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By DAMON LAWRENCE
A relatively simple case. That's what special prosecutor Kenneth Irvine told jurors at the start of Rocky Houston's double-murder trial.
After almost two weeks of evidence, nothing has changed in the eyes of Irvine.
“The state thinks it's relatively simple, because I think the focus of your inquiry needs to be what happened on May 11, 2006,” Irvine told jurors during his closing argument Wednesday. “It only becomes complicated for the jury when you go back in time, years back and bring in all kinds of things that don't involve officer Jones or Mr. Brown.”
Sixteen jurors heard evidence throughout the trial, but only 12 are deliberating. The group includes nine women and three men. Special Judge James “Buddy” Scott picked them at random by pulling numbers out of a coffee container. Scott sent the jury home at 4:30 p.m. They will return to court Thursday morning to resume deliberations.
“This ain't a practice run folks,” defense attorney Randy Rogers said during his closing argument. “This is the rest of the life of this man right here.”
Houston is accused of killing Roane County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Jones and Mike Brown.
Jones and Brown, a former lawman, were good friends who often rode together when Jones was out on patrol. They were killed in a shootout with Houston and his older brother on May 11, 2006. Leon Houston's July trial ended in a hung jury. He's scheduled to be retried next year.
Rocky is relying on the defense of self-defense. Irvine said the case could ultimately hinge on the jury's interpretation of that law.
The Houston brothers and the deceased men all fired weapons in the shootout. The state contends Rocky initiated the gunfight when he hopped up and shouted “It's on now” as Jones' patrol car drove back down Barnard Narrows Road toward Leon's house.
“And it is on now,” Irvine told the jury. “He comes off that porch and we think the physical evidence is very strong that he's firing.”
The state claims all the fatal shots were fired from Rocky's high-powered rifle. Irvine contends the initial shot came as he stepped off the porch, upset because Jones and Brown were riding down the road.
“You can't claim self-defense when he initiated that encounter,” Irvine said. “(Jones and Brown) don't have to wait until they got shot to be able to defend themselves.”
A forensic pathologist testified Brown was paralyzed when he received two shots to his head. One of them, according to testimony, sent his jaw flying down the road. Irvine told jurors to keep that in mind when debating Rocky's claims of self-defense.
“Even if someone had the legal right to self-defense, once the threat is gone, once someone is paralyzed, can't fire, can't get off the ground, is no longer a threat to you, your right to use deadly force is gone,” Irvine said. “You can't put two shots in their head when they're paralyzed on the surface.”
Rocky is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony murder. The jury has the option to not convict on those charges and find him guilty on several lesser included offenses.
When it was time to give his closing argument, Rogers didn't hold back. He told jurors Irvine did a lot of cherry-picking in his closing argument, only pointing out evidence beneficial to the state's case.
“He wants you to ignore all those things, except what helps him,” Rogers said. “I want you to remember all of it.”
Rogers was part lawyer, part showman. He mimicked several witnesses, including sheriff's deputy Guy McGuckin.
“You know the one,” Rogers said with a deep voice. “The one that said, 'Go get that son of a (expletive). I seen him on the front porch down at Leon's.'”
Irvine said Rocky had a warrant out for his arrest at the time of the shooting. After spotting Rocky at Leon's house, McGuckin testified he told Jones to go get him.
Rogers told jurors there's a mountain of reasons to find reasonable doubt, which would require them to return a verdict of not guilty. Rogers told the jury they would have to ignore a lot of things to believe the state's theory about how Brown got his fatal injuries. Chief among them, Rogers said, is the testimony given by Rocky's daughter Rachel.
“You have to believe she's lying when she says, 'I came up there and I saw a man not in uniform, and a plaid shirt, standing next by the vehicle with his gun in the ready position,'” Rogers said. “Remember when she crouched down there and showed you that? That's when Mr. Brown got shot.”
Rogers also called into question the integrity of the crime scene and how a shell casing from Rocky's rifle ended up by the porch.
“I don't know how that casing got there,” Rogers said. “I really don't after 15 people walked around the scene and constables were picking up casings and then being told not to do that. I don't know. I don't know what happened, but is this crime scene one that you can really be confident in?”
Rocky sat at the defense table, stone faced, often looking directly at the jury box when Rogers was making his closing argument. At one point Rocky's face started turning red and he had to be consoled by a man sitting beside him.
“My client needs to go home and be with his family,” Rogers said.
His closing argument was followed by a rebuttal from Irvine.
“He (Rogers) complains about sending Rocky Houston home. This is forever for him,” Irvine said. “We can't send officer Jones home. We can't send Mike Brown home. It's forever for them also.”