JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After days of jury selection, the trial of a Jacksonville man accused of raping, impregnating and killing his niece got underway Thursday in Duval County.
Johnathan Quiles was indicted for the first-degree murder of his niece, 16-year-old Iyana Sawyer, and her unborn baby, believed to be his child, in addition to having sex with a minor because Sawyer was only a teenager at the time.
Sawyer’s uncle, who denies killing her, could face the death penalty if he’s convicted of her murder. A new 2023 ruling now allows a death sentence with only an 8 to 4 vote by the jury instead of the 12 to 0 previously needed.
Prosecutors started opening statements by reciting statements they say were made by Quiles:
“The girl might be pregnant.”
“I can’t lose my family.”
“I have to get rid of the body.”
“The dumpster is at my job. I control what gets dumped.”
“They’re going to give me the needle.”
“Ladies and gentlemen jury, those statements you will hear not only from the defendant’s voice or through his own biological brother, Joseph Quiles,” State Attorney Cameron French said.
In its opening statement that followed, the defense argued prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Quiles murdered his niece, or that she is dead at all.
The defense said the state can’t prove that Quiles was indeed the father of the unborn child and noted that Sawyer’s body has not been found and she may still be alive. The defense also said there is no blood or crime scene and DNA evidence that will be presented by prosecutors does not prove Quiles is the killer.
After opening statements, the state called multiple witnesses to the stand including Sawyer’s mother to testify about her daughter’s pregnancy, Sawyer’s relationship with her uncle and her disappearance.
Mother Kimberly Mobley said the unborn child was a girl and her name was going to be “Hazel Michelle Mobley.”
One of her close friends said the day Sawyer went missing, Sawyer told them she’d be going to stay with Quiles for two weeks.
Family members also testified their concerns over Quiles happened even before she went missing.
Sawyers’s grandmother on the stand testified that during Thanksgiving 2018 she saw Quiles intimately hugging Sawyer.
“He was hugged up, full embrace, when they seen me it startled him...Not a hug an uncle would give,” Winella Haynes said.
Haynes said she told Mobley to not let Quiles around her kids and to her knowledge she did that.
Mobley said she found out Sawyer was pregnant just 16 days before she was reported missing.
During cross-examination, the defense had witnesses admit Sawyer never told anyone Quiles was the father. But Mobley said her daughter told her someone named “Jose” was the father and prosecutors said Sawyer’s sister will testify “Jose” is actually Quiles.
It has been almost five years since Sawyer disappeared. On Dec. 19, 2018, Sawyer was seen on surveillance video at Terry Parker High School. She was never seen again, and no trace of her has been found.
Court records reveal Sawyer was on her way to Quiles’ job at a salvage yard on the north side the day she vanished.
Police believe Sawyer, who was five months pregnant at the time, was shot and killed, then placed into a dumpster and taken to the Otis Road Landfill. Investigators looked through more than 5,000 tons of trash but never found her remains.
Prosecutors believe there’s enough evidence to convict Quiles of murdering and raping Sawyer, even though her body has not been found.
Prosecutors Daniel Skinner and French will have to prove that Quiles is guilty through witness testimony and evidence, and the legal team of Bob Davis and Christine Rochelle are tasked with defending Quiles.
According to the witness list, over 60 people could be called to testify in the case before Judge Anthony Salem. Some people on the witness list include Quiles’ brother, to whom he supposedly admitted the crime, a jail informant and more.
The judge expected 14 witnesses to be called on Thursday.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.