Opening statements and testimony began on December 7 in the trial of James R. Huffman IV, charged with complicity to murder in the stabbing death of Michael Hogg about 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 2014. The following is an overview of this week’s activity in the case.
Jury selection took most of three days as attorneys winnowed down a pool of 121 jurors to 32, and then struck another 18 to seat a jury of 14.
A jury of six women and eight men was selected December 6 to hear the case. Two will serve as alternates to replace any jurors who become unable to serve before the end of the trial, or if none become unable to serve, two names will drawn and those two will be excused before deliberations.
The defense had challenged the makeup of the original pool as not diverse enough, saying too many came from Whitesburg, where the murder occurred. The all -white jurors on the final panel range in age from young to middle aged to elderly, and come from all over Letcher County.
Likewise, the jurors’ vocations represent a wide range of the county, including homemakers, a teacher, coal industry employees, a retired policeman, and a school custodian.
The defense had sought to qualify retired Kentucky State Police Trooper Eddie Crum as an expert witness on crime scene mapping, however Special Letcher Circuit Judge Kent Hendrickson of Harlan County declined to name Crum as an expert.
Crum, who was a detective for eight years, returned to work as a trooper in 2009 doing accident reconstruction and retired in 2012. He now works as a private detective in Pikeville, and volunteers as an instructor for the Pike County Sheriff ’s Department.
The court had a hearing on the issue after jury selection was completed.
Crum’s testimony during that hearing indicated that the defense planned to use him to raise doubts about the quality of the investigation conducted by the Kentucky State Police detectives who were in charge of the case. Crum spoke at the hearing about the need for mapping the crime scene to show lines of sight, but when questioned by the judge said he did not plan to go back and do that mapping. The defense had questioned the use a handdrawn diagram that at the prosecution’s key witness, Samantha Mullins, allegedly drew as she made her statement to police to show where the Jeep she was driving was sitting when the murder occurred. The defense had demanded that the prosecution produce those drawings, however Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks said he had never seen them, did not have them and could not produce them. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Gene Smallwood noted during the hearing that Crum had not seen them either.
“Was he going to testify that he didn’t see them but they’re wrong?” Smallwood asked.
The judge sided with the prosecution on that question, and also quashed a defense attempt to use Crum to testify about a shirt and some buttons found on the street near the murder scene. Crum said detectives should have collected the shirt and buttons, however the prosecution contended the items were unrelated to the murder. Crum said the shirt should have been processed for DNA. He also suggested that he would testify about the manner in which Hogg’s wounds were inflicted, something the judge rejected outright.
“ You don’t have any medical training do you?” Hendrickson asked.
Crum said he did not.
“You’ve never conducted an autopsy have you?” the judge continued.
Again Crum said he had not, though he had been present during autopsies.
Defense Attorney Robert Wright also suggested that surveillance video would show that one of the victims was holding a beer bottle “in an offensive manner,” and Crum would analyze the video on the witness stand.
Hendrickson said he didn’t know why an expert witness would be needed since jurors could see the video for themselves.
( As of Tuesday evening, no video had been produced showing any of the victims holding a beer bottle, or if it had been produced, the defense did not point out the bottle to the court.)
Hendrickson said in looking at Crum’s resume, he did not think he was qualified to testify on the manner the wounds were inflicted because he was not a coroner, and his crime scene investigation training was no different from other state police detectives.
“I’m not denigrating the witnesses training or experience, but it doesn’t go to that,” Hendrickson said.
Wright continued to argue that the shirt should have been collected. Hendrickson said if the evidence shows that it is necessary for an expert to testify on that, he will reverse himself later. For the moment, he did not qualify Crum as an expert and he was not allowed to testify.
Attorneys made their opening statements December 7.
Letcher Common- Banks and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Gene Smallwood will attempt to prove that Huffman lured Michael Hogg, Christopher Puckett and Stacy Phillips into an alley beside the old Whitesburg Post Office with promises of returning a bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey he had stolen from Hogg’s Jeep earlier that morning, and then stabbed Hogg to death, stabbed Puckett in the back and cut Phillips’s hand when he tried to stop him from stabbing Hogg.
Banks walked jurors through the evening, and told them that a big crowd was expected for New Year’s celebrations because it was the first time the bars had been open late for the holiday, and Whitesburg hadn’t been wet for very long.
“For many people, it was the first time in their lives they could celebrate New Year’s here,” Banks said.
Banks said there were problems when Mullins went to get the Jeep, and Huffman and Smith got into the vehicle uninvited. Left unsaid because the judge excluded it from testimony, was the contention that Huffman had been groping Morgan Wilson in the back of the Jeep while Mullins tried to make him get out.
That incident led to the disappearance of Hogg’s whiskey from the back of the Jeep, and to the three men and Mullins coming back later to find out if Huffman had it.
At that point, video surveillance cameras pick up the three going into the bar, and there are two wildly different interpretations of what the video shows.
The prosecution says it shows Huffman and Smith come out of the alley and go in the bar as soon as they saw the victims come back. The defense says that accidental, and it was Hogg, Phillips and Puckett who went to the bar looking for trouble.
The prosecution says the video shows the three victims were calm, hands in pockets, and that it was Huffman who led them back into the alley to kill them.
