Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Defense Rests: Wednesday, January 31

Immediately following the lunch recess the prosecution announced it would rest, and the defense’s inaugural witness was Phillip McClean, coroner for Graves County. McClean testified about what his typical course of action would be in a situation similar to the accident of Nov. 11, 2005.

McClean went through his entire process, from logging the time he arrived at the scene and releasing the EMS crew to covering the body with a sheet and storing it in a body bag. The most notable parts of his testimony, however, were when he discussed his measurements of outside air and body temperatures. He said he would then use the body temperature to estimate the time of death at the scene of the crime, and additionally check for signs of rigor mortis. “Time of death, to me it’s very important ... in any situation involving foul play,” McClean told the defense counselors.

On cross examination Harris asked McClean if he was familiar with Amy Burrows Beckham (see testimony from the afternoon of day one). McClean testified that he does know her and does trust her opinion, but went on to say that the opinions and analysis of professionals like Burrows Beckham can only be as reliable as the samples or information they are given from local coroners. On re-direct, McClean testified that on several occasions he has contacted the state medical examiners’ office to request assistance with a body.

The defense next called Rep. Brent Yonts, father of defendant Harrison Yonts. Prior to his entry into the courtroom, however, a letter was stipulated into the proceedings from Joseph Cohen, a doctor of forensic pathology. Both defense and prosecution agreed that the letter and its contained facts and opinions would be entered into the record as though Cohen had been present at the trial. The primary purpose of Cohen’s opinion for the defense was to further establish that Shaheen’s time of death cannot be pinned down to the approximate 2:30 a.m. time suggested by the state. Cohen’s opinion was that it is just as likely that she died in the last couple of hours of the time window as the first couple of hours.

Brent Yonts then took the stand, testifying first on biographical information and his work in the state of Kentucky’s house of representatives. Rep. Yonts testified that his son had held many jobs throughout his teen years, including an internship related to his academic major during a recent summer. He also testified that he’d never known his son to back his car into the driveway, and that he had not communicated with his son at all on Nov. 10 or Nov. 11, 2005, until he was in Murray following the notification that his son had been detained. He said his son had no previous DUI charges. There was no cross examination.

Next to the stand was Janice Yonts, mother of Harrison Yonts and wife of Rep. Brent Yonts. Janice Yonts testified that she also did not receive any communication from her son during the period in question, and that his previous history would dictate that if he were in trouble he would call her right away. On cross examination, Janice Yonts testified that though he did call her when he was in trouble, he had never called her while drunk.

Grant Richerson was called to the stand, but the court went into a 15-minute recess and, following the break, Richerson was dismissed and never approached the stand. Instead the defense called Skylar Pharris, whose name had been brought up previously in connection with descriptions of what Yonts was wearing the night of Nov. 10, 2005. Pharris is also a brother of Lambda Chi, and said he saw Yonts the night of the party wearing a white polo shirt with orange stripes. The defense asked Farris to look at a video tape viewed by the court Tuesday of the interior of Yonts’s apartment. The video was viewed earlier in the morning, as well, during the testimony of Detective Kendra Smith. Pharris positively identified the shirt on the toilet seat in Yonts’s bathroom as the shirt he was wearing the night before at the party. During cross examination, Pharris testified that Yonts had also been wearing jeans and a toboggan, though he was unsure if it was gray and later retracted the term “toboggan” in preference of “beanie.” He could not recall whether Yonts was wearing a fleece

Next in the defense’s line-up was Brent Johnson, one of Yonts’s roommates at the time of the accident. Johnson is a senior brother of Lambda Chi, and said he was not at the apartment the night of Nov. 10, 2005, but that his vehicle had been in the driveway. He clarified that he had been present at the apartment until 10 p.m. that night but had left to spend the night elsewhere. Defense counsel questioned him about Yonts’s tendency to back in his vehicle, and he testified that he had never known Yonts to do this.

Johnson had been with Yonts Nov. 10, 2005, at Nick’s Family Sports Pub prior to Yonts’s attendance at the Lambda Chi party. Johnson said Yonts had been wearing a white polo shirt with orange stripes and fleece coat while at Nick’s. Johnson also viewed the video and positively identified the shirt. Johnson said the only time he had spoken with the Murray Police Department throughout the investigation was the morning of Nov. 11, when he returned home. Johnson also told the jury about a corkboard that hung behind the door of he and his roommates’ apartment on which Yonts always - “100 percent of the time,” he said - hung his keys. The footage from the apartment had shown Yonts’s keys on a table in his bedroom.

Johnson said it would not be out of the question for Yonts to loan his car to someone, and that he observed him to be a neat person whose room was kept organized. There was no cross examination.

