An Essex County jury took only three hours Friday to find a Montclair lawyer guilty of murder in the 2018 shooting death of his girlfriend of nine years at their home on North Mountain Avenue. 

James R. Ray III – who admitted shooting Angela Bledsoe but claimed that he had acted in self-defense – was convicted of first-degree murder, unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

The jury’s deliberations in the six-week trial took less time than the defense’s three-and-a-half-hour closing argument.

Ray, 60, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Superior Court Judge Verna G. Leath set sentencing for June 22.

Ray, who was a Marine and a New York City police officer before becoming a lawyer, did not dispute that he shot the 44-year-old Bledsoe in the chest, face and back on Oct. 28, 2018, shortly after she returned home from taking their 6-year-old daughter, Alana, to school.

He then spent hours printing out a will, writing a letter to his brother and going to a local bank, where he withdrew checks and cash, according to testimony. He packed a bag for Alana, picked her up from school and took her to a Piscataway restaurant, where he asked his brother, Robert Ray, to take care of her.

In the girl’s suitcase, Robert Ray testified, he found a letter that detailed his brother’s version of what had happened. James Ray wrote that his guns had been out for cleaning when Bledsoe grabbed one and pointed it at him.

“I reacted in the heat of the moment,” he wrote. “I am scared and don’t want the long burden of a trial to prove my point.”

After leaving his car at Newark Liberty International Airport, Ray took a taxi to Philadelphia. In the following days he hitchhiked west and crossed the border into Mexico, where he booked a flight to Cuba, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. Cuban authorities detained Ray at the airport because of an international warrant for his arrest. Nine days later, he was turned over to agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I., who returned him to the United States. He has been in the Essex County Correctional Facility since then.

In her closing argument on Friday morning, Michele Miller, the lead prosecutor in the trial, emphasized the fact that Ray had fled.

“You don’t just kill somebody on one day and find your way to Cuba six days later,” Miller said. “This was thought out.”

Testimony in the trial painted a picture of a disintegrating relationship.

The two began seeing each other while Ray was still married to his now ex-wife, the mother of two of his children.

Shortly before her death, Bledsoe, an independent financial consultant with a practice in New York, had been making efforts to end things with Ray. She was also having an affair with a man in Florida, a fellow Florida A&M alum.

She was looking to move out of the house she shared with Ray and had an appointment scheduled with a real estate agent on the morning that she was killed.

The prosecution described Ray as a man who controlled and demeaned Bledsoe. In the days before the killing, he sent her text messages with Bible verses about how a woman should be submissive to a man, seen and not heard.

The defense, led by Brooke M. Barnett, contended that Bledsoe was the controlling person in the relationship, choosing him for his money and power and having Ray pay for trips she took while he stayed home and took care of their daughter.

Bledsoe wanted to move out of her home with Ray so she could be with the man she had been having an affair with, a married man with multiple children, just as Ray had been when the two met, the defense said.

Miller praised the jurors for their verdict, adding that she was pleased that Bledsoe’s parents were in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

“They waited a long time for this day and they finally got justice for Angela,” Miller said.

Bledsoe’s father, Ray Bledsoe, thanked the prosecutors for “outstanding work.”

The acting Essex County prosecutor, Theodore N. Stephens, credited the Montclair Police Department, the Allentown Police Department in Pennsylvania, the New Jersey State Police, the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, Customs and Border Protection, Interpol, and the U.S. Department of State for their roles in the investigation.

Stephens also thanked the jury, the prosecutors and the Bledsoe family. 

“I’ve never seen a family as engaged with a trial as they were, and having them in the courtroom every day encouraged us to carry out our mission, which is to serve justice,” Stephens said. “And on this day, justice was served.”

Carla Baranauckas is editor-in-chief of Montclair Local.