In opening arguments in the trial of James R. Ray III, the Montclair attorney charged with murdering his girlfriend, Angela Bledsoe, the defense and prosecution butted heads on the reason for the fatal shooting – whether Ray was acting in self-defense. 

Ray, 60, is accused of murdering Bledsoe, 44, at their shared home on North Mountain Avenue on Oct. 22, 2018, and then fleeing the country. Ray was a lawyer with the law firm Ray and Associates, based in New York. Bledsoe worked as an independent financial consultant with a practice in New York at the time of her death.

Ray was arrested in Cuba five days after Bledsoe was killed. He has been in the Essex County Correctional Facility ever since. 

On Wednesday morning, the two sides presented their arguments to 15 jurors seated in front of Judge Verna G. Leath in Essex County Superior Court in Newark. Only 12 of the jurors will be selected for deliberation.

Also present in the courtroom were about a dozen of Bledsoe’s family members, including her parents, wearing large red pins with her name, photo, and birth and death days, labeled as “sunrise” and “sunset.” Bledsoe’s family has honored her memory with a scholarship fund in her name at her alma mater, Florida A&M. 

Media and legal personnel filled the rest of the room.

Bledsoe and Ray had been in a relationship for six years at the time of Bledsoe’s killing. 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 had been making efforts to end things with Ray, “moving on and moving out” of the house the two shared with their 6-year-old daughter, Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Michele Miller said in her opening statement. Bledsoe was also having an affair with a man in Florida, a fellow Florida A&M alum, the prosecutor said.

She had an appointment scheduled with a real estate agent the morning of Oct. 22, and she was looking for property in the area, Miller said.

But she did not make it to the appointment. That morning Ray shot Bledsoe four times, and three of the bullets hit her directly. She was shot in the center of the chest, face and back, Miller said. The fourth bullet ricocheted off the floor, piercing her clothing and lodging fragments in her body. 

Ray’s lawyer, Brooke M. Barnett, does not dispute that Ray shot Bledsoe. But she argued that he fired the shots in self-defense. After training Bledsoe on gun safety and spending time at shooting ranges with her, Ray knew what she was capable of with a gun in her hands, Barnett said. So when Bledsoe lifted a gun and pointed it at Ray’s head, it was within his legal right to defend himself, she said. 

The defense and prosecution also disagreed on the characterization of Bledsoe and Ray’s relationship. 

Ray was controlling and demeaned Bledsoe, Miller said. The day before the killing, Ray sent her text messages with Bible verses about how a woman should be submissive to a man, seen and not heard, the prosecutor said, adding that while Bledsoe had some reservations, she wanted to leave Ray and was making all the necessary moves to do so. 

Barnett argued that Bledsoe was the controlling person in the relationship, strategically choosing Ray for his money and power. Ray, a former Marine and a former police officer, paid for Bledsoe’s trips and took care of their daughter while she was gone, Barnett said. 

And Bledsoe’s desire to move was to 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, Barnett added.

After shooting Bledsoe, Ray sorted his things, withdrew money from the bank, printed out his will and packed bags for himself and his daughter before picking her up from her private school. He then met up with his brother at a Longhorn Steakhouse in Piscataway, handing his brother two suitcases full of his daughter’s clothes and asking him to take care of her, Miller said. 

Ray posed for a photo with his daughter and excused himself to go to the bathroom before leaving the restaurant, Miller said. Ray’s brother was concerned, driving past Ray’s dark home, before heading back to Pennsylvania with Ray’s daughter.

It was not until later, when Ray’s brother unpacked the little girl's suitcases to find pajamas, that he found a confession note written by Ray, claiming to have shot Bledsoe in self-defense, Ray’s will and money, Miller said. The brother called 911, asking that police check in on the Montclair home. 

“I think there is a murder victim there,” he said, according to Miller’s opening argument. 

Police responded to Ray and Bledsoe’s house on North Mountain Avenue, where they found Bledsoe’s body. She was pronounced dead just after 1 a.m. on Oct. 23.

After leaving his daughter, Ray headed south, traveling from Laredo, Texas, to Mexico City, then on to Havana, Miller said. 

On Oct. 23, he was charged with murder. On Oct. 29, he was arrested by Cuban authorities. On Nov. 6, federal agents escorted Ray back to the United States. 

Both attorneys asked the jury members to listen carefully to what is presented to them during the case, and to think about biases and motives behind the information presented. 

Evidence during the case will include testimony from Bledsoe’s sister and cousin, the real estate agent she had been working with and Ray’s brother, Miller said. 

Text messages, phone logs and recordings, photos and other records from Ray’s phone between 2015 and 2018 will also be introduced. Crime scene personnel, including the detective who investigated the murder scene and the medical examiner, will testify, along with a ballistics expert and an expert in crime-scene reconstruction.