Student Lauren Moore, who was next on the stand, was served her subpoena just a short while earlier as she entered the courtroom following the lunch recess. Moore testified that no one from defense, prosecution or the investigation had spoken to her about the case prior to today. Moore confirmed the previous witnesses’ reports on Yonts’s clothing, and positively identified the shirt on the video. She did not see him drive, but was with him most of the night. She also did not see him drop a beer bottle. On cross examination Moore testified that typically glass bottles are not permitted at fraternity parties for safety reasons. She did not see him leave the party, but saw him leave the annex at the fraternity house at approximately 1:50 a.m.

Following Moore’s dismissal from the stand, the defense entered a stipulation of fact into the record regarding a finger printing that was completed on Yonts’s vehicle in September 2006. The results were that one fingerprint was found on the ashtray of the console, and it did not belong to Yonts. No other clear prints were obtained.

Next, the defense called forward a series of three character witnesses, all hailing from Yonts’s hometown of Greeneville, Ky., who have known him for varying lengths of time in education- and church-related capacities. Each witness was asked to testify as to Yonts’s truthful or untruthful nature, and each said he was a truthful person in their experience and had a reputation among others for being truthful. Cross examination was minimal on these witnesses.

Next, Eric Pile and then Kyle Sumner testified to having ridden in a vehicle on the morning of Nov. 11, 2005, that had stopped briefly in front of Yonts’s apartment on Wilshire Drive. Neither one a member of Lambda Chi, Pile attended that Lambda Chi party and Sumner attended the Alpha Gamma Rho party at the AGR house on Hwy. 121, near Bailey Road and the Cambridge 2 subdivision.

Pile and Sumner both rode home that night with Tonya Wirgau. All three lived in Cambridge 2. When Wirgau's SUV pulled into the subdivision, Wirgau and Pile noticed Yonts outside his apartment and Wirgau stopped the car. Pile said he did not remember if there was damage to the vehicle or not. In cross examination, Sumner said the vehicle was pulled into the driveway straight.

Wirgau then came to the stand, and testified that she had been at the Lambda Chi party that night and had witnessed Yonts drop a 40-oz. beer bottle on the floor and pick it up with his bare hands. In a demonstration before the jury, Wirgau said she was standing within two feet directly in front of Yonts at the time of this incident. After he picked it up, she said he walked out the back door of the annex.

Wirgau said she took six people home that night, and described her actions when she first entered the Cambridge 2 subdivision. Wirgau said she saw Yonts on the sidewalk between the house and the road and yelled at him to ask him how he got home. He came to the vehicle and told Wirgau that someone else had driven him home. Wirgau said the car was pulled into the driveway straight at this time. She said she had looked at the clock and noted it was 2:30 a.m. She had to drive to Paris the next morning for work and was concerned about what time she was getting home.

During cross examination, Wirgau testified that her vehicle had actually stopped just past Yonts's car, and that the back of her car was parallel with the back end of his car.

Wirgau left the stand and the court entered a 10-minute recess. When court returned to session, defense counsel Dennis Null announced that the defense would rest at 4:05 p.m. today. It was a move that left many in the courtroom surprised, and seems to indicate that much is left to be coorelated in tomorrow's closing statements.

Closing arguments begin at 10 a.m. tomorrow. Judge Dennis Foust has vetoed his usual policy that dictates when school is not in session, court follows suit - he instructed jurors to come to the courthouse tomorrow despite weather, and if they cannot drive to contact the clerk's office to seek alternate transportation. Following closing arguments the trial will be handed over to the jury for deliberation.

Check back tomorrow for a lunch break blog and the verdict when it becomes available. Also read Friday's edition of The Murray State News for complete coverage of the verdict announcement should it be available by press time.


Lunch Break

Murray Police Department Detective Kendra Smith was back on the stand to continue cross examination this morning as the third day of the Harrison Yonts wanton murder trial began to another packed house of friends and family.

Defense counsel spent a considerable amount of time during their examination of the witness attempting to establish facts about what Yonts was wearing on the evening of the accident, and what happened to these clothing items during the investigation of the scene. This discussion centers around one of the lesser charges Yonts faces - tampering with evidence. Smith testified that among the variables involved in charging Yonts with this crime was a missing shirt, which had been presumed destroyed or otherwise concealed.

The defense played again for the jury footage taken inside Yonts's apartment the morning he was arrested, showing in Yonts's bathroom what appeared to be an orange and white polo shirt spread out on the toilet seat. Yonts had previously told police he'd tried to clean the shirt after cutting his hand at the party. Smith said she could not be certain whether that was the shirt he'd been wearing.

