April 8, 2009

Truth vs. fiction

Co-defendants blame each other for killing a young mother and critically wounding her toddler

The prosecutor presents two photographs of 2-year-old Erica Hughes.

The first depicts a healthy child with big brown eyes and a wide grin. The second is a close-up of the girl in a hospital bed, eyes closed, with a bullet hole in her forehead.

Sitting at separate defense tables, James Quisenberry, 28, and Kenneth Williams, 24, look down as the prosecutor projects the images onto a white screen inside the cramped Jefferson County courtroom.

The men are on trial for capital murder, accused of killing Earon Harper and robbing her of prescription pills, as well as shooting and severely wounding the woman’s toddler.

Both defendants admit to being present as the violent crime unfolded in the early morning on May 18, 2006, but each claims the other pulled the trigger.

During opening arguments, Ray Clooney, the attorney representing Williams, does not dispute that his client was in search of drugs that night, or that he was present when the shootings occurred. “At the end of the case, what will be in dispute is who did it,” says Clooney. “One of them did it, and one of them is lying,” he adds, saying it’s up to the jury to make that call after hearing all the evidence.

Defense lawyer Steve Schroering agrees one of the defendants is lying, but says flat-out it is not Quisenberry: “There was one gun that night, there was one person who had evil motives that night … and that person was Kenneth Williams.”

The lawyer explains that his client was addicted to drugs and frequently purchased pills from the victim without incident. “There was one crucial, fatal difference that night,” he says. “He brought Kenneth Williams.”

But the prosecution maintains that who fired the shots is irrelevant, arguing the defendants were complicit in the murder and attempted murder, and are therefore equally guilty and eligible for the death penalty.

In excruciating detail, assistant commonwealth’s attorney Mark Baker describes to the jury his theory of the case: The defendants arrive at Harper’s west Louisville home looking for pills. One of the men shoots Harper in the leg, likely because she refuses to reveal the combination to her safe. When that doesn’t get her to talk, the shooter walks into a back bedroom and shoots the child in the leg. Eventually, the safe is opened and the pair flees with cash and prescriptions, but not before fatally shooting Harper, nearly at point-blank range, and then shooting the little girl again, this time in the head.

Remarkably, the toddler survived, lying in her mother’s bed until the owner of the rental home came upon the gruesome scene the following afternoon, approximately 12 hours after the shootings. First he found Harper’s lifeless body on the living room floor. Then he entered the bedroom and found the girl. Blood had completely soaked her “Dora the Explorer” pillow and pink pajamas, and at first the landlord assumed she too was dead.

But then the child spoke.

“The 2-year-old uttered these three words: ‘Leave me alone,’” Baker says, pausing for a moment as he breaks down in tears. The girl underwent a series of surgeries that saved her life, although today she is blind in one eye and has brain damage. At the end of his opening argument, he urges jurors to, “Give these two men the justice they’ve earned.”

When Williams and Quisenberry pulled up to the single-story brick house at 1784 Wilson Ave. they were looking for prescription drugs.

Just a few hours earlier, police say the two attempted to buy prescriptions from a Walgreens in New Albany using false names. A surveillance video shows them having a brief exchange with an employee at the pharmacy counter before exiting the store empty-handed.

Still in search of a fix, the pair went to the home rented by Harper, and during interviews with detectives 15 months later, that’s where their stories diverge.

After his arrest, Quisenberry told police he and Williams went to buy Xanax from Harper, whom he said was known for selling downers. During a lengthy interrogation, 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.”

In a separate interrogation room at the police station, Williams began sobbing, telling detectives it was Quisenberry who pulled the trigger: “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.”

Neither suspect admitted to seeing the toddler get shot.

Because the defendants are being tried together for murder, the transcripts of their interrogations with police will not be presented to the jury in their entirety. Instead, the prosecution will use summaries, excluding the portions in which the co-defendants blame each other for the shootings. If references to one another were allowed into evidence, they might be compelled to take the stand, compromising their constitutional right not to testify.

The trial resumes Wednesday and is expected to last through the end of next week. Check leoweekly.com for updates.