The Supreme Court of Kentucky has overturned one attempted murder charge, but upheld all other charges against a Pikeville convicted in the New Year’s 2014 stabbing death of Michael Hogg in Whitesburg.
The reversal on the one charge will have no effect on the sentence of James R. Huffman IV, who is serving life in prison.
James R. Huffman IV was convicted in December 2017 in Letcher Circuit Court of complicity to murder, three counts of complicity to attempted murder, and one count of criminal mischief in killing Hogg, wounding Stacey Phillips and Christopher Puckett, and cutting the tires on Hogg’s Jeep, which was driven at the time by Samantha Mullins.
The high court ruled that Special Letcher Circuit Judge Kent Hendrickson should have issued a directed verdict on the charge of attempted murder of Mullins because she never left the vehicle during the attack and was not injured, but it refused to overturn the other convictions.
One justice of the sixjudge panel dissented. Justice J. Buckingham wrote that he believe the charge of attempted murder of Phillips should also be overturned, but otherwise concurred with the majority.
Huffman’s attorney, Athanasia Nicole Lewis, had appealed on six grounds. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John D. Minton shot down all of the six arguments with the exception of the directed verdict for Mullins.
On that charge, the court ruled that it was undisputed that Mullins never left the vehicle during the attack.
“It would therefore be unreasonable for a jury to conclude that Huffman intended to murder her and took a substantial step towards doing so,” the ruling says.
That was not the case with the charge of attempted murder of Phillips, who was cut or stabbed in the hand while attempting to drag Huffman off of Hogg. The high court ruled that it was reasonable to consider it attempted murder, since Phillips had been outside the vehicle, and was cut after Huffman had already stabbed Puckett in the back and had stabbed Hogg multiple times.
“Then, after the group was able to get back into the Jeep safely, Huffman and (defendant Patrick) Smith slashed the Jeep’s tires, beat on the outside of the Jeep trying to get into it, and pursued the Jeep on foot when the group pulled out of the parking lot,” Minton wrote. “Therefore, we cannot say it would be clearly unreasonable for a juror to infer Huffman’s intent to murder Phillips, and no manifest and fundamental defect resulted in giving a jury instruction on that count.”
The court also threw out Huffman’s claim that media coverage before the trial had been prejudicial, noting that the trial was held four years after the events, and that jurors had been questioned individually in the judge’s chambers before being seated. All who said they could not decide the case fairly were discharged. Jurors “could only remember vague details” of the case because it had occurred so long before trial, the court ruled, and Hendrickson acted property in denying a motion to move the trial elsewhere.
Two other arguments involving the jury were also overruled. The defense argued that three jurors who were seated should have been struck for cause, but the court ruled that the defense had the opportunity to strike them before trial and did not. It also ruled that there was no evidence that the jury pool did not represent a “fair cross-section” of the county.
The defense also argued that the judge improperly refused to have a witness from out of state compelled to testify, however the high court ruled the evidence to which the witness was to testify was irrelevant because it was not in dispute. It also declined to reverse the lower court based on its denial of a motion to certify an expert witness. The high court said in order for the defense to make that argument, it had to provide reasons acceptable to the court, and the appeal “contains no supportive references to the trial record, no citations of authority, and no reference to whether this argument was properly preserved. We therefore decline to address it.”