The defense also questioned Smith about certain aspects of the investigation, suggesting that all avenues were not explored in the hours and days following the accident. Defense counsel Dennis Null pressed Smith about her comments on an accident reconstruction illustration that she had said "appeared to be correct" during Grand Jury testimony, but now questioned. The defense also questioned Smith about some of the contents of Shaheen's bag which may have indicated her whereabouts that night, negative contact made with Yonts's roommates and continued discussion on the vehicle's placement in the driveway, particularly its relationship to the charge of tampering with evidence.

The cross examination and subsequent re-directs and re-cross examinations were frought with objections as the defense continued to push for statements that would indicate failure on the part of the Murray Police Department to fully examine the case and attempt to prove Yonts's innocence.

During re-direct examination, Yonts's original statement to police was dissected, in which Yonts was established as coherent and not confused or visibly intoxicated at the time of the interview.

When examination was finished with Smith, Jennifer Block took the stand. Block observed Yonts at Nick's Family Sports Pub the night of Nov. 10, 2005. She said though she did not know him that night, when she heard about the incident the next day she realized that was who she'd seen the night before. She testified that at Nick's, he was behaving as though he were extremely intoxicated. She testified that he was wearing a plaid shirt, a grey fleece and a gray toboggan.

During cross examination, she testified that she did not see Yonts drive, and that she was not interviewed until Nov. 17. She said during her interview with Kendra there were no follow-up questions regarding Yonts's shirt.

Next on the stand was Mallory Cathey, whose phone call was the lone call on Yonts's phone that night. It was a 30-second call, in which Yonts told Cathey he was home. Cathey testified she'd been giving rides to people, and wanted to know if he needed a ride. She testified that he told her he was already home and did not need a ride.

During cross examination, Cathey said she did not hear anything in the background that led her to believe he was not at home. During her other driving that evening Cathey said she did not drive on Coldwater Road or through Five Points.

During re-direct, she testified that she offered Yonts a ride home because she was unaware of how he got to the party and assumed if he were at the party, he'd been drinking.

Sean Knipp was then called. A Murray State student the night of the incident, he was at the house the night of the party and did see Yonts's vehicle pull out of the driveway to leave the party. He said he only saw the rear quarter passenger panel at 2 a.m.

Garret Wheatley then came to the stand. Wheatley manages computer labs for Murray State, and by request he discovered that Shaheen had log-on privileges at Hart College computer lab, and that night her log-off time was 2:00:02 a.m. In cross examination, Wheatley said he employed student workers to monitor the lab. In re-direct, Wheatley testified about Robert Daniels, a housing employee who is responsible for the security cameras. Wheatley said in the event of a power surge, camera times would reset correctly. The jury then viewed the security footage from the Hart College computer lab.

Check back around 7:30 for all the details from the day.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tuesday, January 30: Trial day 2, afternoon

Following the lunch recess, the prosecution called a series of witnesses to testify about their work with the case in relation to their employment with the Kentucky State Police forensic lab in Frankfort. Through these three witnesses, testimony was given indicating DNA matches on blood found on the inside and outside of the window groove of Yonts's Lincoln – the blood on the inside was Yonts's, the blood on the outside was Shaheen's.

Additionally, test results that indicated a match between glass shards found on Yonts's jeans and toboggan and the glass from the vehicle's shattered window were reported. A positive match was also made with residue and fibers on the front of Yonts's car and fibers from the pants Shaheen was wearing at the time of the accident.

After the final KSP lab witness, Kayla Denzik took the stand to testify about her work as a server at Nick's Family Sports Pub on the night of Nov. 10, 2005. Denzik told the court that she served Yonts that night between 9 and 11 p.m., and testified that he had been drinking Long Island Iced Teas. She also testified that she had seen him purchase a drink for someone else, and in cross examination it was clarified that Denzik did not, herself, mix the drink that was served to Yonts and thus could not be certain how much liquor it contained.

Next, Scott Ellison, graduate student from St. Charles, Mo., and Student Government Association president took the stand. The night of the accident Ellison was a senior and active member in Lambda Chi who attended the party for a brief period of time. He was living in the fraternity house then. He identified Yonts as having worn a gray toboggan and blue jeans that night, and said, in his opinion, Yonts appeared to have been drinking - though he said he never witnessed Yonts taking a drink of alcohol. The designated driver policy of the fraternity was further discussed during Ellison's testimony, and he said the night of Nov. 11, 2005, there were five pledge brothers who were designated drivers. Ellison said he had consumed just one drink that night.

In cross examination Ellison testified that he'd been to Yonts's apartment about a dozen times, and that he'd never seen Yonts back his vehicle in to his driveway. He said he did not see Yonts break a beer bottle at the party, but that he did see him go back to his car at one point in the evening, to the passenger side, though he didn't know what he was after. This statement became a point of contention in the court on both sides of the room, as Ellison's description of what he saw did not match up with what he said during his initial interview with Detective Kendra Smith. He told the attorneys that he believed he'd told her that Yonts specifically had gone to the passenger side, but no such statement was in the transcript. Still, Ellison maintained that Yonts had gone to the passenger side of his vehicle.

