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February 25, 2009

Trading blame

Pair accused of shooting toddler and killing her mother to be tried for capital murder next month

When police responded to a report of a double shooting at a west Louisville home on May 18, 2006, they found Earon Harper sprawled on the living room floor, face down in a pool of blood.

The 41-year-old woman was not breathing and her body was cold — it was clear she was already dead.

A trail of bloody footprints on the hardwood floor led officers to a back bedroom where they found the victim’s 2-year-old daughter, Erica Hughes, suffering from several gunshot wounds.

The little girl was unconscious but still alive.

Fearing an ambulance might take too long to respond, a policeman scooped up the toddler and rushed her to Kosair Children’s Hospital, a decision later credited with saving her life.

The girl had been shot three times, with one of the 9-mm bullets striking her in the head, shattering her teeth and leaving her blind in one eye. As doctors embarked on a series of surgeries, detectives set out to track down those responsible for the violent rampage inside the single-story brick house at 1784 Wilson Ave.

Fifteen months later, Louisville Metro Police arrested James Quisenberry Jr. and Kenneth Williams and charged the pair with murder, attempted murder and robbery. In separate interviews, the men admitted to being at the house the night of the shootings, but both blamed the other for pulling the trigger.

Now, despite objections from lawyers representing both defendants, a joint capital murder trial is set to begin next month in Jefferson County Circuit Court. Last week, Chief Judge James Shake issued a ruling indicating the trial would begin March 27 as scheduled.

At a hearing earlier this month, public defender Mike Lemke — who is representing Williams — said the capital trial should be postponed because Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney David Stengel had insisted that a trial in an unrelated case be rescheduled to suit the needs of his office. The change caused a scheduling conflict for Lemke, who is serving as defense counsel in both cases.

“This problem has been thrust on us by the elected commonwealth’s attorney throwing his weight around,” Lemke argued, claiming Stengel had indicated his office would not object to postponing the trial of Quisenberry and Williams.

But Stengel denies making any such promise, and the prosecutors handling the duo’s capital murder case did object to a continuance, an action Lemke recently characterized in court as “dishonorable.”

Not only will the trial proceed next month, Quisenberry and Williams will be seated side by side, yet another blow to the defense. Lawyers for both defendants fought vigorously for separate trials, but were unsuccessful, likely making their jobs more difficult at trial, given the suspects blame each other for the shootings.

“We favor [a joint trial] because it gives the jury an opportunity to apportion what actions each defendant took,” Mark Baker, one of two assistant commonwealth’s attorneys assigned to the case, said during a recent interview. “Should we get to a penalty phase, it helps to be able to compare relative participation in the crime in determining how to punish. The best way to get to justice is to let a jury hear both sides together.”

The prosecutors have declined to map out exactly what evidence they will present, or whether they plan to pin the shootings on one of the defendants. But because the indictment suggests the two suspects were complicit in the murder, both men are eligible for the death penalty, regardless of who was the triggerman.

Edward Anthony was taking his usual route home from work on a spring afternoon in 2006 when he passed by the little brick house he rented to Earon Harper and her young daughter. Noticing the trashcans on the curb out front, he stopped to help, dragging the empty cans to the side of the house.

The landlord knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again, but still no answer. The door was unlocked, so he turned the knob and pushed it open.

“I looked in and seen her laying on the floor,” Anthony recalled in a deposition filed with the court. At first he thought she might have had a seizure, but when he entered the house, he saw the blood. “Then I looked and seen the baby, the baby laying in the bed man … I said, ‘Fuck, I gotta get out of here. What can I do?’ So I, I called 911.”

Investigators combed the crime scene, cataloguing evidence: the victim’s cell phone, in pieces on the ground next to her body; numerous 9-mm shell casings in the bedroom and living room, including one that landed on top of a toy drum; a safe in the bedroom that appeared to have been rifled through, with only a few miscellaneous items remaining; bloody footprints; a Big Red can; two cigarette butts in an ashtray.

Over the next 15 months, Erica Hughes endured a slow and painful recovery as the investigation dragged on, finally resulting in the arrest of two men.

Although police have not detailed the exact chain of events that led them to Quisenberry and Williams, they told the suspects during interrogations that their DNA was found on the empty Big Red can and cigarette butts at the scene.

During a lengthy interview, Quisenberry told detectives he and Williams went to buy Xanax from Harper, whom he said was known for selling prescription pills. Eventually, he blamed the shootings on Williams: “He pulled out the gun and started wrestling with her … one thing led to another … as I’m running out I’m hearing gunshots, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. So I runs out and gets in the car, and he’s still in there … he came running out with a bag of papers, pills, some money.”

Meanwhile, in a separate interrogation room, Williams was turning on Quisenberry: “The deal went bad. They was just having a tussle. And then after that I heard a gunshot. After I heard a gunshot I ran in there to see what was going on … he knew she had a safe … he was asking her for the number and she wasn’t giving it up.”

Although the men accused each other of being the gunman, neither admitted seeing the toddler get shot.