Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

January 31, 2014

State medical examiner testifies death was homicide

WELCH — The prosecution in the Earl Click first-degree murder trial took a major step on Thursday toward proving that War Mayor Dr. Thomas C. Hatcher was a victim of homicide, but four expert witnesses with the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab didn’t provide any evidence to put the defendant at the crime scene.

Dr. Nabila Haikel, first deputy chief state medical examiner testified that based on the autopsy that she performer on Hatcher, asphyxia, “or oxygen depravation during the (commission) of an assault” was the cause of death. We stated for the death certificate, a homicide.”

Haikel provided the jury with a thorough explanation of how she arrived at determining the cause of death and the evidence that led her to that conclusion. Under direct examination by McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Edward Kornish, Haikel testified about the multiple marks on Hatcher’s face, wrist and ankles, and testified that they had not scarred and as a result occurred just prior to death.

She testified that a person who suffers from other problems, “if there is less oxygen, you can trigger a heart attack,” she testified. “In a younger person, you may see a lot more injuries.” Still, Haikel testified that “even with a bad heart,” a person can have a long life. “Heart disease was a factor in the sense of making it faster — not in causing his death,” she testified.

Kornish asked Haikel if she could give a time of death. “I would estimate that it was in the early hours of the morning,” she testified, and added that she would not stick her neck out to set the time of death any closer. She explained that she based her estimate on the condition of Hatcher’s body after Carolyn “Kitten” Cempella sent town employees to Hatcher’s residence on July 17, 2012, when he did not show up for work.

Click’s defense counsel, Ronald Hassan asked Haikel on cross-examination about the percentage of the blockages of Hatcher’s heart. She testified that one artery was blocked 95 percent, another 60 percent and the third 80 percent. She also testified that one of his cerebral arteries was 85 percent blocked, but she testified that “having a significant blockage doesn’t mean you need surgery.” She testified that partially blocked arteries can be successfully treated with stents and medications.

Hassan asked Haikel why she didn’t find blood in the marks on Hatcher’s face. She explained that blood may have been transferred during transport. “He may have fought, but he may not have been able to fight for a long time,” Haikel testified. “He died fairly quickly. He didn’t need too much oxygen depravation.”

Under re-direct examination by Kornish, Haikel testified that, given his condition, Hatcher probably did not survive the aspiration “not more than a minute,” she testified.

At the start of the day and before the jury was present, Kornish told McDowell County Circuit Court Judge Booker T. Stephens that one of his witnesses, Misty Laws, who was scheduled to testify on Thursday, called him to report that she had received two death threats on the telephone — one where the caller allegedly told her that the caller would put her head on a door knob if she testified, and the other call extending the threat to family members.

“She’s a fugitive,” Hassan said of Laws. “She’s wanted on 21 counts in Buchanan County, Va.” He said that if the state was able to find her and serve her with a subpoena, the state ought to let Buchanan County know where she is. “My client was in jail, so he didn’t call her,” Hassan said.

After the court settled its preliminary matters, four scientists from the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab in South Charleston presented expert witness concerning some of the physical evidence in the case. David Miller, a forensic scientist, testified about the procedures he followed to collect blood and hair samples from a Belk bag that was found in Hatcher’s bed.

Angela Gill, a DNA division specialist with the crime lab, said he was able to testify that the blood sample collected from the Belk bag was “a unique identification” belonging to Tom Hatcher. She testified that she did not find any DNA matching Rebecca (Click) Hatcher or Earl Click. Robin Lewis, a fingerprint expert with the crime lab testified that she found Rebecca Hatcher’s palm print and three of her fingerprints on the Belk bag, but only one other print that did not match any of the samples she had been provided with.

The fourth crime lab expert witness, Calissa Carper, an expert in the lab’s firearms and tool marks section, testified about the materials that were recovered from a Buchanan County fire pit. According to a source familiar with the trial, Julie Sage and Benny Collier had testified late Monday evening that they had taken the defendant to the site where he burned a pair of steel toe boots, clothes and other items.

Carper testified that she identified two steel sole plates, two steel toes and one left metatarsal plate as well as a bungee cord and other debris. Under cross-examination by Hassan, Carper testified that the plates are used in “safety footwear,” and not necessarily coal miner shoes. She also testified that the metal plates could be used in several different sized shoes.

Ashley White, branch manager of the Pioneer Community Bank in War, testified about a discussion she had with Mayor Hatcher on the day before his death concerning some unauthorized expenses on his bank card. “It happened quite frequently, so he was upset,” she testified. Doreen Tester, Hillbilly Markets office manager, also testified about meeting with Mayor Hatcher to explain cash withdraws from an ATM machine.

Mayor Hatcher’s neighbor, Patty Hawkins testified at length about her friendship with Hatcher. “Tom Hatcher was one of the finest men I have ever known,” she testified. “He was a good friend. He was so respectful. He spent every day helping people. The people of the town loved him.”

Hawkins testified that she observed a confrontation that Hatcher had with his daughter-in-law, Rebecca Hatcher, on the afternoon before his death. Hawkins testified that she heard the mayor say: “I had John prosecuted and I’m going to have you prosecuted too.”

Under cross examination, Hassan hammered away at the point as to whether of not Hawkins had previously testified that she was concerned about Hatcher’s heart. Hawkins denied testifying to that, but after a sidebar, Hassan produced a transcript from an earlier hearing and asked her to read from them. “I was concerned about his heart,” she said, but added that she would have been concerned about the health of any 72-year-old person engaged in a confrontation. Hassan asked her if she saw or heard anything in Hatcher’s bedroom that night or early on the morning of July 17, 2012, and she responded that she heard nothing even though she went to bed at 1 a.m. Under re-direct by Kornish, Hawkins testified that it would be hard to hear anything from her home with “somebody watching cowboys. You can’t hear anything.” She later said that it was her husband who watches westerns on television. The jury smiled in unison at Hawkins’ testimony.

After a break, Stephens talked with opposing counsel to get a feel for how many more days before the jury could begin deliberations. Kornish said the state could be finished by 1 p.m. today, and Hassan said he plans to call eight witnesses, including his client. However, Hassan said that his final expert witness can’t be present until Tuesday morning. Stephens asked jurors to return this morning at 9 a.m.

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