Prosecutors and defense attorneys for murder defendant Jerrin Hickman made their opening arguments before the jury Tuesday morning.
Hickman is being tried for the Dec. 31, 2007 murder of 25-year-old Christopher Monnet outside a party at 8407 N.E. Thompson St. The 31-year-old licensed massage therapist maintains his innocence against the charges.
Prosecutor Rod Underhill told the jury that as everyone at the party waited to countdown to the New Year, Hickman had something else on his mind.
"Jerrin Hickman was sliding on a ski mask," Underhill told the jury. "Jerrin Hickman pointed a gun at the unarmed Christopher Monnet and fired several times."
In the state's presentation of their opinion of what happened the night of the murder, Underhill painted a version of Hickman that was bent on revenge following a "disrespectful" encounter at a party.
The New Year's Eve party was full of his friends and relatives – many of whom were estranged from Hickman, according to his mother, Terri Miller.
Because of Monnet's size – he was 6'3" and 369 pounds -- Underhill believes Hickman walked away from their argument to "change the rules of the game" and get a gun. Just seconds prior to Hickman's arrival at the party, Monnet had been engaged in a fist fight with a different individual, which Underhill downplayed as "unrelated."
Underhill's eyewitnesses who he says can all pinpoint Hickman directly as the shooter – are all convicted felons, many of them multiple times over. Many are currently serving jail sentences or awaiting sentencing for crimes. They are testifying under the possibility or assumption that they will receive lenient treatment.
Underhill says his witnesses all saw a similar thing – a man matching Hickman's short, stocky build pull a ski mask over his face, approach Monnet and fire multiple shots. In all, the shooter fired eight rounds from a Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun that had been stolen from a residence in August 2006. Underhill says police believe a cousin of Hickman's – who is also related to or acquainted with many of the state's witnesses – stole the gun. He says this circumstantially links Hickman to the murder weapon, which had no DNA or fingerprints on it after it was found several days after the crime scene had been cleared. Hickman's DNA, along with other DNA profiles, were found on a ski mask, two shoes and a broken watch found in the vicinity that matches a possible escape pattern.
When the shots rang out, nearly everyone ran from the scene. Within moments, a police squad car pulled near the scene. Originally called for the fight that occurred before the shooting, the officer had no idea a shooting had just occurred. After attempting to detain two Black males running from the party, one witness diverted the attention of the officer to the murder victim.
Hickman was found early the next morning at the Rose City Golf Course, having broken his leg after a fall from a 30 foot embankment.
Throughout both opening statements, defense attorney Patrick Sweeney and prosecutor Underhill vary in their interpretations of the evidence.
According to Sweeney, many of those present at the party who witnessed the shooting have never been identified; nearly all of those pinpointing Hickman are receiving favorable treatment for other crimes they have committed, several that include felon in possession of a firearm; Statements from Dontae Porter – the owner of the ski mask found on the sidewalk near the crime scene – changed several times before matching the state's version of events; and Hickman's behavior following the shooting was consistent with someone with hypothermia and a broken leg trying to reach their longtime girlfriend who is a registered nurse in possession of Hickman's insurance information.
Sweeney encouraged the jury to question the biases and motives of the state's witnesses.
A Point of Contention
During Underhill's opening statements, he referenced that several witnesses receiving preferential treatment under the justice system for their cooperation were "afraid."
One witness, Raymond Grant, violated his agreement with the state.
"He got scared recently," Underhill told the jury, never saying why Grant, a multiple felon facing another felony charge, was scared. "He ignored the agreement to participate and fled the area."
Grant was recaptured and will be testifying for the prosecution.
With the jury out of the room, Sweeney made an objection to the inference that his client was threatening witnesses.
"I want to hear about … evidence that prosecution witnesses are under threat from the defendant," Judge Michael Marcus said. "Without solid evidence, those statements would be inadmissible and prejudicial."
Underhill said Dontae Porter – who was in custody at the time of his questioning regarding the murder – is being relocated with about $1,000 of government funds.
"He's doing it for a reason," Underhill said. "It's fear of retaliation."
Judge Marcus wasn't swayed.
"Unless you have sufficient evidence of intimidation that somehow Mr. Hickman is responsible," Marcus said. "If there is no admissible evidence, it's an improper attempt to influence the jury."
Underhill offered no evidence, only saying he didn't want the defense to bring up the felon status of his witnesses to the defendant's advantage. Underhill said he wanted everything sordid about his witnesses "on the table" so as not to appear as if their witnesses were being bribed into testifying.
"It wasn't an effort to hide that fact," he said.
It isn't the first time the prosecution has attempted to paint Hickman as an unsavory character. In several pre-trial hearings, prosecutor Heidi Moawad and Jeff Howes – who was replaced by Underhill – attempted to establish Hickman as an active gang member. A label that would have been used in front of the jury.
Although evidence emerged that Hickman might have been associated with a gang in his younger years – as were many of his family members and prosecution witnesses according to Miller, Hickman's mother – it was unclear if Hickman still actively associated with them.
Judge Marcus ultimately rejected that request, saying it would unfairly prejudice the jury.