Opening statements are expected to begin today (Wednesday) in the murder trial of James R. Huffman IV, accused in the New Year’s 2014 stabbing death of Michael Hogg.
Hogg was stabbed multiple times on the street behind the old Whitesburg Post Office during an alleged altercation with Huffman and Patrick Smith. The killing took place following a New Year’s Eve event at Streetside Bar and Grill.
Hogg, 24, of Whitesburg, was home on Christmas break from Eastern Kentucky University. Huffman, then 34, and Smith, a 27-year-old ex- Marine, are both from Pike County, and had come to Letcher County for the party.
Jury selection began Monday morning with 121 jurors sitting in Letcher Circuit Court. Several of those were discharged by early afternoon Monday, but a pool had still not been qualified by Tuesday afternoon. Attorneys were expected to finish the 32-member jury pool and strike the number to 14 jurors by noon.
The trial is expected to take at least a week once a jury is selected.
When testimony begins, Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison
Banks will attempt to prove that on the night of Dec. 31, 2013, and the morning of Jan. 1, 2014, Huffman and Smith were drunk and got into Hogg’s Jeep uninvited when Samantha Mullins was attempting to back it out of a city parking lot behind the Harry M. Caudill Library, from where she had parked to walk to the former Street- Side Bar and Grill.
Special Letcher Circuit Judge Kent Hendrickson has limited the testimony about what Huffman was accused of doing in the car, but prosecution witnesses were expected to testify that Huffman began putting his hands on a second woman in the back seat. Mullins is expected to testify that she ordered Huffman to get out of the Jeep, but Huffman climbed on the back bumper and rode on it until she was able to get near StreetSide’s entrance on Main Street.
The prosecution will also attempt to prove that Hogg, Mullins, Stacy Phillips and Chris Puckett drove back to StreetSide later to look for some items Hogg believed were missing from his Jeep, including a bottle of Fireball liqueur. The prosecution will contend that the three became involved in an argument with Huffman and Smith over Huffman’s behavior and the missing liqueur, and that Huffman started a physical fight by punching Puckett in the face.
From there, the prosecution contends, Huffman pulled a knife and stabbed Hogg, Phillips and Puckett. Hogg was stabbed eight times in the neck and back, and Puckett was stabbed in the back. Phillips also received knife wounds to his arm.
The three were able to get back into the Jeep, but police and the prosecution say Huffman and Smith began trying to break the windows of the vehicle to get in to them. Sometime during that time period, someone cut the tires of the Jeep. Mullins attempted to drive away while Hogg sat in the passenger seat telling her to get him to the hospital. With the tires cut, she was only able to make it to the Letcher County Recreation Center before Hogg died.
In the four years since the murder, the trial has been delayed repeatedly while defense attorneys sought psychological exams for their client and a change of venue, claiming a fair and impartial jury could not be seated in Letcher County because of pre-trial publicity. The trial was delayed again in August after a defense witness, who has a child in common with the key prosecution witness, died in a car crash the night before the trial was to begin.
The last motion for a delay, overruled by Judge Hendrickson Monday morning, was for a new jury pool to be called. Defense attorneys argued that the majority of the potential jurors called were from the immediate area surrounding the murder scene, and would know more about it. Hendrickson disagreed that the people of Whitesburg would know more about it than people from elsewhere in the county, and overruled the motion.