A Talladega County jury of eight men and five women was selected Monday to try Christopher Isaac “El Safari” Surles, 24, for the murder of Matthew Paul Howie, 19, in 2012.
Surles is a member of the sovereign citizens movement and is representing himself at trial. If convicted, he faces 20 to 99 years or life in prison.
During opening statements, assistant district attorney Christina Kilgore told the jury that Surles, Howie and a third man, who knew Surles from high school, had been taking drugs and committing various crimes during July 2012.
At about 5:45 a.m. on July 12, the three men robbed a car at the ATM at the BB&T Bank branch in Oxford. Surles pointed a Derringer in the man’s face, and took his wallet, keys, debit card and another gun. The robbery was captured on video, which will be shown to the jurors later during the trial, Kilgore said.
The card was used at a gas station in Oxford a few minutes after it was stolen, and an attempt to use it was made at a convenience store after that. Howie’s car, a blue Jaguar, was also captured on video at a service station in Munford that morning.
Kilgore said Howie’s mother called and told them that there were warrants out for them. They drove back to Oxford and exchanged the Jaguar for a maroon Buick LeSabre. At this point, Kilgore said Surles became convinced that Howie was a “snitch.” He convinced him to drive back out to Munford with the promise of more drugs, then repeatedly shot him with the stolen gun, Kilgore said. Howie’s body was found on Kentuck Mountain, near McIntosh Road in Munford.
Surles dropped off the third man at a motel in Oxford and, after threatening him as well, fled the state. He was arrested two days later in Tennessee. He was asleep behind the wheel of the Buick in a Walmart parking lot. The murder weapon was in his lap, and the victim’s blood was still on his shoes when he was arrested.
As his own defense attorney, Surles said relatively little during the first day of his trial. Before jury selection, Surles declined to ask any questions of potential jurors. However, when Circuit Judge Bo Hollingsworth asked if he had any challenges, Surles read a statement long on sovereign boilerplate and, in essence, asked the court to dismiss the entire panel.
Similarly, during his opening statement Monday afternoon, Surles did not discuss any of the specifics of his case or of his defense, but read seemingly random passages of the federal rules of procedure to the jury for about 15 minutes. He referred repeatedly to Titles V and X, and to Amendment XI of the U.S. Constitution. He also spent much of the time reading the rules governing admissibility of copied documents in federal appeals, certified copies of public documents and documents which were automatically assumed to be authentic.
At the end of the remarks, he said he was giving an “affidavit of judicial notice” contesting the court’s jurisdiction.
Surles did not cross-examine any of the state’s witnesses Monday.
Testimony will resume today (Tuesday) at 8:30 a.m.
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.