Murder Trial: Opinions vary over where shots were fired

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 20, 2008

WINTON – Did Eric Oakes mean to kill Tyrelle Overton six years ago, or was the whole thing an accident of sorts?

That’s one of the questions a jury of twelve will likely face here today (Thursday) after closing arguments are heard in Oakes’ trial.

Oakes, 26, stands charged with first degree capital murder, attempted armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from the July 13, 2002 shooting death of Overton, 20, in Ahoskie.

Wednesday, the eighth day of the trail, the court heard testimony from two medical examiners regarding the possible circumstances leading up to Overton’s death.

Dr. Paul Spence, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Overton’s body, took the stand when called by the prosecution.

He testified that Overton had been shot twice and subsequently died as a result of that shooting.

One of the bullets entered Overton’s chest and lodged in his pelvic area, traveling in a downward motion.

The other bullet entered through the area just below Overton’s right shoulder blade and lodged below his left armpit, traveling transversely and slightly from back to front.

Spence could not speculate as to whether the shots could have occurred as a result of a struggle over a handgun, or taken place outside of the van, occupied by Overton and Oakes, after entering the Golden Corral parking lot.

Either possibility could have occurred, he said, which was a statement echoed by the first witness for the defense, Dr. M. G. F. Gilliland.

Gilliland, a pathologist at the East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine who was not a direct participant in the 2002 autopsy but was on call that day, nonetheless reviewed the autopsy results and offered her expert opinion on what it could mean.

She noted that the distance of the gun to Overton at the time he was shot could not be determined, due to the fact that Overton’s body arrived unclothed.

&uot;You wouldn’t have been able to tell because the clothing is missing, and since the clothing was between the bullet and the skin, the (gunshot residue) powder would have been on the clothes,&uot; Gilliland stated.

She further testified that it was uncertain which shot had occurred first, but it was the shot to the back that was most likely fatal.

&uot;(That) wound almost certainly would have been fatal… it wouldn’t have mattered how quickly medical help was sought; he likely could not have survived with that type of damage,&uot; she noted.

On being questioned by defense attorney David Sutton, Gilliland testified that it was her conclusion that in the chest shot, the gun had to be pointing downward at Overton’s chest, with him leaning forward.

&uot;With someone seated in a van, all they would have to do is lean over and you would get that angle,&uot; she stated.

Regarding the shot to Overton’s back, Gilliland said it could have happened as Overton was twisting around.

&uot;It does not take very much movement when someone is struggling, when someone still sitting turns in a chair and that angle develops for the bullet to go in the back side and travel to the left armpit area,&uot; she explained.

However, on cross-examination by District 6B Attorney Valerie Asbell, Gilliland confirmed that an entirely different scenario was just as probable.

Demonstrating bodily in front of the jury, Asbell asked Gilliland if the situation could have played out by Oakes grabbing Overton by the arms and pulling him forward, shooting him in the chest, and then as Overton turned to flee, shooting him again.

Gilliland responded, &uot;Yes, it could just as likely have happened that way.&uot;

In testimony the previous day (Tuesday), the jury heard from expert witness Shane Greene, an SBI special agent in the field of forensic firearms identification.

Green testified that the bullets extracted from Overton’s body were .380-caliber federal hydroshock hollow-point bullets.

Asked to clarify what that meant, he explained, &uot;Hollow-point bullets are designed to expand when they come in contact with water or something soft, like an animal or human.

It’s a design feature specifically meant to cause more damage.&uot;

Green further testified that he discovered, upon examination, the .380-caliber bullets removed from Overton’s body were fired from the same gun and that the .380-caliber shell casings found in the former Golden Corral parking lot and in the van were also fired from the same firearm.

Additionally, a live (unfired) .380-caliber round found on display in Oakes’ co-defendant Joseph Forehand’s car upon it being searched was found to have come from the same magazine in the same gun as the two bullets that killed Overton.

The state rested its case after the testimony of Dr. Spence and the defense rested after calling just two witnesses.

The defense attempted to enter the final of those two witnesses, David Cloutier, as an expert witness in the field of use of force science, but after much discussion Judge William C. Griffin decided not to allow the &uot;expert&uot; label.

&uot;I just don’t see how you are in a better position than anyone else to make a judgment, including the members of the jury,&uot; Griffin told Cloutier.

Cloutier was still allowed to testify as a former law enforcement officer and a person of military background.

He explained that in studies he had read or in some cases conducted, it was determined that a person takes an average of 0.367 seconds from when the decision is made to fire a gun until the time the gun is actually fired.

Furthermore, he testified that the average person takes 0.31 seconds to make a 90-degree turn with their torso.

Sutton questioned, &uot;So, a person could turn around in less than the time it takes for a gun to go off?&uot;

Cloutier replied, &uot;Yes, absolutely.&uot;

On cross-examination, Assistant Defense Attorney Assata Buffaloe questioned Cloutier’s military training.

It had been previously confirmed by both parties that Oakes and Forehand were Army soldiers stationed at Ft. Bragg at the time of the shooting.

Questioning Cloutier, Buffaloe inquired, &uot;Isn’t one of the first things they teach you in military training that you do not point your loaded weapon at someone unless you intend to use it?&uot;

After Cloutier replied in the affirmative, she continued, &uot;In the military you are also trained to shoot until you kill somebody, is that correct?&uot;

Cloutier again replied that was true.

After the jury was sent out, the two opposing councils argued their respective sides on what options would be presented to the jury on their verdict sheets.

Regarding the murder charge, Judge Griffin decided on first-degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or not guilty.

&uot;I’ve got to offer all (options) because the evidence is in conflict.

Y’all have created a mess here,&uot; he stated.

If a verdict of first-degree murder is reached, the jury would then have to decide whether to impose the death penalty or opt for sentencing Oakes to life without parole.

Closing statements should begin shortly after court convenes at 9 a.m. Thursday morning, after which time the jury will go into deliberation.