KINGSPORT - "O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive..." are the words Kaylin Hortenstine, a lawyer for the prosecution, spoke in opening statements Monday at the trial of Eric Melvin Crowe.
Crowe is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the 2005 death of Robert "Bob" Tester.
Crowe was arrested May 12, 2005, after police and medical personnel responded to 3413Â½ Memorial Blvd. about an unconscious person. When they arrived, they found Tester lying on the floor with multiple injuries "consistent with a physical attack," Kingsport Police Department Detective Jason Bellamy wrote in a court document.
The first witness on the stand was the only female present at the apartment the night Tester died, Tina Herron of Surgoinsville. According to testimony, she was lying on the couch next to Crowe minutes before the fight.
According to the defense's opening statements, Crowe and Tester went on a beer run late that night after Crowe, Tester and Scott Frickie consumed a liter of whiskey among the three of them. Herron, however, testified that Frickie and Crowe were the two who went on that beer run.
Herron also told the court that she had "a couple" beers. When asked to specify at one point, she said, "two or three, I'm not sure."
The defense brought out a signed statement from Herron dated the night of Tester's death. In it, the defense said, she had admitted drinking "three or four" beers. Herron further clarified that "a couple beers" could mean as many as four. But she emphatically denied any more than that. She also denied drinking any of the whiskey the three men had shared, saying that she had tried a sip but didn't like it.
Herron testified that she woke up on the couch to the sound of Crowe telling Tester to "shut up" and "go to bed." Tester apparently was sitting at the computer across the room talking and being loud.
Herron said when Crowe and Tester stood, she got up and went to Frickie's room for help, knowing there probably was going to be a fight.
Hearing sounds of a struggle in the living room, Herron said she tried to get Frickie to get up and stop the two men. Before he could, she said Crowe burst into the bedroom, separated from the living room by a curtain in the doorway, and said, "I didn't mean to hit him that hard."
The prosecution alleges that after Herron left the room, Crowe used either a bat or an ax handle to hit Tester in the abdomen before putting him into a headlock that killed him.
Crowe's attorney, David Mullins, opened by telling the jury that trial proceedings would show Tester, Crowe and Frickie were all longtime friends who wound up back at the apartment drinking because they could not find a good, private spot to "fish and drink."
Crowe left the apartment to pick up Herron, while Tester and Frickie continued to drink, according to the defense. When Crowe and Herron returned, all four drank, and they drank some more after Crowe and Tester went on a late-night beer run.
According to the defense, Tester was known to Frickie and Crowe to be an aggressive drinker. The defense's stance, according to opening statements, is that Tester - whose blood alcohol content level was more than three times the legal driving limit of 0.08 at approximately 0.256, became violent after Crowe attempted to order him around in his own residence.
The defense said Crowe, who had seen his approximately 5-feet-4-inch, nearly 300-pound friend in fights with other people, grabbed either the bat or ax handle and swung at Tester, hitting him in the left side in an attempt to stop the attack. The defense also asserted that Crowe had red marks around his neck from where Tester had his hands around his neck.
Two years ago, Crowe told police that he and Tester had an argument, Tester hit him in the face, and the two began to fight. Crowe said he retrieved an ax handle from behind the couch and told Tester if he came toward him, Crowe would hit him.
Police said Crowe told them Tester continued to fight. At one point Crowe said Tester had him on the floor, but Crowe was able to get up and get his arm around Tester's neck.
"He stated that Tester continued to fight, so he continued to squeeze his neck until Tester went limp," Bellamy said.
The defense said Crowe was just trying to get Tester to stop fighting him.
According to Sullivan County Circuit Judge Jerry Beck, the state must prove that Crowe was provoked to act in a "state of passion" before the jury can find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a Class C felony.
The defense concluded opening statements by saying, "It was more than provocation, he was attacked by someone. He was subjected to an attack by a large, intoxicated man, and he did the best he could to defend himself."