State rests its case in Amber McDaniel sentencing trial

The defense calls James’s sister as a witness for his abuse, and Amber’s sister and father as witnesses for her grief after Wilder’s death.
The Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center in Fort Worth, TX - Tarrant County.
The Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center in Fort Worth, TX - Tarrant County.(KAUZ)
Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 11:15 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 14, 2023 at 5:47 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

TARRANT COUNTY, Texas (KAUZ) - Day three of testimony in the sentencing trial for Amber McDaniel began Thursday morning with Wichita Falls Police Sgt. Brian Sheehan called to the stand.

Wichita Co. District Attorney John Gillespie began his questioning by showing the jury Facebook posts McDaniel made about the ‘Justice for Wilder’ campaign. He also showed comments from the social media platform where McDaniel was critical of the WFPD, saying the department ‘screwed up’ the investigation.

Gillespie asked Sgt. Sheehan if McDaniel keeping text messages that showed James Staley’s derogatory language about Wilder from police hindered the investigation. Sgt. Sheehan said yes, and Gillespie asked him if those text messages would have been important for the police to know. Sgt. Sheehan said yes.

The sergeant said on the stand that McDaniel keeping evidence from them delayed their investigation significantly.

During cross-examination, McDaniel’s defense lawyer, Mark Barber, pointed out that McDaniel showed police a picture of Wilder after an incident where Staley claimed the two-year-old fell off a bed the day after Wilder was found dead. Barber also said McDaniel showed police the text message where Staley said “[Expletive] and scumbags should be culled” immediately after Wilder’s death.

Sgt. Sheehan confirmed that text was shown to officers but said McDaniel failed to show police several other messages. Barber pointed out that in a text where Staley said, “Maybe he will die of sids,” referring to Wilder, Staley put laughing emojis. Barber noted due to the emojis, McDaniel did not take it seriously. Barber told Sgt. Sheehan that he does not know McDaniel personally, so he does not know how she would take a text like that.

During the redirect examination, Gillespie asked Sgt. Sheehan if texts can be an important piece of the puzzle to determine who committed a murder. Sgt. Sheehan answered yes.

Following the sergeant’s testimony, Ty Davis, chief investigator for the Wichita Co. District Attorney’s office, was called to the stand.

During his testimony, Davis said McDaniel never disclosed any ‘mean’ texts from James Staley. Gillespie pointed out to the jury that he told McDaniel he needed any information that could help the case. Davis testified that McDaniel said Staley only targeted Wilder when he was intoxicated.

Gillespie showed a photo of a Mickey Mouse toy that Staley had torn apart and blamed on the ‘kitchen monster’ to Davis and the jury. Gillespie asked Davis if someone ripped his child’s favorite toy apart, would he see that as a red flag. Davis said yes. During cross-examination, defense attorney Mark Barber pointed out that many women get in and stay in abusive relationships.

Both attorneys went back and forth with Davis following cross-examination to clarify their points. During redirect examination, Gillespie said McDaniel and Staley’s relationship lasted only 75 days, adding she barely knew him. Gillespie asked Davis if the messages McDaniel destroyed were important, to which Davis said yes.

Gillespie asked Davis if he thinks people who destroy evidence do it from their own conscious guilt. Davis said yes. Barber told the jury that McDaniel testified during Staley’s murder trial with no plea deal or immunity. Gillespie’s final point before Davis got off the stand was about McDaniel continuing to post on social media despite law enforcement telling her to stop.

The following person called to the stand was Sgt. Marisa Cervantes-Hughes with the Wichita Falls Police Department. Cervantes-Hughes was involved in investigating Wilder’s death when she was a detective. Gillespie asked Cervantes-Hughes if they gave McDaniel several opportunities to show them text messages Staley sent her about Wilder. Cervantes-Hughes said yes.

Gillespie played a video of an interview McDaniel participated in with Detective Fowler and Cervantes-Hughes in July 2021. In that interview, McDaniel was asked about deleted text messages. She said she did not think she had deleted any. Later in the interview, Amber said that she deleted the texts with Staley in the first weeks after Wilder’s death because she didn’t even want anything about Staley on her phone.

