Trial begins for Austin man accused of killing retired IBM executive

2:13 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 Local
Irwin Pentland arrives at his murder trial at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on Tuesday. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A man accused of shooting to death a retired IBM executive in 2015 pleaded not guilty to a capital murder charge Tuesday morning as prosecutors began to lay out their case against him.

Prosecutors also allege that Irwin “Ernie” Pentland stole thousands of dollars from Phillip Liberty with forged checks before the 75-year-old was found dead in his three-story home in Austin’s Northwest Hills neighborhood.

“He did it by shooting him with a firearm, and he did it by shooting him with a firearm in the face,” Travis County Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Sylestine told the jurors. “This was a well thought out and planned crime.”

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Sylestine promised jurors evidence that Pentland had even attempted a dry run of the killing the day before and that cellphone logs put Pentland in or near Liberty’s home about the time of the homicide.

The defense responded by focusing on the circumstantial nature of the prosecution’s case.

“The evidence will show there’s not going to be a weapon; the evidence will show there’s not going to be a witness,” said Pentland’s attorney, Jeff Senter. “There’s not going to be a confession.

“No one sees Ernie Pentland going in,” Senter added. “No one sees Ernie Pentland going out.”

Prosecutors in their opening statement offered graphic images of Liberty’s body on the floor of his garage and of blood that had leaked out beneath the garage door and onto the driveway when he was found Nov. 19, 2015.

More than 20 of Liberty’s friends and relatives sat in the courtroom. Attorneys said they expected the trial to last at least a week.

Prosecutors centered their opening statement on evidence that was largely offered in an arrest affidavit made public when the murder charge was first filed in January 2016.

According to that court filing, Austin police detectives quickly zeroed in on Pentland as their prime suspect after he offered inconsistent accounts about why he picked up Liberty’s grandson from day care.

Prosecutors told jurors that Pentland took the child — even though he wasn’t on the list of the child’s guardians at the day care — and stashed him in his mother’s empty South Austin house, miles away from Liberty’s neighborhood.

RELATED: Police investigating child endangerment charge in homicide case

According to the arrest affidavit, Pentland told officers at one point that Liberty asked him to pick up his grandson from day care but that he left the toddler in the South Austin home to hide him from Pentland’s wife.

He was initially arrested by Austin police on a charge of endangering the toddler on Dec. 2, 2015. Pentland’s criminal history included a charge of felony robbery, records show.

However, Pentland’s attorney said his client’s actions “frankly has little to do with the homicide, where there is no witness, no weapon and no confession.”

Prosecutors also mentioned the more than $20,000 that Pentland is accused of stealing from Liberty using forged checks, which he cashed in the days just before and after the killing. The claim was featured prominently in the January 2016 arrest affidavit, but Sylestine said Tuesday that it was unclear whether Liberty knew about the withdrawals at the time of his death.

The two men, about three decades apart in age, met at a support group about seven years before Liberty’s death, according to investigators.

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