UPDATED: After deliberating until almost 7:30 p.m., a Marshall County Grand Jury has found Tiffany Pittman guilty of second-degree manslaughter, which carries a five to ten year sentence and was the next step down from the murder charge sought by the prosecution.
Pittman was found guilty as charged of first-degree wanton endangerment and DUI.
BENTON - Closing arguments in the Pittman case got underway shortly after 1 p.m. today with defense council Josh Hitch beginning by addressing the jury saying that while in law school, attorneys are taught to start closing arguments with a story. "I apologize I don’t have one of those today, there is no story I can tell for this case, I don’t have some clever metaphor,” he continued.
“What we have here is a bunch of law and a bunch of facts.”
Hitch said at the end of the day there are only two things to consider in the case, “what was Pittman’s mindset on the night of August 15, 2011 and what caused the car accident.”
Hitch told jurors that to find Pittman guilty of murder, she would have had to have caused the death of Mr. Harper by acting "wantonly" and "engaging in conduct that created a great risk of death and acting in a circumstance that manifested extreme indifference for the value of human life."
Hitch made the case to the jurors that the collision was caused by Pittman’s passenger, Holly Hiett. “We know testimony was the wreck was caused by a sudden, hard steer that was held for at least two seconds,” adding testimony from experts proved Pittman’s vehicle was traveling in a straight path prior to the collision, making the case for the possibility that Hiett’s actions caused Pittman to swerve into the path of Harper’s vehicle.
He further stated that testimony from the Commonwealth did not prove Pittman to be intoxicated at the time of the incident citing her .07 blood alcohol level. “You heard Mike Ward, he testified about Miss Pittman’s impairment…first thing that is crucial in that testimony is that he said there is no observable difference in the manifestation of impairment between a person with Miss Pittman’s alcohol level and a person at that alcohol level combined with the drugs," adding with impairment “being the same either way, let’s focus in on the alcohol.”
Hitch told jurors that a person with a .07 alcohol level would might exemplify a slow response time, incoordination, and lack of judgment. He made a case that none of the indicators of impairment would be cause for a person to steer suddenly and abruptly into the path of oncoming traffic.
“There are some issues that I could see coming from someone at that level, maybe fitting into a gap in traffic that is a little too small for them, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t make you suicidal.”
After going through the list of possible indicators of impairment at that level, Hitch said “Impairment doesn’t seem to be the cause of this, at least not on Miss Pittman’s part.”
Laying that groundwork once again, Hitch set out to identify what he believes did cause the fatal collision. “So, who could have caused this? We come to the only solution we have left – Holly Hiett."
Hitch referenced Hiett's .311 blood alcohol level the night of the collision, saying “somebody who fought with the hospital staff and had to be sedated…somebody whose butt was up in the window and was on her knees - that’s a person who could have easily lost their balance,” he maintained, mentioning to the jury Hiett’s prior DUI just a few months before the collision.
“You are going to grab whatever you can, you are going to grab that steering wheel…one..two..” he counted illustrating the seconds it allegedly took from the time the car reportedly loss control to impact with Harper's vehicle.
“Maybe her judgment was so gone, she just grabbed that wheel, she was mad and gave it a yank. That is the only thing that makes sense.”
Hitch continued saying officers “jumped the gun” and “jumped to conclusions” in charging Pittman with murder. “The train was already rolling,” he told the jury.
He alleged that law enforcement learned details of the collision after having charged Pittman with murder and “had to keep calling it a murder.”
“They are grasping at straws,” Hitch charged. “They had to make it Tiffany’s fault. They are hoping you get so consumed by all of the little mistakes that it would make up for one big one.”
He then set out to make a case that to be guilty of murder, one must be “indifferent” to the value of human life, describing Pittman as a caring individual. “Tiffany made horrible mistakes that night but not every mistake is a crime and not every crime is murder,” Hitch said to the jury.
“A kid who makes a mistake that hundreds of thousands of other kids make, who had a friend that did the unthinkable inside a car – has been branded a murderer.
“Tiffany is not a murderer, what she did does not rise to that level, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Closing arguments for the Prosecution began with Blankenship saying, “Mr. Hitch mentioned law school…we go to law school for these moments.”
“I’ve not been surprised by one thing used by the defense,” he told jurors. “He’s wanting you to feel sorry because she’s young, but the law in our state is what it is – it can be cold and stern. The state recognizes murder by a vehicle and while you may not agree with that, you don’t have the power to change that in here," Blankenship told the jury.
"You can commit murder in a way you operate a vehicle if you operate it under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life and thereby cause somebody’s death. It’s murder. We might not like that or think it should be, but it is.”
Blankenship presented photos of Jimmy Harper to the jury, as emotion rang out from friends and family members in the court room.
“Jimmy Harper was on his way to work, I’m his voice – his voice was snuffed out immediately. The way that he left this world was cold and harsh and forever. He didn’t get a second chance.”
Addressing the allegations by the defense that the prosecution was “stuck with a case,” Blankenship said to the contrary he feels “honored to stand here and fight for Mr. Harper.”
“I think if anybody that gets behind the wheel of a car under the circumstances you heard about in this trial, is operating under extreme indifference to the value of human life and at the end of it, once the life is taken, if we all of a sudden show a lot of care and concern about it, that doesn’t mean you were not operating under extreme indifference when you did it.”
The prosecution then went on to address the defense’s claims that the collision was a result of Hiett’s actions rather than Pittman’s.
“The defense is, it’s Holly Hiett’s fault,” Blankenship said. “But the operator of the vehicle is the captain of the ship.”
Having moved through a strong objection from the defense, Blankenship continued, “The truth hurts. The decision to take a belligerent person with you as the captain of the car shows extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
Amid vocal outbursts from an emotional Hiett and Pittman, Blankenship advised the jury, “You can’t let sympathy judge this case. If we are not going to enforce the laws, I don’t know why we have them. It’s not anyone’s fault that we are all in this situation except the one who turned that key and drove the car.”
The case was turned over to the jury at approximatley 2:30 p.m. for deliberation.
They are considering charges of murder, first-degree wanton endangerment (plead down from assault) and DUI.
Marshall County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Foust said charges of murder can be reduced to second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide depending on the jury's findings.
Charges of first-degree wanton endangerment can be reduced to second-degree wanton endangerment.
The jury was instructed to return three written verdicts, one for each charge.
We will update this story as soon as a jury reaches a verdict in the case.