the Blue Building, Thomas said.

Miller managed to drive back to the community center, at which point he and Parker were transferred to two other cars which traveled to a ProMed EMT site to seek medical care, according to Thomas.

Parker was pronounced dead after he was taken by ambulance to the Medical Center of South Arkansas.

Waller and Hooks, after leaving the scene, went to El Dorado to purchase and smoke marijuana before driving back to Urbana to leave their vehicle at an “abandoned house place,” Thomas said.

Thomas alleged that a “Waller family meeting” was subsequently held at Waller’s residence, where Hooks and Waller were advised to “get rid of the gun.” The prosecution alleges that the gun was then “stashed” in the woods on or near this property.

Investigators who arrived at the Waller residence heard from Waller, prosecutors allege, that he fired at Parker and Miller in defense of Hooks rather than of himself.

Thomas went on to describe several pieces of physical evidence to the jury that will be presented as the trial goes on.

“We believe the case is straightforward… and there has been excellent police work,” Thomas said.

Defense opening statement

Smith also presented the defense’s timeline in his opening statement and emphasized their focus on self-defense, leading by saying that Waller found himself in a “fight-or-flight” scenario.

“[Waller] tried flight and when he did — Randy Miller fired,” Smith said.

The initial timeline follows similar beats to the prosecution’s — that Hooks and Waller planned to meet with Miller and Parker to purchase Xanax, and that Parker contacted Miller to notify him of potential buyers.

Smith said that Hooks tasted one of the pills and told Waller that he did not believe them to be genuine, and the two declined to purchase the drugs. Smith described an amicable parting between the parties, with Waller even “bumming a cigarette” from Parker and smoking it as Parker and Miller departed.

Hooks and Waller remained at the wooded location, Smith said, and some time later Parker and Miller returned. Waller allegedly noticed a gun at this time resting next to Parker on the center console of the vehicle.

Miller, Smith said, told Waller and Hooks to give them the money and take the pills since they traveled to make the sale. Waller refused and Miller, Smith said, then pointed the gun at Waller.

Smith said that, in contrast with the state’s version, the defense will maintain that Waller and Hooks were standing beside one another. When the gun was raised, Smith said, Hooks ran towards the vehicle he and Waller arrived in while Waller dove to the ground.

Waller then allegedly heard a shot — the shot, Smith said, that Miller fired through the windshield at Hooks, according to the prosecution’s opening statement.

Smith said that three version of events exist — that Hooks ran to the truck, which is Waller’s story; that he was standing by Waller’s vehicle, which Smith said is Miller’s story; or that he was inside the truck, which Smith said was Hooks’s own story “depending on which version you hear.”

Upon hearing the shot, Smith argued, Waller “thought his friend [Hooks] was dead and that he was next.”

He got off the ground and produced the .380 handgun and “unloaded” the weapon and left, Smith said.

Smith also pushed back on the state’s assertion that Waller went to the scene to “get even” with Parker, saying that when leaving his family home, he neglected to take ostensibly more powerful or capable weapons including shotguns, rifles or 9mm pistols with larger magazines than the six-round .380.

Smith also presented a differing version of the “family meeting,” one in which Waller’s father ordered the two to put their phones and guns on the table and prepare to turn themselves in. They went to speak with Waller’s grandfather after which, Smith alleged, Hooks took his phone and the gun and hid it himself.

“Our position is that the only story that makes sense based on facts is the one Mr. Waller has consistently stated,” Smith said.

State Witnesses

Prosecutors called and questioned two witnesses before court adjourned for the day on Tuesday.

The first was El Dorado Police Department investigator Cpt. Scott Harwell, who transported evidence to the Arkansas Crime Lab on behalf of the Union County Sheriff’s Office.

The prosecution and defense both questioned Harwell to establish the timeline of the transportation and turning over of evidence to the crime lab.

Smith reserved the right to call Harwell back as a defense witness later in the trial, likely on Wednesday. Several Arkansas Crime Lab evidence submission sheets were entered as evidence by the prosecution.

The next witness called by the prosecution was Josh Luman, criminal investigator with the Union County Sheriff’s Office. Luman said he was the lead investigator on the case.

Luman said his involvement began on June 5 when he traveled with a UCSO lieutenant to the ProMed outpost on Strong Highway following the shooting.

He observed a vehicle leaving ProMed at a “high rate of speed” and pulled them over to determine any connection to the case. He found that the two occupants of the vehicle did have information and asked them to stay before traveling on to ProMed to question other people there.

Luman also stated during prosecution questioning that he did not see Brandon Parker at ProMed.

He then returned to the Union County Sheriff’s Office to interview individuals connected to the case.

Luman said that he interviewed Randy Miller, who was unable to effectively speak due to “injuries of the mouth;” Luman observed that Miller’s mouth was badly swollen.

He attempted to interview Hooks and Waller but both asked for attorneys, he said.

Luman said he also took pictures of the suspects to create a photo line-up for Miller.

Court adjourned for the day around 4 p.m. and will continue on Wednesday at 9 a.m. on the third floor of the Union County Courthouse.

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