Knight recalls assault, expert offers blame

David Knighten responds to a question from attorney John Brady during Friday afternoon's trial testimony.
Staff Writer

One of two victims of a restaurant parking lot assault almost five years ago said he hoped “someone would call 9-1-1” as he watched a dispute escalate, but he nor his two friends ever made that request themselves, the man told a Clay County Circuit Court jury during almost three hours of testimony Friday afternoon.

David Knighten recalled the afternoon and evening he spent drinking with Ralph Weems IV, the two confrontations they had with a group of young African-American men first at one restaurant and then another, and how it ended in the assault that left him injured and Weems with permanent brain damage.

He at times, soft-pedaled issues and under cross-examination, acknowledged some other details.

“I knew from the tempo of what was going on that this was going escalate and wasn’t going to end well for us,” Knighten said of the dispute inside the West Point Huddle House just after 2 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2014.

Moments later Weems and Knighten both were assaulted in the parking lot after they’d been asked to leave and walked out of the business by security guard Annie Avant, a Clay County Sheriff’s jailer and auxiliary West Point Police officer who was moonlighting as a security guard.

Knighten, who is now 39, and Weems have sued Litco Petroleum, the former own of the restaurant, and Avant, claiming their failure to act properly led to the assault and injuries.

The 37-year-old Weems, who is living in a Louisiana brain injury treatment center, will require care for the rest of his life. He already has some $3 million in medical bills, including his current care. Even though some treatment was paid for by the Veterans Administration because he served four years in the Marines and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, the VA has filed claims to get payment should the lawsuit result in damages.

The company and Avant argue the men are at least partially responsible, if not fully responsible, for provoking the assault with racial insults and drunken confrontations which they – or at least Weems – started.

While Knighten initially downplayed how much he’d had to drink, he acknowledged under cross examination by Litco attorney John Brady that five hours after they left The Pony strip club and probably four hours after the assault, he still registered .14 - .08 is legally intoxicated -- on a blood alcohol test at North Mississippi Medical Center-West Point where he’d gone for treatment.

But he countered that he was in control of his faculties and that he must have been or West Point Police would have arrested him or taken his gun when they broke up the first dispute at Waffle House not long before the Huddle House incident.
He also said he didn’t remember the police telling them at Waffle House to go home.

He also testified originally that he didn’t remember Weems standing in a booth pointing at two men and calling them names but admitted the scenario when show on a video from inside the restaurant.

He told Brady he didn’t ask anyone to call 9-1-1 because he was using his 13 years of Air Force training, which included combat duty in Afghanistan that earned him a bronze star, to focus on “the threat” posed by the two men who had become agitated, including one who threw two punches at Weems, although neither landed.

He said he “discarded” Avant when she got in the middle of the two groups to try to calm tensions because he was remaining focused on the others.

“Someone else should have done that,” he said at one point when asked about calling 9-1-1.

“I didn’t think I or anyone else was responsible for calling 9-1-1…I was hoping someone did,” he said when asked by his attorney, Amanda Meadows, about seeking help.

Weems was discharged from the Air Force in 2013 after 13 years. He was diagnosed with 100 percent disability, at least 50 percent of which was for post-traumatic stress disorder and the remainder for 12 to 15 head injuries he suffered and for hearing loss.

He said the incident has made his PTSD worse and cost him his marriage. Being “ostracized” in the community prompted him to “go to the woods” for a month on occasion to sort things out.

“Children have nightmares. What I was having was far different,” he said of the repercussions.

He said he saw Weems and their driver, Christina Starks, leave the Huddle House with Avant standing in the foyer. He was talking to a group “trying to maintain” calm when Avant turned back toward him. At about the same time, people in the restaurant began rushing outside as the assault on Weems apparently began.

Knighten didn’t have a cell phone and Avant’s was knocked from her hand during the rush.

Knighten said he was struck as soon as he walked outside and hit in the face and body as he tried to get to where he could see Weems surrounded by a “mob mentality.”

The “mob” dispersed when he fell and rolled over, exposing the .45-caliber handgun he had holstered in the back of his pants.

“I have carried the gravity of this thing the entire time,” he said at one point.

“I was there, I lived it,” he said at another point, noting police never charged anyone with assaulting him although people admitted to doing it. Three people were charged and have pleaded guilty to assaulting Weems.

Earlier Friday, John Tisdale, a retired police officer and chief who now does consulting in premises liability cases, testified Avant was wrong not to call police when she was first told by a customer in the parking lot that Weems and Knighten had been in a dispute at Waffle House and the police had been called.

He said that was one of several mistakes made by Avant and the restaurant employees, who also failed to call 9-1-1 although the company had a policy that said do that at the first sign of trouble.

“I think she was overwhelmed…she tried to handle it herself and she was overwhelmed,” said Tisdale.

“She never had control…the employees should have called, too,” said Tisdale, who was paid $2,000 for his testimony by Weems’ lawyers for Friday’s testimony.

“It wouldn’t have happened or wouldn’t have been as bad if she had called the police,” he said, noting she had notice of a problem when she was alerted to the previous incident and the people involved.

In addition, she failed to escort the people to their car, especially since she apparently did not see the crowd that had gathered in the parking lot.

Police had cleared Waffle House earlier and sent everyone away, leaving many to come the short distance to Huddle House.

Under cross-examination, he said a white man calling a young black man the “N’ word is not starting a fight.

“I consider it stupid but not the cause,” he responded to a question.

That’s one of the key issues the three-man, nine-woman jury ultimately will have to decide.

After five days of testimony and arguments last week, the trial continues Monday. It could last all week.

The jury will decide who is at fault and could divide fault up among different parties if it wants.