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Testimony Begins in Marshall County Capital Murder Case

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The brother of a woman killed by her husband told a Marshall County jury he saw the shooting happen.

"When I arrived he had her in a headlock, with [the gun] to her head," Billy Droze said.

Jesse Phillips is charged with capital murder in the February 2009 killing of Erica Carmen Droze Phillips and the couple's unborn child.

Droze testified he came to Alabama to visit his family, and met his sister, her husband, and their two young children at McDonald's near Huntsville.

Then the five of them went to Guntersville to visit another brother.

They met at the Lakeside Car Wash on Highway 69, where the shooting happened.

"There will be no dispute from us that Jesse shot Erica," defense attorney Bruce Gardner said in his opening statements Thursday afternoon.

Phillips is the first person in Alabama to be charged with capital murder under the Brody Law, passed by the state legislature in 2006.

It allows prosecutors to charge a person with capital murder in the death of an unborn child.

Previously, individuals faced a charge for child endangerment of a fetus.

Gardner said the state must prove Phillips was thinking about killing the child, referred to in the trial as Baby Doe, when he pulled the trigger in order for a conviction of capital murder.

"The state has assumed the burden of proving to you beyond a reasonable doubt, that at the time of this act, my client's purpose and his intent, was to kill not only his wife, but her unborn child," Gardner said.

Billy Droze testified he did not hear a conversation between his sister and Phillips while at the car wash.

He and their brother Lance were in another bay at the car wash.

Droze said after Lance left, he heard his sister shout "Help me Bill."

He went to the bay where Erica's car was, and said he saw the gun.

Droze testified he tried to get Phillips to give him the gun.

"You guys always need money, if you'll give me the gun, I'll throw it in the lake and give you some money for it," Droze said he told Phillips.

He said Erica was able to escape from Phillips' grasp, but a gun fired within seconds.

Droze estimated his sister was about 10 feet away from Phillips.

"One shot, a single shot from nine millimeter handgun fired by Jesse Phillips," district attorney Steve Marshall said to begin his opening statement to the jury.

"A single vicious, unprovoked act that resulted in two deaths.  The first victim, Erica Droze, wife of Jesse and mother of their children.

"The second victim, a child called Baby Doe, in the first trimester who died along with the mother," Marshall said.

"Two murders, each committed by single act of this defendant, a crime we ask to find guilty of capital murder."

Marshall and Gardner both said in their opening statements the evidence will show Jesse Phillips got in his car and drove away from the car wash after shooting his wife.

They said within an hour, Phillips drove to the Albertville police station and put his hands in the air while as a deputy confronted him.

Marshall said the investigator will testify Phillips said, without being questioned, "I did it."

Gardner said when another investigator asked if Phillips was a suspect, Phillips said "I'm not a suspect, I did it."

The defense said they will show Phillips snapped on that day, and it was a result of how his wife treated him.

"Among the reasons he snapped is for most of his married life, and including this day, his wife constantly belittled him, berated him, and shamed him," Gardner said.

"She referred to him from time to time as a [homophobic slur].  But probably the most stirring one is that he was nothing but a sorry a-- [racial slur] and that he would never be any more than a sorry a-- [racial slur].

"There's only so much of that I'll tell you that my client could take," Gardner said.

Gardner told the jury it does not excuse Phillips' behavior, but it may help explain it.

"Words alone are never, no matter how vile they are, never justify the taking of a human life.

"They don't.  We are not saying they do.  We are offering it and you will hear it for the purpose of understanding the context in which this happened," Gardner said.

Defense attorneys said they admit Phillips' involvement in his killing his wife, but Gardner argued the capital charge should not stand.

"I think that there will be embraced within this indictment, other charges included, that you can decide between the one charge," Gardner said.

The jury could find Phillips guilty of murder instead of capital murder.