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Attorney for Church Hill man convicted of attempted rape plans appeal

Kacie Dingus Breeding • Jan 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

The court-appointed defense attorney for a former Church Hill man convicted Tuesday of attempted aggravated rape and assault charges said Wednesday he’s prepared to explore all legal avenues to overturn his client’s convictions.

Jimmy Joe Stapleton was convicted Tuesday in connection with a physical and sexual assault on Christa Brae Hart, 23, in September 2002, about a month before another man is accused of drowning her in South Holston Lake.

Bristol attorney David Mullins said Wednesday he learned after the trial that the prosecution told at least one witness he didn’t need to worry about testifying because his account of what happened the night the prosecution believes Stapleton raped, beat and cut the Bristol, Va., woman before turning his knife on three others didn’t match up with other witnesses’ statements.

Mullins said he didn’t know if the prosecution turned away other witnesses in addition to Michael Yarborough, his client’s stepfather.

Hart drowned in South Holston Lake about a month after the incident. A Bristol, Va., man faces second-degree murder charges in connection with her death. While Mullins said the prosecution isn’t responsible for Hart’s absence from the trial, it was a circumstance that gave them an unfair advantage.

“She wasn’t there to tell what really happened,” Mullins said, adding that “the state benefited unjustly from her death.”

Ten days before the trial, Mullins said the judge denied his request for funds to hire a private investigator to find answers to the questions left unanswered by Hart’s death. One question in particular Mullins would like to have an answer for. Before she died, Hart gave a statement claiming her attacker’s name was “Billy Bob,” according to Mullins.

A Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office offense report lists “Billy Joe” Stapleton as the name Hart gave on Sept. 24, 2002. But an affidavit filed in general sessions court the same day named Jimmy Joe Stapleton as the suspect. According to that affidavit, Hart said he kicked in the bathroom door, locked it behind him, then beat and raped her.

Witnesses testified that Eugene “Tom” Keeler got the door open, and armed with a pistol, told Stapleton to leave. Witnesses said Stapleton then chased Charley Dean outside and stabbed him in the throat after he stepped between him and Keeler. When Stapleton returned to the apartment, he kicked the door open and came inside swinging the knife, cutting Yarborough and Hart. Keeler then shot him in the stomach when he lunged at him, a court affidavit states.

At the end of the two-day trial, most of the charges against Stapleton were reduced. The jury found Stapleton guilty of attempted aggravated rape and simple assault for the attack on Hart. He was found guilty of only one count of aggravated assault, another count was reduced to simple assault, and he was found not guilty on a final charge of aggravated assault.

Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood set Stapleton’s sentencing date to April 4.

Meanwhile, the man accused of killing Hart, Charles Theodore Stiltner Sr., of 23512 Mock Knob Road, Bristol, Va., has a hearing date set for May 20 in Washington County, Va., Criminal Court.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jack Davidson told the Times-News in July that Stiltner was arrested after their investigation placed him close to the Avens Bridge location where her body was found days after her family reported her missing.

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