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.


No comments: