Witness in Fla. case seen as critical

Woman would testify stabbing was admitted

Columbia

March 02, 2001|By Ludmilla Lelis | Ludmilla Lelis,ORLANDO SENTINEL

DAYTONA BEACH - Visibly shaken, Jean Calloway reluctantly took the stand yesterday afternoon in the absence of a jury and told of hearing an Oak Hill man describe a stabbing nearly three years ago.

But as attorneys debated her testimony, potentially the most damaging yet against Christopher Trull, the clock ran out and the day ended before jurors could hear what she had to say.

Calloway is scheduled to be the last witness today in the state's case against Jonathan, Christopher and Joshua Trull, accused of murdering two Columbia residents and of trying to kill a third visitor. If convicted, any or all of the Trull brothers could be put to death.

The trial heads into its next phase, after six weeks of jury selection and then the state's case. Assistant State Attorney Noah McKinnon offered several dozen witnesses and more than 100 exhibits in an attempt to prove the brothers are responsible for the murders.

Matthew Wichita, Kevans Hall II, and Seth Qubeck, all of Columbia, were attacked at their New Smyrna Beach condominium April 16, 1998. Wichita and Hall were fatally stabbed and Qubeck survived 17 stab wounds.

Jurors must sort through a complicated sequence of events - two separate fights at the condo involving different people and different circumstances, plus multiple conversations after the killings. No one person could describe all the events from beginning to end, so the testimony and evidence must be pieced together like a large jigsaw puzzle - a tricky job that produced some gaps and conflicting statements.

One crucial factor will be how much the 15-member panel believes four key witnesses who were involved in the attack and testified against the Trulls. The witnesses - Danny Osborne, Neil Kirkland, Jim Kirkland and Danny Beard - fought the victims but pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

They testified that Jonathan and Christopher Trull had knives and used them in the attack, but defense attorneys got those witnesses to admit they had lied to investigators about what happened and that they had changed their descriptions of the attack.

Though the Trulls are accused of premeditated murder, and several witnesses said they heard Joshua Trull make death threats, none of the witnesses described an actual plan to kill, only to retaliate for an earlier fight. Jurors will have to decide whether the fact that the group had planned an attack using baseball bats and knives amounts to premeditated murder.

What has made the case especially challenging is that the brothers are being tried together, but each has his own attorney and some of the evidence may only involve one brother and not the others. Circuit Judge Shawn L. Briese has blocked several statements that might be very damaging to one brother, believing it might unfairly impact the others. For example, the judge blocked testimony about a phone call that Jonathan Trull had made in which he asked a witness to change his testimony.

Briese has been very cautious throughout the trial about his rulings, aware that the case likely will be appealed. The jury has been taken out of the courtroom a number of times during arguments over questionable testimony. Those breaks can sometimes take several hours, while the judge weighs the testimony against other court decisions.

Prosecution witnesses against Jonathan Trull focused on his role as the oldest brother, the group leader and the most excitable. His imposing figure - with bare, muscular chest and long black hair - frightened a local couple who saw him after the deadly fight.

Beard and Osborne gave key testimony against him -that Jonathan refused to borrow someone's knife, saying he already had one, and that Jonathan attacked and stabbed Qubeck - but Beard and Osborne admitted to lying to investigators immediately after the attack.

Because no one testified to seeing Jonathan Trull stab Wichita, other testimony that Trull was covered in blood, and that some of the blood stains from his truck matched that of Wichita, could be vital. Other incriminating evidence included statements Jonathan made after the crime.

The judge will decide today how much of Calloway's testimony against Christopher Trull - which could amount to a confession - can be heard by the jury. Defense attorneys are expected to begin their case today or Monday.

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