Trial delayed for suspect who killed Nebraska man

By: Brittany Paris
bparis@klkntv.com

Justice for Thomas Schlender might have to wait a little longer. A new piece of evidence, a wallet, revealed in a Mississippi courtroom on Thursday has sparked a delay.

James Willie's trial was supposed to start next week.

It was May 8, 2012 that 74-year-old Schlender was found shot to death inside his car along a Mississippi interstate.

The Raymond man was headed to Florida to pick up his grandson from college.

His accused killer, Willie, 29, was in court Thursday. He's also the suspect in another highway murder, but he'll be tried separately.

New evidence links Willie to Schlender's death. Investigators say they found the Nebraska man's wallet in Willie's possession.

“It was found in a cereal box in Mr. Willie's apartment in a kitchen cabinet,” David Walker, Willie's defense attorney, said.

Because of that evidence, the state of Mississippi is seeking the death penalty.

“The wallet is so critical,” Walker said. “Without the wallet, it wouldn't be a capital murder case. It would be a simple murder case where maximum penalty is life in prison.”

Investigators say they've shown Schlender's family pictures of the wallet and they've identified it.

But Willie's defense lawyers aren't convinced that wallet belongs to Schlender.

“The state lawyers can't just show one wallet to a family member and say it is the wallet of the victim,” Walker said. “We say it should be similar to a photographic lineup of a human where you have victim identify it from a series of wallets.”

The defense has asked to have the evidence omitted. Willie also turned down a deal to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

“I do believe there will be serious discussions again as we get closer to whenever trial will be,” John Champion, Desoto District County Attorney, said.

The court will reevaluate the case and set a new trial date in January.