HENDERSON — The opening day of a trial in a fatal shooting on Christmas Eve 2017 in northern Rusk County ended abruptly Wednesday afternoon when the defendant entered a guilty plea and accepted a 40-year prison term after the prosecutor's staff found evidence linking the defendant to the murder weapon.
Marvin Durrell Sanders, 38, of Kilgore had faced from five to 99 years or life in prison on a first-degree murder charge in the death of his cousin, Waylon Hunt, 37, of Kilgore. Hunt died from a gunshot wound to the head during a family gathering after church on Dec. 24, 2017.
During the lunch break Wednesday, prosecutors discovered a clerical error that linked Sanders to the murder weapon.
"It was incriminating information," Rusk County Assistant District Attorney Zack Wavrusa said.
Wavrusa said testimony Wednesday morning in Judge Clay Gossett's 4th District Court in Henderson prompted prosecutors and defense attorney Jonathan Hyatt to question forensic evidence from the Department of Public Safety.
"We discovered, through a clerical issue, that there were some forensic reports," he said. "They were not made available to the District Attorney's Office."
Shortly before the lunch break, Rusk County Sheriff's Investigator Russell Smith was describing how the scene had been investigated when Hyatt asked if DNA taken from the gun had been sent to a Department of Public Safety laboratory.
When Smith's answer was, "I believe so," Gossett asked the jurors to leave the room after which Hyatt motioned for a delay to test the gun. During testimony that ensued when the jury returned, one of Rusk County District Attorney Micheal Jimerson's staff members handed him several documents with DPS letterhead.
After the discrepancy was confirmed, discussions followed with the widow and mother of Hunt, who had been a youth minister at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church near the Monroe community.
Earlier, during morning testimony Jimerson described the puzzling crime to the eight-woman, four-man jury.
"This was a Christmas Eve execution on Christmas Eve 2017," Jimerson said during his opening statement. "It starts with both of these men in church that day. Waylon Hunt is one of the leaders of the service. They're the same age; they're cousins. They've known each other most of their lives."
Hunt was known as "Uncle Waylon" in the New Hope community where he coached youth ballgames, Jimerson said. He said Hunt had been pleased to see his sometimes wayward cousin at the service.
"Nothing seems odd," the prosecutor said. "That afternoon, everybody in the family, a lot of folks that are out there. ... They're drinking beer. Nobody is acting up. It seemed like everything was appropriate and proper, which makes all of this so chilling."
Jimerson described a workshop on the family property where tables and a TV were set up. He said Sanders just took out a .40-caliber handgun, put it to his cousin's left temple and fired one round.
"And he's dead," Jimerson said. "It is just as odd as it sounds. It is a Christmas Eve execution."
Wavrusa said Hunt's widow, during a victim's impact statement that followed the 2:30 p.m. guilty plea, had asked Sanders why he'd shot her husband.
"He just said he was not in his right mind," Wavrusa said. "He does not know why it happened."
Hyatt acknowledged the "senseless tragedy" at the family Christmas Eve gathering.
"And there's no explanation," he told jurors during his opening statement. "I wish that Waylon didn't pass in this way. I wish that Waylon didn't pass at all; so does my client."
Also during morning testimony, Rusk County Sheriff's Detective Austin Wright later said he had arrived at the Rusk County home to find " ... a whole lot of people, some of them hysterical."
He said Sanders was sitting on the front porch with his father while three men rotated on performing chest compressions on Hunt. Jurors saw body camera footage showing Hunt lying on his back, blood pooling behind his head.
Sanders kept his head down during the six minutes of video footage.
Hyatt repeatedly asked witnesses about his client's demeanor at the scene and during transport to the Rusk County Jail.
"He was very quiet," said Rusk County Sheriff's Deputy Caleb Johnson, who had taken Sanders to jail. "And I believe about halfway through the drive, he started crying."