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Harper trial update: Prosecution rests, defense starts testimony

5:38 AM, Apr 15, 2013   |    comments
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Update 2:45 p.m.

The prosecution rested its case and the defense started its testimony on Friday afternoon in the trial of a Middle Tennessee man accused of hitting and killing three people while driving drunk, including an unborn child last spring.

Curtis Harper is accused of hitting Nelson Soto Sr., Chasity Thornell and her unborn child last May on Washington Pike, and then driving away.

Thornell, who was seven months pregnant, ran out of gas and Soto stopped to help her. According to police, when the vehicle struck the victims, Thornell was giving Soto a hug to say thank you.

Harper turned himself in to Knoxville police about a week after the accident. Authorities charged him with three counts of vehicular homicide, and one count each of DUI, tampering with evidence and reckless endangerment.

Before the jury was brought in, Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz told the jury that Thornell did have drug paraphernalia and crushed pills at the time of the crash- and presented it as evidence.

Harper's roommate of two years, Alan Nida, and Harper's friends, Elizabeth Stanford, Chance Losher, and Bradley Jones, testified for the prosecution on Friday.

They told the jury that Harper said he was in an accident, and he believed he hit someone. Nida said Harper told him that he had been drinking the night of the crash. Nida testified that Harper planned to get his car towed to Johnson City for repairs.

Stanford said that she and Harper were packing to go to a music festival when she noticed big dents in Harper's car. It was at that time Harper told her that he hit someone. Shortly after, she broke down on the bench.

Chance Losher testified that Harper was drinking a strong vodka and Sprite when he visited him at work. According to Losher, Harper told him he was going to The Hill, a bar near downtown Knoxville.

Losher told the jury that Harper called him at about 2:00 to 2:30 a.m. saying he got in an accident and may have hit someone, but didn't stop because he had been drinking. Losher said the whole front side of Harper's car was damaged, and later he gave Harper a rag to wash it off.

Bradley Jones, testified that he woke up at about 3:00 a.m. and saw Harper and another person talking outside. He then went back to sleep.

When Jones woke up, he saw the accident on the news. Later, he saw the damage to the suspect's SUV and confronted Harper about the crash. Harper then admitted he thought he hit someone. Jones testified that he didn't go to police because Harper told him he was going to turn himself in.

The prosecution rested its case shortly before 1:20 p.m. Friday.

The defense made a motion Friday to dismiss charges, but Judge Leibowitz threw it out, stating the jury had enough evidence to deliberate. Leibowitz said there was enough testimony about people seeing the suspect drunk, and Harper knew better than to go around the body.

Ryan Blevins, a UT student and friend of Harper's, testified for the defense and said Harper wasn't drinking that night. Blevins said he never saw Harper drink anything, and he didn't seem impaired when he saw him at The Hill.

Blevins said he left the bar at about 11:00 p.m., but Harper stayed behind. The next day, he saw the Knoxville News Sentinel's report on the crash, and later that day, Harper called to tell him he was involved in a wreck, but said he wasn't intoxicated.

Chase Stubbs and his girlfriend, Micah Hamilton, also took the stand in Harper's defense and testified that Harper didn't seem appear to be drunk that night.

Stubbs said Harper ordered a pitcher of beer and drank about three cups. Still, Stubbs said Harper did not get drunk at The Hill, but doesn't know what Harper did afterwards. Hamilton also said Harper was sober when he left The Hill and told her he was going home

Court resumes Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. with the defense continuing to call in witnesses.

Previous Story

(April 12, 2013) Judge Mary Beth Liebowitz told the courtroom Thursday that the trial involving a Middle Tennessee man and his involvement with a triple-fatal hit and run case will go into next week.

In court, accident reconstruction experts recall building a similar scenario to see if Curtis Harper was speeding or could see the stalled car which victims Nelson Soto and Chastity Thornell were next to at the time. Thornell was pregnant at the time; her baby did not survive.

Investigators told the jury that Harper could have stopped and seen the victim's car at night from hundreds of feet away since it did have its flashers on.

The defense claimed on Tuesday during opening arguments that the crash was unavoidable because it happened at night.

Investigators also questioned if Harper stopped after hitting the victims.

"It tells us that the suspect's vehicle actually stopped. It stopped and the only way that could've not hit Ms. Thornell a third time was to go around her," said KPD officer Greg Womac.

The trial resumes at 10:00 Friday.

Previous Story 

Testimony resumed first thing Thursday morning in the Curtis Harper trial.

When jurors recessed for lunch, they had only heard from one witness; Sgt. Tracy Hunter who is an accident reconstruction expert with the Knoxville Police Department.

Jurors also saw graphic pictures of the three victims' bodies. At that point, members of Nelson Soto's family broke down to the point where the judge asked them to leave. Shortly after, court recessed for lunch.

Curtis Harper is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide, and one count each of DUI, tampering with evidence, and reckless endangerment.

Prosecutors say Harper was driving drunk last May when he struck and killed 24-year-old Chasity Thornell, who was seven months pregnant, and 45-year-old Nelson Soto Sr.

Previous Story

Loved ones of the victims were visibly shaken during the second day of testimony Wednesday in the Curtis Harper trial.

Prosecutors showed the clothing that was worn by Nelson Soto and Chasity Thornell the night they died.  Family members cried during that testimony, and one woman even got up and left the courtroom.

Harper remained stoic throughout most of the day.

During the majority of the witnesses talked about a silver Ford SUV, investigators believe Harper was driving that night. Several witnesses said there were car parts all over Washington Pike and Alice Bell Road, near the scene of the crime.

"As I've made that right hand turn, I noticed there was a piece of plastic in the roadway. Pulled up on this, exited my vehicle and upon closer inspection, I noticed it was a grey plastic.  It appeared to be a fender well of a vehicle," recalled KPD officer Samuel McLean.

"Found a part number on it," said KPD officer Jason Hewitt. "(I) ran the part number on Google and it went to either a Ford Explorer, or a Ford Exhibition and the witness said yeah that possibly been the vehicle."

Also found was a beer coozie inside the SUV. Tuesday, the defense claimed Harper did consumer beer and vodka, but did not have enough to be inebriated.

The prosecution will continue their case Thursday morning.  More evidence of that night is expected to be shown then.

It is expected that this trial will go into next week.

Previous story

Seven Knoxville Police officers have testified so far in the trial of Curtis Harper, and everyone of them has described the scene of the fatal hit and run as one of the worst accidents they've ever witnessed.

Curtis Harper is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide, and one count each of DUI, tampering with evidence, and reckless endangerment.

Last May, prosecutors say Harper was driving drunk when he struck and killed 24-year-old Chasity Thornell, who was seven months pregnant, and 45-year-old Nelson Soto Sr.

Previous story:Witnesses describe horrific scene after triple fatal hit & run

Wednesday morning was day two of testimony in the case, with four KPD officers taking the stand to describe the scene, which they described as "gory" and "chaotic."  They also described a silver Ford car part that was found near the crime scene.

The jury was dismissed briefly from the courtroom as the attorneys argued over whether one of the officers could be classified as an "expert witness" about the speed she believed Harper was driving.  Judge Leibowitz ruled that she could not testify as an expert witness.

Then, a  truck driver who drove by the scene and the assistant manager of the Spring Meadow Apartments, where Harper lived, described the damage to Harper's vehicle following the crash.

Court was adjourned for a lunch break around noon, and testimony will continue after 1:00 pm.


 

 

 

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