The defense says it was the three victims who were the aggressors and followed Huffman into the alley, threatening to “whup his ass” for stealing the whiskey, and saying they would “take it out of his ass.”
And while the prosecution says Huffman “sucker punched” Puckett, stabbed him in the back, and then attacked Hogg, the defense says it was “Three on one, if you want to count Samantha Mullins sitting right there in the Jeep, four on one.”
But it was the prosecution that brought a gasp from the crowd and an objection from the defense when police brought out a white mannequin covered in blue Post-It notes, each representing one of the eight stab wounds in Michael Hogg, and Smallwood began to read from the Medical Examiner’s report.
Wound number one, Smallwood read, was a 1-inch horizontally oriented stab wound located 61 1/2 inches above the left heel, 1/2-inch left of mid-line and six-inches deep. As he reached the depth of the wound, Wright jumped to his feet and objected. After a brief bench conference with the judge, Smallwood continued in somewhat less detail, enumerating each of the eight wounds, including one to the center of the chest, a 5-inchdeep wound in the left ribs, halfway up the torso, two shallow wounds, one near the top of each shoulder blade, another midway up his back, just to the left of the spine, another wound 7-inches deep, again in the mid-back, just to the left of the spine, and an eighth wound to the left wrist.
The defense painted the incident as a clear case of self-defense, but the prosecution painted it as a brutal murder, with the intent to do even more damage.
Banks said Huffman and Smith cut the tires on the Jeep, tried to break out the windows, broke the plastic window visors, and then chased the vehicle down Hayes Street as Mullins drove away on four flats.
Among those who have testified are:
• Don Willis Hogg – Father of the victim. Hogg testified about buying tires for the Jeep driven the night of the murder, and about it having body damage only to the right front fender prior to the murder. He also testified that the hospital called him and his wife to come to the hospital, but his son was already dead.
• Perry Fowler – Deputy Coroner at the time of the murder. Fowler testified that he was called to the hospital emergency room to pronounce Hogg dead and sign a death certificate.
• Stacy Phillips – A friend of Hogg’s who was with him at Streetside Bar and Grill the night of the murder, and then returned to the bar with him about 1 a.m. to find a bottle of whiskey that had been stolen from Hogg’s Jeep. He testified about the events of that night, up to and including the murder. Testimony showed Phillips’s hand was cut as he tried to stop Huffman from stabbing Hogg.
• Matthew Blackburn – the man who drove Huff- man and Smith from Pike County to Whitesburg on the night of the murder. Blackburn testified that Huffman had a large, fixedblade knife on his belt the night of the murder, and that Huffman had told him in the truck that the knife was no longer made because of it’s popularity in horror movies.
• Christopher Puckett – A high school basketball coach and a friend of Hogg’s. Puckett testified to the events of the night, and to being stabbed in the back by Huffman while the group was waiting behind the old Whitesburg Post Office for Blackburn to bring back the whiskey. Blackburn testified Huffman had never called him, and he didn’t know he the whiskey was behind his truck seat until police visited him the next day.
• Dr. Dustin Scott Campbell – Campbell is a general surgeon who was on call for the Whitesburg ARH Hospital emergency room the night of the murder. Campbell testified that he was able to stick his gloved finger at least 3 inches into the wound on left side of Puckett’s back, under the shoulder blade, and was unable to reach the bottom. He and the emergency room physician transferred Puckett to Holston Valley Medical Center by helicopter.
• Tommy Turnmyre – Service manager at Childers Tire and Supply. Turnmyre testified that the tires for the Jeep that were cut during the attack would cost $911.90.
• Austin Johnson – A local resident who was standing on the patio when Hogg, Phillips and Puckett arrived to look for the whiskey. Johnson testified that he didn’t see any altercation or anything to make him worry, and would have called 9-1-1 if he had. The defense, however, questioned Johnson’s age at the time. When he said he was “17 or 18,” Wright challenged whether he would have called police because he was too young to drink legally.
• Spencer Fields – Fields was a friend of Hogg’s who was among the group that went to the bar, and back to Morgan Wilson’s apartment, but did not return to Streetside with Hogg, Puckett, and Phillips.
• Tyrone Fields – Whitesburg Police Chief. Fields was searching for the killers and pulled over Huffman’s parents driving the wrong direction on Webb Avenue with their headlights off about the same time Huff- man and Smith were located and arrested.
• Justin Hunsucker – Assistant Whitesburg Police. Hunsucker testified about his arrest of Huffman and Smith after the murder.
• Kentucky State Police Detective Sgt. Joel Abner – Abner was the lead detective on the case, however so far his testimony has been confined to verifying that he, Lt. Claude Little, and Detective Randy Combs took Caleb Hogg’s statement. Abner also identified a “screenshot” of Caleb Hogg’s telephone with the message “Bring the gun,” that was sent to his brother Billy as he talked to Huffman and Smith outside the family home on Church Street in Whitesburg.
• KSP Detective Brandon Thomas – Thomas, who was a trooper at the time of the murder, was the first trooper on the scene, arriving to assist Whitesburg PD Officer Hunsucker at the Letcher County Recreation Center. Thomas testified that Michael Hogg was not breathing and did not have a pulse when he arrived. Thomas testified he pulled Hogg out of the Jeep and onto the pavement and began CPR. EMS arrived and took over soon after he began.