Next, Bradley Rideout came to the stand. Rideout is a junior brother of Lambda Chi who was present on Nov. 10, 2005, and who saw Yonts leaving in his vehicle around 2 a.m. Rideout said he called out to Yonts to see if he needed a ride, telling him that they would find him one. He said Yonts's window was cracked, and that he replied he was fine, and left the premises.

Jeremy Collins, who testified next, was also present that night and observed Rideout speaking with Yonts before Yonts drove away. Collins said Yonts got into the driver's side of the vehicle alone, backed out of his spot, stopped for a moment to talk to Rideout and then pulled forward to the open gates.

There was no cross examination of Rideout.

The state then called Cami Knapp, junior from Xenia, Ill., who testified that she left the Citgo two doors down from the Lambda Chi house moments before Yonts pulled out of the house's driveway. She was behind his vehicle as they both stopped at the light at 16th and Main streets and turned right. She said she knew it was Yonts's vehicle because she had seen him in it previously. Knapp said she couldn't say if he was alone or not at that time. As they traveled down 16th Street, Knapp said Yonts's driving was unremarkable and did not seem out of the ordinary. When the two vehicles pulled up to the Five Points intersection, Knapp, who was turning right, looked and saw Yonts, who was going left or straight, in the next car. Knapp said this was between 2 and 2:15 a.m.

During cross examination, the defense questioned Knapp about her refusal to answer phone calls from defense counselors or speak with a private investigator hired by the defense. Knapp answered that her attorney had advised her it was within her rights not to speak to anyone if she so desired. Knapp went on to testify that no other vehicles were around at the intersection at the moment she and Yonts were side by side. The defense began to propose that perhaps Yonts's window had been rolled down, making it easier for Knapp to positively identify him in such a short period of time. Knapp agreed that this was possible.

Scot Ellison then returned to the stand, after having looked over the transcript from his statement to Detective Kendra Smith. He said that though he did not say in the statement Yonts was headed for his passenger side, that he had been headed in that direction to Ellison's recollection. The prosecution suggested that defense counsel had pushed Ellison to include this detail in his testimony, but Ellison denied this, saying that, though the line of questioning made him unsure, he was 80 percent firm that he'd seen Yonts heading to the passenger side of his Lincoln.

The final witness of the day was the aforementioned detective, Kendra Smith, who served as lead detective on the case. During Smith's testimony, the jury viewed two videos. One was a video of evidence from around the scene on Coldwater Road, including footage of the body of Nadia Shaheen. The second video was Yonts's interview with Smith the morning of Nov. 11, 2005. During this time, jurors also had the opportunity to view the contents of Shaheen's backpack, which attorney Jim Harris called "student-related items."

Smith testified that surveillance tapes from the Speedway gas station at Five Points had been obtained and that she had viewed them, at full speed and slowed down for clarity, and that nothing of issue to the case was present on the tapes.

During cross examination, several questions were brought forth about the contents of the backpack. Defense counsel Dennis Null pointed out that two $100 bills were in Shaheen's wallet at the time of her death. He also questioned Smith about Shaheen's activities between 2 and 6:45 a.m., saying that no effort had been made to determine whether she did, in fact, go straight to her apartment from the Hart College computer lab. Defense also questioned that no one had come forward and testified to seeing Shaheen walking on Coldwater or in that direction at the time in question that evening. The defense questioned Smith about the possibility of Shaheen taking a route that would not place her on the road as she traveled home from the computer lab.

"I don't see any way she could've gone from Hart Hall to her apartment wihtout going further up Coldwater Road and cutting through," Smith said.

Smith also testified that the lack of skid marks on the scene indicate that the person did not slow down at all at any time during the accident.

As the day wound down, Smith also testified on the lighting of Coldwater Road, Yonts's agreement to take a polygraph test and failed attempts to log on to Shaheen's computer in the Hart College lab to obtain any helpful information about her possible path or whereabouts. She said that no prints were taken in the vehicle because of the possibility of contaminating other important evidence.

Defense will resume its questioning of Smith tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. Check for a lunch break update around 12:30.


Tuesday, January 30: Trial day 2, morning

As the trial continued this morning the prosecution continued calling its witnesses. The following list gives the names of the witnesses, and information to which they testified during the indicated portions of questioning, whether direct examination (by the prosecution) or cross examination (by the defense).

