Hall County jurors will be asked today to decide whether a woman killed by a gunshot to the head committed suicide or was murdered.
The defense rested its case Wednesday in the murder trial of Solomon "Troy" Hester. Hester, 32, is charged in the Oct. 1, 2007, shooting death of girlfriend Allison Brownell in their Belevedere Drive home. He did not testify in his defense.
The lynchpin witness for the defense was a forensic pathologist from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences who said the injuries to Brownell pointed to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Dr. Emily Ward of Huntsville, Ala., was hired by the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s Office to examine crime scene photos and reports and give her opinion on the cause and manner of Brownell’s death.
Ward noted the marks on the side of Brownell’s head that were left by the .40-caliber handgun that killed her. The so-called "muzzle stamp" was an indication that the gun was pressed hard against her head as it was fired, she said.
"It’s characteristically a wound that is self-inflicted," Ward testified. "If someone else were going to try to inflict this wound, there’s just a normal, natural reflex to back away from a gun pressed to your head."
A prosecution expert testified earlier this week he believed the gun was pressed against Brownell’s head as her head was on a sofa cushion.
Ward said that would not be possible.
"That cushion has a lot of elasticity to it, a lot of leeway," that would have allowed Brownell to move her head away from the barrel, she said.
Ward also said the curled fingers of Brownell’s left hand seen in crime scene photos indicated a "death grip" known as a cadaveric spasm.
"It gives us very strong proof that the gun was in her hand when the trigger was pulled," Ward testified.
According to court testimony, first responders removed the gun from Brownell’s left hand
before paramedics administered to her and before crime scene photos were taken. The deputies who first saw the gun testified that her hand lay on top of it with fingers extended.
Under cross-examination, Ward acknowledged that cadaveric spasms were not common, seen in only one or two autopsies out of 250 or more she performs a year. She said she was not aware that some experts were skeptical that cadaveric spasms even occur.
The pathologist said she believed Brownell was in an upright position when she was shot. Two other experts have testified otherwise.
She said she did not believe the position Brownell would have held the gun to her head was unusual or awkward, contradicting the testimony of at least three other witnesses.
Assistant District Attorney Kelley Robertson and fellow prosecutor Jennifer Bagwell used the gun and the sofa cushion to demonstrate how the gun could have been held against Brownell’s head as it pressed against the cushion.
"Is it your position someone’s head could not be pressed hard enough into the sofa that it would not move?" Robertson asked the doctor.
"I think we would see a loose contact wound, not a hard contact wound," Ward responded.
Ward also testified that an unidentified white shape seen in crime scene photos looked to her like a bone fragment, which would support her theory that Brownell was sitting upright when the shot was fired.
"It’s not part of the sofa, and what else could it be, and my answer is nothing else," Ward said.
Jurors also heard for a second time the 911 call made by Hester, as the defense called as a witness the communications officer who took the call. Hester can be heard sobbing, cursing in anger and saying "what am I going to do."
Hall County Fire Lt. Bobby Elliott, one of the first responders on the night of the shooting, testified that when he saw Hester standing close to the front door, he was "kind of bewildered, in a state of shock, maybe."
The jury of eight men and six women, including alternates, will hear closing arguments this morning before beginning deliberations.