By Heide Brandes
DUNCAN, Oklahoma (Reuters) - One of three Oklahoma teenagers charged with fatally shooting an Australian student athlete who was jogging in a small town in August testified on Tuesday that a co-defendant had pulled the trigger and later said he thought the handgun held blanks.
James Edwards Jr., Chancey Allen Luna and Michael Dewayne Jones were charged as adults with first-degree murder in the shooting of Christopher Lane, a Melbourne resident who was attending university in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship.
The teenagers are accused of tracking Lane, who police said was shot in the back on August 16 while jogging in Duncan, Oklahoma, a town about 80 miles south of Oklahoma City. Lane, 23, was a student at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. No date has yet been set for the trial.
Edwards testified on Tuesday in a court hearing to determine whether Luna and Jones should stand trial in the case, and prosecutors said Edwards would face a lesser charge if he continued to testify through trial.
Edwards testified that Luna had fired the shot that struck Lane. He said he was in the front passenger seat that day and rolling a marijuana cigarette while Jones was driving the car and Luna was in the backseat.
He saw a jogger on the side of the road ahead, looked down to roll the joint and felt the car swerve, Edwards said.
"I heard a gunshot," he said. "I heard it from the right side of the car."
Edwards said he looked in the mirror and saw Lane lying on his stomach, and that Luna, with a "shocked and cold expression," said he thought there were supposed to be blanks in the gun.
Afterward, Luna's attorney, Jim Berry, said Edwards' testimony that the car swerved showed that the gun could have gone off accidentally and noted that Edwards also testified that Jones and Luna thought they were shooting blanks.
"I think that shows an absence of malice and that there was no planning or premeditation," Berry told reporters.
Stephens County Judge Jerry Herberger said the hearing would continue on March 12.
A preliminary hearing to determine if Edwards should face trial on the first-degree murder charge and a new accessory to murder charge was scheduled for May 13.
According to police, Jones had said the teens had decided to kill someone "for the fun of it." Police have said Jones told them they saw Lane jogging, decided to target him and then followed him in their vehicle before shooting him.
If convicted of first-degree murder, the teens face a possible sentence of life in prison without parole. Oklahoma law allows a death sentence for first-degree murder, but people convicted of capital crimes committed before age 18 cannot be sentenced to death in the United States.
The three defendants were under age 18 when the shooting occurred.
(Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Gunna Dickson)