*Patrick Morris, patrol officer with Murray Police Department

Direct - On duty at the time of the discovery of Shaheen’s body, Morris was dispatched to the scene. He described what he saw there, and then proceeded to identify several photographs of the scene which had been entered into evidence as exhibit 101, 102 and 103. That morning he had been instructed to inspect the scene and drive around to try to find a vehicle that matched the pieces left near Shaheen’s body. Morris said he traveled around several areas before turning on Wilshire Drive off of Bailey Road, and seeing a white Lincoln backed into a driveway with damage that matched with the pieces left at the scene. He took photos of the vehicle, and was the first officer present at Yonts’s apartment.

Cross - Morris testified that his normal shift is the 5 a.m. - 1 p.m. shift he was working the morning of Nov. 11, 2005. He testified that he had retrieved video footage from the Speedway gas station at the Five Points intersection but that he had not viewed it. He said he arrived at the scene at Coldwater Road at 6:39 a.m. and was at Yonts’s apartment at approximately 8:15 a.m. after beginning his search for the vehicle at 7:55 a.m. Morris said he had patrolled Yonts’s neighborhood before, and confirmed with the use of a map that someone inside the neighborhood would not be able to enter or exit via any other route, thus forcing them to pass by Yonts’s apartment. He said he secured the area upon his arrival at Yonts’s apartment, and stayed at the apartment with Paul Mills, graduate student from Lexington, Ky., and Whitney Overstreet, junior from Paducah, Ky., until 10:55 a.m. He testified that he was confident no one had entered the apartment except law enforcement officers from the time he secured the scene to the time he left. The defense also questioned Morris considerably about a piece of plastic that was broken off of Yonts’s vehicle and left at the Coldwater Road scene. The piece had been in the road, and the defense counsel questioned how, in a high-traffic area as Morris had testified that the street was, such a piece of plastic could go undamaged during the state’s proposed time lapse of almost four hours from the 2 a.m. accident estimate.

*Todd Clear, detective with Murray Police Department

Direct - Clear was dispatched to the Coldwater Road scene as well as Yonts’s apartment on Wilshire Drive. He testified about some physical markings on the pavement at the Coldwater Rd. scene that he said were skid or scuff marks from Shaheen’s shoes from the moment of impact.

Cross - The defense continued to question about Yonts and his roommate’s confusion about what was going on when police entered their home Nov. 11, 2005, and the lack of answers they received from police.

*David Townsend, officer, Murray Police Department

Direct - Townsend testified that on Nov. 11, 2005, he had been responsible for securing Yonts's vehicle and keeping it in his surveillance. He testified as to the integrity of the vehicle while in his care, and said no one touched the interior of the vehicle during that time.

Cross - The defense did not cross examine.

*Jay Herndon, officer, Murray Police Department

Direct - Herndon testified that on Nov. 11, 2005, he transported Yonts from his apartment to the police station, from the station to the Murray-Calloway County Hospital to have blood drawn, and then back to the police station. Herndon then traveled to the post office to deliver the blood samples to be sent to a lab.

Cross - Herndon testified that he was initially called to Yonts's apartment to transport Yonts, and was then given a search warrant for his blood, which he carried out by taking Yonts to MCCH. Defense questioned whether Yonts had signed a consent form to give the blood. Herndon testified that Yonts had asked him what was going on, but that he did not tell him because he, himself, did not fully know.

Redirect - The state questioned Herndon to confirm that he could not testify with certainty whether Yonts actually did not know what was going on or if he was acting as though he did not know. The state also confirmed with Herndon that the blood drawn from Yonts was pursuant with the search warrant.

Recross - Defense questioned Herndon about the signing of the consent form, and Herndon testified that Yonts signed the form willingly.

Redirect - The state asked Herndon whether it was generally a good idea for the form to be signed, and Herndon answered yes.

Recross - The defense asked Herndon if Yonts had asked to call his father at any point in time, and Herndon said no. Herndon said he was familiar with the DUI applied consent form which allows any suspect of DUI to contact a lawyer.

*Gina Owens, registered nurse, Murray-Calloway County Hospital ER

Direct - On Nov. 11, Owens, in her capacity as an RN at Murray-Calloway County Hospital emergency room, drew blood from Yonts. Owens testified that the previously mentioned consent forms to draw blood are signed as a release of liability to the hospital, and not in pursuance with the search warrant for Yonts’s blood. Owens said she has worked with many DUI suspects in her capacity as an ER nurse. She said protocol with a suspected DUI is to ask the suspect if he will have his blood drawn first. Yonts agreed and gave verbal and written consent. The kit was opened in her presence, she prepped the area where the blood was to be drawn, drew the blood and it did not leave her site until it was safely contained and she had signed off on the sample.

Cross - Owens estimated she’s worked with at least 20 different DUI suspects throughout her five years as an RN. She said if a suspect refused to consent to the procedure, she would consult with her charge nurse, but that this has never occurred. Owens reiterated that Yonts had signed the forms without pressure from any officer. Defense counsel Richard Null said Yonts gave his consent “freely, voluntarily and not as a result of any pressure (Owens) or the officers put on him.” 10:47 a.m. was stipulated for the record as the time of the blood being drawn.

*David Barton, forensic chemist at state police crime lab in Madisonville

Direct - Barton testified as to his contact with the blood samples taken from Yonts. He testified that he’d received the samples, assigned the kit a lab number, opened it and resealed it to be sent to the central laboratory for testing. He testified that he did not perform a blood alcohol test on the sample at that time. He testified that the kit was in the same condition as he received it when it was sent to the central laboratory via certified mail.

Cross - The defense had no questions for the witness.

*Chris Garland, detective with Murray Police Department

Direct - Garland was called to the scene on Nov. 11, 2005, and then to Yonts’s home on Wilshire Drive. He testified that when he arrived at the home he knocked on the door and was answered by Yonts’s roommate, Paul Mills, graduate student from Lexington, Ky. Garland asked Mills who the car in front of the home belonged to. Mills answered that it belonged to his roommate, Yonts. The officer asked Mills if he could come inside, and at that time observed blood inside the home. When he entered the home he observed more blood inside the residence. Yonts came out of his room and confirmed that the vehicle in the driveway did belong to him. Garland told Yonts that he would be taking him into custody as part of an investigation, and explained that the scene would be secured and a search warrant obtained. Mills and Whitney Overstreet, junior from Paducah, Ky., was also present in the apartment. Jurors then viewed a video tape shot by Garland of Yonts’s vehicle and apartment the day of the accident. Spatters of blood were seen in the foyer of Yonts's apartment, as well as smeared on the door knob to his bedroom and the door frame of the main entrance. Glass shards could also be seen in the entrance and closer to Yonts's bedroom. There was a fine glass dusting on the passenger seat of Yonts's vehicle as well as the jeans he was wearing the previous evening.

Cross - The defense questioned Garland and he testified that the blood stains on the dustpan that had been presented to jurors during direct examination had not been confirmed as matching with Yonts's blood sample. Garland also said that hair analysis was not done on the items, and no search was done at the Lambda Chi house. Garland said he was aware of the testimony that Yonts had cut his hand at the party the night before, but that he believed the injury was sustained when the glass from the passenger side window broke. The witness will remain under subpoena for further questioning if necessary.


Lunch Break

Here's a little snack to whet your appetite until tonight's full-coverage post.

Proceedings continued this morning to a packed house of media, friends of family of Harrison Yonts and friends and family of Nadia Shaheen, including Shaheen's three children, all Murray State alumni.

The prosecution continued to call witnesses, and testimonies were heard this morning from Patrick Morris, a patrol officer with the Murray Police Department; Todd Clear, MPD detective; David Townsend, MPD officer; Jay Herndon, MPD officer; Gina Owens, registered nurse with Murray-Calloway County Hospital ER; David Barton, forensic chemist at the state police crime labratory in Madisonville, Ky., and Chris Garland, MPD detective.

Chris Garland's testimony included an approximately half-hour long video tape of footage shot at Yonts's Wilshire Drive apartment on the morning of the accident, including shots of the damage to his vehicle and footage that shows blood spatterings on the door frame at the front of the residence, on the door knob leading into Yonts's bedroom and on the key chain that contains his house and car keys. There were also shards of glass present throughout the entryway in the apartment.

The defense has been working to establish that Yonts was not made aware of why he was in custody until into his questioning, despite asking multiple officers multiple times. They have also established through several witnesses that Yonts never requested to call his mother or father, or an attorney (his father, Rep. Brent Yonts, is an attorney) during this time, though he was granted that right under the law and more specifically in accordance with the Applied Consent Form associated with DUI charges. The defense also emphasized that Yonts signed consent forms voluntarily and of his own free will to have his blood drawn by state witness Owens at the Murray-Calloway County Hospital.

MPD witnesses largely testified to times they each arrived at the two scenes - Coldwater Road and Wilshire Drive - and also what their specific roles were in the investigation, including securing the scene, obtaining search warrants, transporting Yonts and securing the vehicle.

Court is back in session at 1:15 p.m. this afternoon with more witnesses for the prosecution. Check back around 7:30 p.m. for the full details of the day.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Monday, January 29: The trial begins

The trial got underway almost immediately after jury selection with the opening statement of the prosecution. Jim Harris, assistant commonwealth attorney for McCracken County and prosecuting attorney for the state, detailed the events of the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 2005, the date Harrison Yonts is charged with driving drunk and striking and killing Nadia Shaheen, 62.

Harris began by describing Shaheen as a masters student and mother of three Murray State graduates who worked previously as an attorney in her home of Cairo, Egypt. Shaheen had been working in the Hart College computer lab that morning until its 2 a.m. closing time, at which point Harris said she began the short walk to her apartment on Coldwater Road. Meanwhile, Harris said Yonts was leaving the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house, where he'd been drinking at a party. Harris mentioned a policy of the fraternity that pledge brothers were required to remain sober at parties in order to ensure the safe transportation of the active members.

"That fraternity had in place a program, a procedure, a method to make darn sure their drunk frat brothers did not get into a car and drive," he said. But despite the warnings of his brothers, Harris said – "not once, at least twice and perhaps more times, he was told and cautioned that he did not need to be driving" – Yonts got into his white Lincoln and drove away from the party.

Harris went on to detail the events of the next few hours, including the discovery of Shaheen's body and the work of the Murray Police Department that ultimately led them to Yonts's vehicle and apartment on Wilshire Drive. Harris discussed the specific physical damage to Yonts's car, including the fibers and other forensic evidence found. Harris said police found a trail of blood and glass from the vehicle's shattered passenger-side window in the driveway into Yonts's bedroom, and additionally found shards of the glass embedded in the jeans Yonts had been wearing the night before.

Harris said that morning when Yonts was apprehended by police he offered no clear explanation for what had happened to his vehicle and how he had been involved. First, Harris said, Yonts told police he didn't drive home that night, that he was a passenger and that nothing happened while he was in the car. However, Yonts said he could not identify who had been driving the car. He told police he'd been driven home by someone, gone into his apartment and gotten a beer, come outside to chat with the driver and lent the unknown driver his vehicle.

Harris said during the trial's proceedings the prosecution will present witnesses who will testify to having seen Yonts leave the Lambda Chi house in his vehicle alone, as well as one witness, Cami Knapp, junior from Xenia, Ill., who will testify to seeing him preparing to make a left turn onto Coldwater Road at the Five Points intersection immediately following the party.

Harris concluded his remarks by talking about the decisions that were made by Yonts on the night of Shaheen's death.

"They're the types of decisions that show that the defendant only cares about one person, and that's himself," Harris said. He also briefly mentioned the other charges Yonts faces - tampering with physical evidence, leaving the scene of a crime and drunken driving - before finishing his remarks.

Dennis Null, defense counsel, began his opening remarks with some background about Yonts and biographical information that could be a testament to his character. He told jurors that Yonts had purchased the white Lincoln mentioned by Harris with money he'd earned working in a coal mine, and that he'd come to Murray State in keeping with the tradition of family members who had come before him.

Null said during the trial the defense will present witnesses who will cast serious doubt on the prosecution's placement of Yonts at the scene of the crime at a particular time.

"I believe the evidence will show ... not one, not two, not three, not four ... five witnesses that will say at 2:30 Harrison Yonts was home, his car was home, and there was no damage to his car," Null said.

Null also proposed that police documents and statements by the prosecution which estimate Shaheen's death at 2:30 or 3 a.m. are incorrect, and that the time of death was closer to 4 or 5 a.m. He mentioned the positioning of Yonts's car in the driveway and placed heavy emphasis on the fact that it was backed in to the drive, something he said Yonts never did and something he argued a drunk driver would not have the presence of mind to do. Null also said witnesses will corroborate that Yonts pulled his car into the drive straight when he arrived home at 2:30 a.m.

Null also presented a different account of Yonts's experience with police the morning following the accident. He said Yonts was cuffed by officers who would not explain to him the offense on which he was being apprehended, and that it was not until he was being questioned by detectives that he knew the extent of the accusations he was facing. Null said jurors will have an opportunity later in the trial to view video footage of this questioning.

Null said the presence of Yonts's blood is explained by another incident that defense witnesses will confirm - Yonts told police on Nov. 11 that he had broken a beer bottle at the previous night's party and cut his hand on the shards of glass. Ultimately, the defense indicated it will attempt to prove that someone else drove Yonts's car on the morning of Nov. 11, 2005, hitting and killing Nadia Shaheen. The involvement of the vehicle in the crime is not in question.

Following the conclusion of Null's statement, the prosecution called its first witness, Sama El Bannan, the daughter of the late Shaheen. Questions from the prosecution for El Bannan were largely biographical, and El Bannan was asked to confirm that she had positively identified her mother on security footage from Hart College the night of the accident. El Bannan said she and her mother communicated two to three times each day, and that El Bannan - who lives in Boston - had visited her mother in Murray somewhat recently, but not in the apartment she called home at the time of her death. Shaheen moved into the Coldwater Rd. apartment a few months before she died.

The defense questioned El Bannan on her knowledge of her mother's whereabouts the evening of Nov. 10, 2005, and El Bannan did indicate that her mother had viewed the movie "L'Auberge Espagnol" that night, though she was not sure where. During the cross examination information about a burglary of Shaheen's apartment was brought forth. The robbery had been in October 2005. The defense questioned El Bannan as to why her mother's apartment door would've been left unlocked, as it was at the time of her death, when she had just suffered such a crime.

"Someone with my mom's nature, a good person, I'd say it's OK (to leave the house unlocked)," El Bannan replied.

The second witness was Amy Burrows Beckham, the assistant medical examiner for the state of Kentucky. Beckham performed the autopsy on Shaheen, and confirmed that following the trauma, Shaheen was likely dead in minutes.

Much of Beckham's testimony centered around determining an accurate time of death. Questions from the prosecution and the defense focused on different methods that can be used to estimate a time of death, all of which were not used on Shaheen's body.

"There's is no good way to determine a time of death unless someone witnesses the crime," Beckham said. She said examiners can usually get it within hours, but some of the procedures mentioned would be invasive, and most prefer not to cause additional undue damage to the body.

She also testified about the onset of rigor mortis, the stiffening of the muscles following death. It can start to happen half an hour to one hour after death, she said, but cold outside temperatures can slow the effects. Nothing, she stressed, is really definite. The coroner did say Shaheen was beginning to develop rigor mortis when her body was found, and there was frost on some of her belongings. Beckham said she did not think rigor mortis would've already set in had Shaheen died around 5 a.m. as suggested by the defense, though she did say it is medically possible that Shaheen could've died at either time.

Beckham also testified about blood alcohol absorption rates, eventually estimating that - based on Yonts's measured .06 BAC at 10:47 a.m. Nov. 11 - his BAC at the time of the accident would be between .18 and .24.

During the defense's questioning, it was reiterated that Shaheen's death could be pinpointed only as narrowly as a four-hour window, which Beckham estimated at 2-6 a.m. The defense also debated some of the estimations about when rigor mortis set in.

The third witness was Ricky Walls, deputy coroner for Calloway County, followed by Mike Garland, coroner for Calloway County. Both testified extensively about the clothing Shaheen was wearing at the time of the accident and the details of its transport with her body to the medical examiner and back to Murray. The clothing was entered as evidence. Garland also testified about procedures that took place when the body was discovered and the state of the body at that time. The defense questioned Garland on actions taken to check ground and air temperatures to help further determine time of death, but no such measurements were recorded.

The trial continues tomorrow morning at 9 a.m., and The Murray State News and The News Blogs will be back to bring you all the details. Check in for a mid-day blog tomorrow at the lunch recess as well as an evening wrap-up. Judge Dennis Foust estimated Monday morning that a verdict could be delivered as early as Thursday.


Monday, January 29: Jury Selection

When jury selection proceedings finally got rolling at about 9:50 a.m. Monday for the wanton murder trial of Burgess Harrison Yonts, 82 potential jurors were present in the Circuit courtroom at the Calloway County judicial building. Calloway Circuit Judge Dennis Foust had increased the jury pool to 125 to ensure there would be enough suitable jurors to fill the trial's 14 necessary seats. Though 12 will ultimately decide the case, Foust said prior to juror questioning that because of the length of the trial, two alternates would also be selected and determined directly prior to the jury's decision.

The jurors were first questioned by Foust as to any prior relationship with counselors on the defense or prosecution as well as the defendant Yonts. Jurors were then questioned by Jim Harris, assistant commonwealth attorney in McCracken County and prosecutor for the state, and defense counsel Dennis Null. Throughout this process potential jurors are asked to consider any prior knowledge of the case or biases they may possess, as well as particular life experiences that may slant their opinions unfairly prior to hearing all evidence associated with the case. Specifically, jurors were asked about any personal involvement with victims of drunk driving accidents, their exposure to pre-trial publicity, personal relationships with several key witnesses, moral stances on drinking, familiarity with the geography surrounding the case and their understanding of certain stipulations of the law regarding a defendant's right to withold testimony and the concept of innocence until guilt is proven.

Harris questioned the pool first, and Null finished his questioning of the potential jurors shortly after the court returned to session from an hour-long lunch recess, around 2:15 p.m. The court recessed until 2:30, at which time 14 names were drawn from the remaining 32. The jury is comprised of three men and eleven women. Following the swearing in of the jurors, counselors requested separation of the witnesses, and all witnesses present were sequestered from the courtroom so opening statements could commence.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Welcome to The News Blogs

The Murray State News is taking to the Web in 2007, launching its first three blogs, whose content will mirror that of their sister sections in the newspaper -- News, College Life and Sports. This is the news blog, and will feature thoughts and inside scoop from the Editor in Chief, News Editor and news staff writers.

We hope to launch this blog Jan. 29 with coverage of the Harrison Yonts Trial by Editor in Chief Elizabeth Cawein.