Lawyers lay out opposing views as assault testimony begins

 Ed Blackmon and his son talk strategy with attorney David Owen as a picture of Ralph Weems IV sits in the background.
By: 
STEVE ROGERS
Staff Writer

Attorneys for a restaurant and two assault victims painted dramatically different pictures of who is at fault as a three-man, nine-woman jury began hearing testimony Tuesday in an emotionally charged Clay County civil trial.

And the case’s racial overtones took center stage early in both procedural matters outside of the jury and with the early statements to the jury.

“Ralph Weems’ life changed the second his head hit that pavement…One phone call would have saved these young men’s lives,” attorney Ed Blackmon told jurors in his opening statement in a lawsuit filed by the conservator for Ralph Weems IV and David Knighten against Litco Petroleum, the former owners of the West Point Huddle House and security guard Annie Avant.

Weems and Knighten were assaulted in the restaurant’s parking lot at about 2 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2014. Weems was left with brain trauma that will require constant care the rest of his life. He lives in a Louisiana brain trauma rehabilitation center.
Knighten was injured but has since recovered.

“Ralph Weems created and caused this event to happen. He suffered very bad, very serious injuries, we aren’t going to diminish those injuries, which will impact him the rest of his life. And let me stress, we are not even insinuating he got what he deserved,” attorney John Brady, who represents Litco, told the jury, defining the fine line Litco will try to walk during the trial.

The jury got its first look at a video of the incident inside the restaurant. It’s a video lawyers for both sides say they’ll see numerous times as different witnesses lay out what they saw and heard.

And while the video provides a broad framework, the attorneys stressed to the jurors to listen to testimony from witnesses who will “fill in the blanks” not covered by the videos.

In his opening statements, Blackmon called Weems and Knighten decorated military veterans, Weems having spent four years in the Marines and Knighten 13 years in the Air Force. Both were deployed to Afghanistan as well as other places.

Weems had a 30 percent disability from post traumatic stress disorder when he was discharged and Knighten had a 100 percent disability. They were acquaintances in West Point who were trying to “make something of their lives.”

They ran into each other the afternoon of Aug. 22, 2014 and started “hanging out,” “catching up” and drinking alcohol, Blackmon admitted.

‘The drinking continued at a downtown West Point restaurant and after it closed, at The Pony. They ended up at Waffle House where a confrontation occurred.

Blackmon said they were warned before they went in that the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of a young black man at the hands of a police officer was stirring some tensions.

They went in anyway, thinking that didn’t relate to them, and that they had served “all over the world” with “people of color.”

Once inside, words were exchanged, Weems picked up two bottles and two black men picked up two chairs, but police were called and diffused the tempest, sending everyone home.

They then went to Huddle House, went in and sat in a booth. Blackmon suggested two black males instigated a confrontation and a third joined in, taking a swing at Weems but missing and hitting their designated driver, Christina Starks.

It escalated until Avant, who worked security for the restaurant, ordered everyone out.

In the parking lot, first Weems was knocked to the ground and two men were “stomping his head.”

Knighten came out to intervene and was assaulted. When he fell to the ground, his shirt rode up his back, revealing the pistol he had in a holster. The attackers saw that and fled.

“Even though his friend was being stomped and beaten, he did the right thing, he didn’t pull the gun and just start shooting into a crowd. His training taught him that,” Blackmon said, laying out their version of the case.

He claimed Litco failed to train Avant or the employees about what to do in case of an emergency and that the district manager told workers to call him and not police.

“It was a failure to train, a failure to instruct,” Blackmon told the jurors.

He suggested the restaurant was more interested in making money on “Club Night” when hundreds of patrons came info food after a night of clubbing than in customer safety.

Brady drew a different picture, telling the jury the video and witnesses at both Waffle House and Huddle House will show Weems provoked the confrontations by using the “N” word repeatedly.

Starks and Knighten tried to convince Weems to go home earlier, especially after he “passed out” at the Pony, but Weems insisted on getting food. Starks begged police not to arrest him at Waffle House and promised to take the two men home, which was not far away on Court Street, but instead Weems pushed them to go to Huddle House.

“Ralph Weems gets angrier and angrier and starts yelling and pointing at customers, using the most vile words,” Brady said of the scenario in Waffle House.

At Huddle House, Weems and Starks sat in a booth while Knighten went to the bathroom and “Weems start it up again,” Brady said.

A customer in the parking lot warned Avant about what had happened at Waffle House and she went in and intervened, Brady said.

“We hired her to be proactive. Annie Avant had done a good job, there had never been any kind of incident at Huddle House in at least three years prior to this,” Brady advised jurors, noting Avant’s police experience made her an asset.

The only witness called Tuesday, Tameka Ewell, who had been a server at the restaurant for about two months when the incident happened, gave sometimes conflicting statements about who did what and when as she reviewed a video with the jury under questioning from Blackmon and Brady.

She at times said Avant looked confused and at others said she really didn’t remember seeing Avant. She remembered hearing the “N” word used but wasn’t clear about when. And she wasn’t clear as to who first started the altercation inside the Huddle House.
She did say that by the time Avant ushered Weems, Starks and Knighten out of the restaurant, the parking lot was full of cars and people.

And of the scene outside, Ewell said she thought Weems was “dead.”

Avant’s response and what Litco instructed employees to do will be centerpieces of the trial, which could last two weeks.

The role of the racial epitaphs will be major points as the trial unfolds, the two sides agree.

And during jury selection Tuesday, the race issue arose.

After Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard, who is overseeing the case, named the jury from the pool of 94 who returned Tuesday for a second day of interviews, attorneys for Weems and Knighten put in the record their objection to the fact Litco attorneys used three of their four jury strikes to remove potential white jurors and a fourth to remove a potential white alternate.

The original jury was nine blacks and three whites with a white and black alternate. But as the trial was just about to start, one juror got a call that her young son was sick and she had to go get him. She was the sole care giver.

Fearing the illness might be serious enough to keep her away, Howard released her and activated the first alternate juror, who was white, making the current jury make up eight blacks and four whites.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled jury strikes based simply on race are not allowed and if challenged, attorneys must provide “Batson” statements as to why they rejected the potential jurors.

Weems and Knighten’s attorneys forced Litco’s attorneys to explain their reasoning.

In one case, attorney Willie Abston said he and his team were worried about the woman’s ties to the military, especially since her son is in the Marines.

Others had said during jury questioning that they had heard about the incident on social media at the time. Many of those reports were false and included opinions that were “seriously flawed.”

“We don’t have to prove anything and we were just trying to make sure it was a level playing field…we believe we have seated a jury who has not heard about this case,” Abston told Howard.

The trial enters the second day of testimony this morning.

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