Crime

Man pleads not guilty in Ja-Naya Thompson killing

Alberto Garcia
Alberto Garcia

GULFPORT -- Alberto Julio Garcia has pleaded not guilty to the capital murder of 5-year-old Ja-Naya Thompson of Gulfport.

Garcia was arraigned Friday morning before Judge Lisa Dodson in Harrison County Circuit Court.

Dodson set a tentative trial date of July 18.

Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker announced the state will seek the death penalty.

An autopsy shows Ja-Naya died of asphyxiation by strangulation. Gulfport police have previously testified Ja-Naya was sexually assaulted and hanged in a nearby vacant mobile home.

Ja-Naya was killed July 16, 2014, shortly after she was reported missing from The Palms apartments off Klein Road, according to the indictment. She would have soon started kindergarten at a school across the street from her residence.

Garcia also lived at The Palms.

A Harrison County grand jury indicted Garcia on two felonies that make the crimes a capital offense. He is accused of murdering Ja-Naya during the crime of sexual battery.

About the arraignment

Garcia was brought to court Friday shackled and handcuffed. Four deputies stood behind him and the four public defenders representing him. Courtroom visitors were screened with handheld security devices. Yellow caution tape on the first row of seats prevented anyone from sitting near Garcia, who wore a red-and-white jail uniform.

Garcia turned to look at Parker as the prosecutor read the indictment.

Dodson asked Garcia how he wished to plead.

"Not guilty, ma'am," Garcia said.

Defense expenses approved

After the brief hearing, Dodson approved $15,000 in estimated expenses for Garcia's defense.

Defense attorney Lisa Collums gave estimated costs of $5,000 for a psychiatrist and $10,000 for a mitigation expert. Collums said she may need more money later. The state paid $15,000 for a mitigation expert in the capital murder trial of Abdur Rahim Ambrose, convicted in June, Collums said.

A mitigation specialist compiles an exhaustive report about a defendant. If the defendant is convicted, the expert testifies in the sentencing phase of the trial.

The expert who accepted this job has learned Garcia, originally from Miami, was treated at a children's psychiatric hospital when he was 8 and had issues handled in a youth court, Collums said. Garcia also had lived in North Carolina. The expert needs to travel to obtain records and information, Collums said.

"I'd prefer he stay at the Super 8 than the Ritz-Carlton," Dodson said. The judge said she wants to see itemized expenses.

Ja-Naya's family did not attend Friday's hearing. A member of the District Attorney's Office said the family decided they didn't need to attend the brief formality. Also, her mother is nine months pregnant and is trying to avoid stress, the spokesperson said.

A time of panic

Ja-Naya had been playing just outside the sliding glass doors of her family's apartment when she disappeared. A missing-person report was filed with Gulfport police, who called the FBI and other first-responders and alerted the media. The panic at The Palms and public response to media reports drew a large crowd of first-responders and volunteers who searched for her overnight.

A search dog checking a vacant mobile home of Whitney Drive recognized her scent from a piece of her clothing the next morning. Her family, friends and even people who didn't know them gathered across from the mobile home. Many wept and hugged others. Some shouted in anger until one woman yelled for everyone to hold hands and pray.

A large crowd attended Ja-Naya's visitation and funeral service. She was remembered as a frilly girl who loved dressing up and wearing jewelry.

About the case

An investigator at Garcia's preliminary hearing in March said Ja-Naya had been sexually assaulted and was hanging from two socks tied to a bathroom window's metal bar. The investigator also said Garcia gave details that only the killer would know.

Garcia had implicated Julian Gray, a neighbor whom police named as a person of interest. Police arrested Gray on unrelated sexual assault and child porn charges. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Gray in the capital murder case.

Garcia also faces a burglary charge involving the mobile home where Ja-Naya was found dead. Police say Garcia broke into the trailer four days before Ja-Naya disappeared.

Garcia is held with no bond at the Harrison County jail.

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