Defense starts in KFC murders case

September 29, 2008 2:07:14 PM PDT
A witness at the trial of a black man accused in the abduction and murders of five people from an East Texas Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant 25 years ago testified Monday that he saw a white man speeding away the night of the abductions. James Rowe, testifying as defense attorneys began their case in the trial of Darnell Hartsfield, said the van was carrying at least three people wearing KFC uniforms. Rowe said he clearly saw the driver because the van and his station wagon nearly collided as it sped out of the restaurant lot in Kilgore.

"My bumper almost hit his door," Rowe said. "His window was down. He looked at me, I looked at him, for about two seconds."

Rowe described a "white male, long straight hair, long shaggy beard." Hartsfield, 47, who is black, faces life in prison if convicted of the five capital murder counts. Prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty.

On cross examination, prosecutors attempted to raise doubts about Rowe's story, questioning why he waited over a year to go to police and why his testimony differed from the account he gave a grand jury in 2003.

State District Judge Clay Gossett, who moved the trial from Henderson to Bryan because of publicity about the long-unresolved case, said he expected the defense would wrap up its case Monday after a single day of testimony. Gossett told jurors to tentatively plan on hearing closing arguments from lawyers Wednesday before beginning their deliberations.

In testimony that began Sept. 9, prosecutors have built a circumstantial case against Hartsfield to try to tie him to the KFC 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, about 15 miles south of Kilgore.

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.

On Monday, Rowe testified the van driver was wearing something that "looked like a skull cap."

Asked by defense lawyer Thad Davidson if it could have been a mask, Rowe replied: "Could have been." Rowe said the driver took off, raised his arm in front of his face, then headed south on U.S. Highway 259.

Rowe, who lived near the KFC in Kilgore, said he was returning home with his family after dinner a relative's home when the near-collision occurred. He said he learned the next day of the slayings.

"I felt real sick to my stomach," he said. "I wished I would have hit them. I could have stopped this. ... It could have rolled the van over."

But Rowe said he didn't go to police for at least a year, taking his parents' advice to let police handle the case without him.

"I was kind of a stupid 30-year-old back then," he said under cross examination. "A lot of things I could do better if I could do it over again. I have regrets."

He said when he did go to the police he couldn't get much interest, and there's no evidence of a police report taken.

Davidson suggested it's another piece of evidence that's been lost in the case.

Under cross examination, prosecutor Lisa Tanner's questions showed how Rowe's testimony differed slightly from grand jury testimony he gave in 2003. Then, he said there were four or five people in the van with KFC uniforms.

Rowe's recollection of the time of events also was fuzzy, and he acknowledged what Tanner called "an interesting habit to relive things, ... to go back and relive the moment."

He agreed, saying after the near-wreck he went back to the restaurant later. He told a grand jury he thought there was "something fishy ... thought something was out of place." But he said he never went to police for a year.

"I was scared," he said.

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.

Hartsfield a grand jury in 2003 that he wasn't at the restaurant the night of the abductions. He wasn't indicted for the murders then but was accused of aggravated perjury, 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 2005.

Prosecutors have said DNA evidence shows a third person was involved in the slayings, but that person never has been identified. A reinstated reward remains unclaimed.

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