In the video, Fowler asked Amber what she and James would text about. Amber said they would joke around about the kids, sexual jokes, and joke about life in general. Fowler asked what kind of jokes they would make about the kids, and Amber didn’t have a clear answer., but told Fowler and Cervantes that Staley would sometimes refer to Wilder as “the n-word.” She said that James would sometimes joke around and tell Amber he would put her and Wilder back in the dumpster where he found them.

Fowler asked if there were any other instances, besides the dumpster, where Staley would say things about doing things to Wilder. Amber told police she thinks she remembers a text where he might have said he would hurt them. While crying, Amber said she wanted to remember the messages because she didn’t want to be the reason Staley walked free.

She told police that she and James mostly argued because James would tell her she babied Wilder too much. She told James that Wilder was “two years old; he is a baby.”

After the state examined Cervantes, the defense had an opportunity to cross-examine her. Defense attorney Barber asked Cervantes if she was a memory expert. She said no, and he released her from the stand.

Gillespie then read portions of testimony from Amber’s sister, Shalah Wakefield, taken at Staley’s trial.

Wakefield said Amber had once called when Shalah and Amber’s mom were watching Wilder. She said when Wilder heard Amber’s voice, he immediately yelled, “no James.”

She said she thought Wilder was just trying to get used to Staley.

The last time Shalah saw Wilder was Oct. 7, 2019. She said Amber was picking Wilder up to go to Staley’s house, and Wilder was screaming, “no James, no James.” She said Wilder reached over Amber’s shoulder, yelling for Shalah and screaming, “no James.”

The prosecution rested its case at 3:04 p.m. The defense began its testimony with Martha Bea Staely, James’s sister.

Martha Bea Staley, often called Bea, testified that she was one of the many women he used as a punching bag. Bea told the defense that one of her and James’s mom’s boyfriends would call James names that he later would call Wilder.

She said he would be abusive, and when he would get sober, she would take him back after he apologized. She said Staley “takes people’s hearts, souls, obviously takes people’s lives now too.” Bea said she didn’t like saying these things about her brother, but she was testifying for Amber.

During Gillespie’s cross-examination, he asked Bea if she ever met Amber when she was dating James. Bea said she “didn’t have to know Amber to know he’s abusive.” Gillespie objected to her response, and the judge told her only to answer the questions she was asked.

Bea said if Staley gets out, she is in danger. But she is doing this because it is the right thing to do. Gillespie pointed out how even though Bea is Staley’s sister, she didn’t hesitate to come forward with evidence (such as text messages) during the Staley trial.

Next, the defense called Amber’s father, David Taylor. Taylor testified that he and Amber’s mom thought they would lose Amber to suicide after Wilder’s death. He said that Amber was very depressed after Wilder’s death and would stay at the cemetery where Wilder was buried, sleeping next to his grave with blankets and pillows.

Gillespie asked Taylor to recall the last time he saw Wilder on this earth. Taylor said Wilder grabbed his face and said, “Papa, no James house.”

Gillespie asked Taylor if Amber kept things from their family to paint a better picture of her and James’ relationship. He then shows Taylor text messages between Amber and Staley that he says he did not know about.

Gillespie asks Taylor if he had known about any of the messages, would he have stopped Amber from taking Wilder the day he said, “Papa, no James house,” and after a long pause, he said yes.

The defense called Amber’s sister, Shalah Wakefield, to the stand. When they asked how Wilder’s death affected her, Shalah said she’s struggling now more than she ever has. She said she didn’t just lose Wilder but also Amber.

Shalah has repeatedly testified how great of a mother Amber was to Wilder and continues to be to Phoenix.

The court called a recess until 9 a.m. tomorrow when the testimony will resume with more of the defense’s arguments and witnesses.

Alyssa Osterdock is in the courtroom in the Tim Curry Justice Center following the latest developments. Be sure to stick with News Channel 6 as we follow the court proceedings.