WELCH — Jurors saw crime scene photographs and heard expert testimony Wednesday at the trial of a Raysal man who said in 2017 that his girlfriend was killed after a gun kept under a pillow went off by accident.
Charles Kennedy, 28, was charged with first-degree murder after the Dec. 22, 2017 shooting death of 24-year-old Emily Hatfield of Raysal. McDowell County 911 received a call at 4:43 p.m. that day. Sr. Trooper J.A. Tupper with the West Virginia State Police Welch detachment said then that troopers were initially informed it was “an accidental shooting involving a pistol underneath a pillow accidentally going off.”
Tupper stated then that Kennedy and Hatfield were in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and had multiple children together. Children were not in the house when the shooting occurred.
During Wednesday’s testimony, witnesses said that Hatfield had been shot once in the head. Jurors were shown photographs of the crime scene as well as a close-up photo of the actual wound.
Tupper, who interviewed Kennedy after the shooting, was asked by attorney D.J. Morgan, who is representing Kennedy, if he misspoke at one point during the interview about the gunshot wound to Hatfield’s head, getting left and right mixed up.
“That doesn’t change the fact it was highly suspicious,” Tupper stated. “I think it was fairly clear she had sustained a gunshot wound to the head.”
Senior Trooper M.C. Shifflette of the West Virginia State Police Wyoming County detachment testified about encountering Kennedy in 2016 during a reported domestic incident with Hatfield in Pineville. Shifflette said a Taurus .38-caliber special ultra light revolver was found in a vehicle Kennedy was walking away from when he arrived at the scene. Hatfield was urged not to drop the charges, but chose to do so.
Shifflette said he took possession of the gun on May 7, 2016. Kennedy received it on July 20, 2017.
Prosecuting Attorney Emily Miller asked Shifflette approximately how many time Kennedy asked for his gun. Shifflette replied that he asked for it twice, one by telephone and once in person, before getting it back.
Morgan asked when Kennedy asked for his gun. Shifflette said he did not recall the exact dates, just the date when it was returned.
After the state rested its case and the jury was sent away for a break, Morgan moved for the court for acquittal. Morgan argued that the state did not present evidence of premeditation or that Kennedy had acted “in a malicious manner.” Morgan added that he did not believe the prosecution had met the burden for a second-degree murder charge, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
Miller countered that evidence supporting a charge of first-degree murder had been presented. During his call to McDowell 911, Kennedy repeatedly said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The weapon, identical to the one Kennedy received back from the state police after the domestic violence charge was dismissed, was found under Hatfield. A medical examiner had testified she had died instantly, and there was no way the gun could have ended up under her body.
The gunshot’s trajectory showed the bullet struck the left area of Hatfield’s forehead and went down, Miller said. Blood was found beneath her and in front of her, indicating she was kneeling when she was shot, and the weapon was “the same gun he had previously pressed against her and threatened her with.”
Judge Rudolph J. Murensky II denied the motion for acquittal. Murensky said that physicians’ records from Welch Community Hospital showed that Kennedy’s speech was clear when he was examined. Kennedy was “clear enough, alert enough to go toe-to-toe with a professional interrogator” (Tupper), so he was not impaired. Kennedy disagreed with Tupper during the questioning, and insisted Hatfield had been “shot on the left-hand side, not the right-hand side.”
“He never backed down,” Murensky said of Kennedy’s conduct while being questioned. “The trooper may have admitted he was tired and misspoke, but the defendant was very clear on everything.”
Secondly, the medical examiner said the wound on Hatfield’s head was “a close-contact wound and there was some pressure behind it. It wasn’t something that just came and went.”
Murensky held up a crime scene photo of the wound. The medical examiner had testified that the gun was held against the head hard enough that the shot’s pressure had nowhere to go but into the head, the judge said.
While there was testimony about the gun falling off a chair or a couch, “there’s no way it could have fallen off a chair or out of his pants pocket and jumped high enough to press against her head where (gunshot) had nowhere to escape but go inside her head,” Murensky said.
The trial resumed when the jury returned to the courtroom. Morgan called an independent forensic consultant, Ronald Scott of Phoenix, Ariz. to testify. Scott told the court that he had served in the firearms section of the Massachusetts State Police crime lab, and had 33 years of experience with firearms forsenics.
While Morgan questioned him, Scott said the West Virginia State Police crime lab did not test the gun to see if could fire by accident. According to the crime lab’s report, no malfunctions were noted. When asked about gunshot residue tests, Scott said the results did not show whether a gun being fired was by accident or purposeful.
A 1995 study showed there are ways to fire a gun by accident, but the finger has to be on its trigger, Scott said. These involve being startled. One called sympathetic discharge, which can happen when a person struggles or loses balance. Morgan asked if this could happen while trying to grab a gun while it’s falling. Scott replied that it would have to be grabbed in such a way that the finger pulls the trigger.
The trial continues today.
— Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org