Judge’s decision to allow murder suspect’s past, personal writings at trial is weeks away

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James Opelton Bradley
James Opelton Bradley

New Hanover County prosecutors will have to wait a little longer for word on whether they can bring to light what they see as the shady – and relevant – past of James Opelton Bradley in his upcoming murder trial.

A four-day hearing ahead of that trial wound down Thursday with both sides giving final remarks about the introduction of evidence District Attorney Ben David believes is crucial to the case, including Bradley’s suspected involvement in another woman’s death and a prior murder conviction. Bradley, 53, is facing first-degree murder charges in the presumed death of 52-year-old Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk, who has been missing for a little more than two years.

But following days of testimony that ended with those closing statements, Judge Paul Jones did not render a decision, instead asking for transcripts of the proceedings.

It’s a request David’s assistant, Samantha Dooies, said is not uncommon in such instances. It could be as late as June before the judge hands rules on the prosecution’s request, Dooies noted, since the court reporter now has 30 days to prepare the documents and the judge, two weeks to review them, before the next hearing date is set.

At issue is whether a jury should be allowed to know that Bradley served 25 years for the strangulation death of his eight-year-old stepdaughter in 1988, to hear that he remains a suspect in the murder of 34-year-old Elisha Tucker and to read two of Bradley’s own short stories, both about vicious killers.

Under Rule 404(b) of NC law, such evidence cannot be used in a courtroom to establish a person’s character in order to show he then acted accordingly in a crime in which he is facing new charges. However, it is admissible as a means of proving motive, opportunity and intent, among other allowances.

Citing several cases in which prior convictions and behavior became pertinent – including the murder trial of Durham resident Michael Peterson in 2003 – David reiterated his argument such information about Bradley showed he had a “common plan or scheme” in targeting victims. Accused of killing his wife, Peterson claimed he found her at the foot of the stairs, dead from an apparent fall. An investigation revealed that 18 years earlier and in Germany, Peterson had discovered a neighbor the same way. Though he was never charged, that similarity was brought to light during his trial to establish a pattern.

The same is true of Bradley, David said, who targeted vulnerable women like Tucker and Van Newkirk, who struggled with addiction, “didn’t have a man on the other side of the door” and were the objects of Bradley’s sexual desire. Bradley has not been charged with the death of Tucker, who was found bound and wrapped in trash bags in a shallow grave on a farm in Hampstead after going missing in 2013.

But David has pointed out that eight-year-old Ivy Gibson’s body, too, was found wrapped, bound and hidden away. And in those instances, as well as the search for Van Newkirk, David said Bradley has been “completely uncooperative.”

Giving David “credit for his creativity,” Bradley’s attorney, Rick Miller, said he was “stretching” the purpose of 404(b) nearly to the point of violating constitutional rights to a fair trial.

“As much as the DA would like you to adopt theories as similarities, you cannot do that,” Miller said.

Further, he said any similarities between Gibson and Tucker bear no weight on the case at hand, the presumed murder of a woman whose body has not been found.

“This is not about comparing these two oranges,” Miller said about Gibson and Tucker. “This is about comparing both of those oranges to why we’re in here now…And we don’t know what happened to Shannon.”

And gruesome as Bradley’s writing may be, Miller argued it was unrelated because it was not real.

“These are stories. They’re about a man who eats women and a vampire serial killer. They’re disturbing, yes, but they have no relevance to this case,” he said.

Miller hinted that what David really wanted was to pull at heart strings to produce a guilty verdict.

“We just want to fire this jury up…and nothing will fire a jury up, that I know of, more than a prior murder conviction,” he said.

Acknowledging his request was unusual, though not entirely unique, David said prosecutors are “unafraid of making precedent.”

“These are hard cases,” he said. “And these three females are worth it.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.

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