Prosecution rests in KFC murder trial

September 25, 2008 2:23:18 PM PDT
Prosecutors wrapped up their case Thursday against a Tyler man accused of being one of the participants in the infamous slayings of five people abducted from an East Texas Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant a quarter-century ago. Darnell Hartsfield, 47, faces life in prison if convicted of the five counts of capital murder. Prosecutors chose to not seek the death penalty.

State District Judge J. Clay Gossett, who moved the trial to Bryan because of publicity in Henderson in East Texas' Rusk County, said Hartsfield's defense would begin Monday.

Testimony began Sept. 9. Gossett said Thursday he anticipated closing arguments would take place next week.

Prosecutors have built a circumstantial case against Hartsfield to try to tie him to the Kilgore KFC store from where the five victims were taken the night of Sept. 23, 1983. They were found shot to death the following morning about 15 miles away along a rural oilfield road near Henderson.

Killed were David Maxwell, 20; Mary Tyler, 37; Opie Ann Hughes, 39; Joey Johnson, 20; and Monte Landers, 19. All but Landers worked at the restaurant about 25 miles east of Tyler and 115 miles east of Dallas. Landers was a friend of Maxwell and Johnson and was visiting them as the restaurant was closing for the night.

Hartsfield is on trial almost a year after his cousin, Romeo Pinkerton, took a plea bargain midway through his own trial, agreeing to five life prison terms.

DNA tests on blood from a box found at the restaurant identified Hartsfield as being there, according to testimony. Defense lawyers have questioned the reliability of evidence taken from the crime scene and have challenged whether the evidence was kept secure over all the years.

Among the final prosecution witnesses Thursday was the former Rusk County district attorney, Kyle Freeman, who related earlier grand jury testimony from Hartsfield where Hartsfield said he and Pinkerton were cousins and occasionally ran together.

Another witness testified she frequently saw the pair together, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported Thursday on its Web site.

Freeman said when Hartsfield appeared before the grand jury that looked into the case starting in 2003, the DNA results were known. He said Hartsfield was given opportunities to explain why his blood was at the restaurant but continued to deny being there.

Following his grand jury appearance, Hartsfield wasn't indicted for the murders but was accused of aggravated perjury. He was convicted and sentenced to a life prison term because of six earlier felony convictions.

The murder indictments naming Hartsfield and Pinkerton were announced in November 2005. The case has been one of the longest unresolved mass murders in Texas.

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