ST. JOSEPH — He had a gun in his pocket. She had a hatchet in her purse.
The longtime, volatile relationship between William Edwards and Novena Mathis came to a violent end on Jan. 7, 2018 when she was shot in the head and killed inside her car.
Opposing attorneys in Edwards’ murder trial on Tuesday presented conflicting opening arguments about what happened inside that car, with Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Jane Wainwright arguing that it was a premeditated killing and Chief Public Defender Christopher Renna countering that his client acted in self defense.
Edwards is accused of shooting and killing Mathis, his companion he had known since they were 12, and with whom he had two children. Mathis’ body was found in the parking lot of the Hayward Wells townhouses in Benton Harbor, in the front seat of her car.
“This case is about power, who has it and who wants it, and how to take it away,” Wainwright stated to jurors in Judge Gordon Hosbein’s courtroom.
She said that, after 26 years, Edwards no longer had power over Mathis, and it enraged him, leading him to shoot her.
The accused even admitted what he had done to family members, the prosecutor said.
In a phone call to his daughter, Dasha Mathis, who had been frantically trying to locate her missing mother, Wainwright said Edwards told her “I already got her. She’s already gone. I should have shot you, too.”
She also said that Edwards told his mother, “I put my baby mamma in the freezer” because she had recorded him talking about drug deals.
Wainwright said that Edwards’ animosity toward his daughter, now 21, stemmed from accusations she had made years before that he sexually assaulted her from the age of 5. Her presence in her mother’s home ignited the explosive atmosphere that led to the shooting death, according to the prosecutor.
Defense attorney Renna called the death of Mathis “a tragic accident” and an act of self defense since Edwards knew that she kept the hatchet in the purse she was reaching for, before he brandished his gun.
Mathis had injured Edwards with that same hatchet a few weeks before the shooting incident, Renna said. The gun went off when they both struggled for it, he said.
The events started with the arrival of Dasha Mathis and her two children at the home shared by Edwards and Novena Mathis. Because of the accusations of sexual assault, Edwards had said he could never live under the same roof with his daughter, and packed up to leave.
When he couldn’t get someone to pick him up, Novena Mathis offered to drive him to the Harbor Towers apartments, telling her family she’d be right back, Wainwright said.
Before leaving the house, Edwards put a gun in his coat pocket, the prosecutor said.
Edwards sat in Mathis’ car at Harbor Towers with “a heart filled with hate,” Wainwright said. She told the jurors that he had a history of domestic violence against her.
With the alleged recordings of his drug dealing, Edwards “no longer had the power” over Mathis “and could no longer use threats,” Wainwright said, and so he shot her.
Wainwright said the prosecution would present evidence that the gun was placed directly against Mathis’ head, as well as testimony from a firearms expert that the weapon was unlikely to have been fired accidentally.
For the defense
Renna maintained that it was Mathis who was angry, because her plans to bring the family together had not worked out.
“It was her test, a test that William failed,” Renna said of his reaction when daughter Dasha arrived.
Renna said that there were no threats or violence from Edwards before he left the house. There is no evidence of the alleged videos about drug deals, and no evidence beyond the individual statements that he said anything about purposely killing Mathis, he added.
As to the allegations of sexual molestation, Renna said they were false and no charges were ever filed. He said his client decided he couldn’t be in a house where he could be accused again.
Mathis had her own history of domestic violence, Renna said, that included the hatchet assault on Edwards. He showed photos of a wounded Edwards in the hospital.
“These are all the things floating around Mr. Edwards’ head as he was sitting in the car,” Renna said. “She brought the hatchet, she reached for it. William had no choice.”
The prosecutor said that, after the shooting, Edwards drove the car to the nearby townhouses and left the body stuffed in the passenger seat, covered with garbage bags.
Edwards then had a friend drive him to Kalamazoo to see his mother.
While there, he pistol-whipped his mother, who called the police and had him arrested, Wainwright said.
Renna painted a different picture, saying that Edwards’ mother stabbed him in the arm with a pair of scissors, took his money “and threw him under the bus” by calling the police, and later changing her story.
Testimony began with Jimmie Caldwell, Novena Mathis’ father. He said when his daughter didn’t respond to his calls “I knew something was wrong.”
The prosecutor’s office has more than 80 witnesses lined up to testify.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak