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.


--Elizabeth

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

How can a trial of such serious consequenses be concluded by the Defense in 3 days? I have know the Yonts family for 35-40 years and am so saddened by this incident. The accused appears to have put little or no importance to his blood being tested or having been taken to the Police Station. This seems odd to a Mother of 3 sons like myself. Thanks for recording this transcript.

Anonymous said...

Who cares who knows who? (Let me start by saying, I do NOT know the Yonts family, nor do I know the Nadia Shaheen family). That is what is wrong with America today, the rich can buy there way to justice and the poor have to settle for justice to come to them. The accused did not have a choice in the matter about his blood being tested, he was a suspect in a drug (alcohol is a drug in case you did not know) related charge. As far as Yonts not being the driver of the vehicle, who cares: If a bar can be held responsible for a willing participant to drink and leave their establishment for homicide, surely a car owner (no matter his current state) can be responsible for allowing someone to drive their car and commit homicide. It seems to me if Yonts is found innocent or if a mistrial is to occur, there is more than enough evidence to convict him civically. I am usually against civil suits seeking monetary compensations; but this case is indeed very different. The family of the deceased should sue for repayment of student loans, wages lost, etc. and maybe, just maybe, an elected official will finally have a backbone and speak out against drunk drivers, being responsible citizens and the "good ole boys club" that so many Americans leisurely appreciate. How would that help his campaign fund? I honestly gag at the thought of this nauseating public display of "my boy did nothing wrong" act and the "my son has never called me drunk" testimony. So to the "Mother of 3 sons", I ask you but one question: How would your opinion be different if it were your son laying in the ditch dead? Thanks for recording this transcript as well.

Jennie said...

I just wanted to say as an alum of the journalism department, you are doing an outstanding job reporting this. Very detailed, very objective, I am very proud of your coverage.

Anonymous said...

If Yonts is innocent, then who did this? If he remembers what he did when he came home, then he remembers who asked to borrow his car! This could happen to anyone who has a few drinks and drives or even drives the next morning after drinking. It was a mistake and he should pay for it. His punishment will show the consequences of drunk driving. Also, it may make other college students wake up and realize it could happen to them. Thank you for showing this and hopefully others will learn a lesson.

Anonymous said...

(If a bar can be held responsible for a willing participant to drink and leave their establishment for homicide, surely a car owner (no matter his current state) can be responsible for allowing someone to drive their car and commit homicide) are you kidding me that is the dumbest thing that I have ever heard. If that were the case every kid who has an accident in which someone dies the parents if the car is in there name is responsible? I also can't believe that you believe that someone whom may have a made a mistake and drove with two many drinks and has an ACCIDENT, should be put in a cell next to someone whom walks into an school and kills kids. That is what murder is. I am not aware of guilt or not, but I do know that we live with a legal system that states WITHOUT A REASONABLE DOUBT, and there is NO WAY that anyone but the person driving the car can have NO DOUBT. This is a sad thing that happened, but it is an accident and no more. I feel sorry for this family and really hope them the best, but sending a 21 year old kid to jail for murder is not going to prove anything.

Anonymous said...

Yonts can't remember whom it was that drove him, but was not so blanked by liquor as to not realize that he was being driven by a designated driver? I suppose that he didn't remember that glass exploding and cutting him too? It can't be two ways:He was either so smashed he couldn't remember or does remember and is covering up, but either points to blatant falsehood at play in either possibility. If he is acquited it will be yet another classic case of a little rich boy getting away with murder. Smell the O.J. in the air?

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous poster who "gags" at the testimony of Harrison's mother...
I'm confused of what makes you "gag." When someone is asked if your son has ever called you drunk ON TRIAL you have to answer correctly and truthfully, and so Jan did. He has never called her. He is a good boy. I have known Harrison for most of his life and never know him to get into trouble. I'm not a parent (Im close to Harrison's age) so its not me being blind to things. I HATE that people want to make this an example for drunk driving. HE WASN'T BEHIND THE WHEEL. The prosecution was SLOPPY and did not prove without a doubt that he was driving. I don't see how anyone could put a 21 year old in prison for 17+ years when there was so much doubt and so many questions. I still do not understand why this was help in Murray. I don't know why they didn't move it. RIDICULOUS.

Anonymous said...

what underage kid EVER calls their mother when they're drunk?!?!