Tennessee v. Coca Cola Pallet Handler

I was contacted in 1995 by a rifle and safari customer who related that his father’s law firm had taken the Pro Bono case of a poor African American.  They needed a firearms expert and a terminal ballistics expert.  The defendant had two prior convictions for burglary and this charge of 2nd degree murder would send him away for life WPOP.  After perusing the evidence (autopsy photographs and various reports), I took the case.

A retiring principal of the firm, an ex-F4U Corsair fighter pilot from the Pacific Theater in WW2, handled the case.  We formed a great team.  As we did, the case expanded and my skills in exterior ballistics and in gun fight dynamics came in to play.

After his last previous release from prison, the defendant had found the Lord.  He also found a church that was helping him get straight.  That church helped cement his Faith and got him a job as a pallet handler at the local Coca Cola bottling plant.  Knowing that he would need an attorney, the church held fund raising drives and came to the firm with all the money they had, $250.

The prosecution wanted, very very badly, to put the defendant away for life.  The “3 strikes” law was new and was being emphasized.  The prosecutor was coming up to an election, and he wanted re-elcetion in the worst possible way.

The prosecution’s contention was that the defendant entered his ex-girlfriend’s home with a revolver.  They alleged that the defendant, in a wanton manner, shot the new boyfriend from 15 feet across the room.  They  alleged the defendant’s motivation was that he wanted revenge for losing his ex-girlfriend.

The eyewitnesses were the ex-girlfriend and her 5 year old daughter (from who knows who as the father).   And, of course, the new Memphis victim’s relief fund, which would pay the girlfriend $7,000.00 if the defendant was convicted, would have no bearing on her testimony.

However, the defendant related a different story to the defense attorney.  He said that he had gone to his ex-girlfriends house to retrieve personal property.  He found another adult male who was in a new co-habitation arrangement with the exgirlfriend.  Naturally, there was some friction between the defendant and the new co-habitator.  The defendant was carrying out some boxes when he was challenged, by the new co-habitator, about a telephone in one of the boxes.  An argument ensued.

The co-habitator rushed to a back bedroom and came charging out with a revolver.  A struggle ensued and the revolver discharged.  The bullet entered at the co-habitator’s upper left chest, passed downward through the left lung and lodged against the spine.   The co-habitator slumped to a sitting position, bemoaning his fate.  Since he was upright, the blood from the wound filled his left lung, flowed over the trachea “Y” and filled his right lung.  He drowned in his own blood.

So the issue at trial became who will be proven right, and who will be proven wrong, by the firearms evidence.

The state had done a Griess test on the shirt of the deceased.  The state had other forensic evidence which was to be entered and explained by a technician from the State Crime Lab in Nashville.

A Griess Test is used to test for the presence of the products of combustion of the propellant in a round of ammunition.  Contrary to common belief, the propellant (often mistakenly referred to as gunpowder) does not explode.  The propellant is a deflagrant, based on nitrocellulose, which is engineered to burn in a controlled manner, so as to generate gases at a specific rate.  As the propellant burns, the gases expand, propelling the projectile down the barrel and out the muzzle.  At muzzle exit (the instant when the projectile clears the end of the barrel) the gases (at 1,500 degrees F plus) also exit.  This causes the muzzle flash  Mixed in with the gases are the burned propellant granule remnants and those granules not completely burned.  All of this is projected towards the target.   These products of combustion, if the muzzle is close enough to the target, can be lodged in a garment.

This is where the Griess test comes in.  The lab places the garment down on a piece of photographic paper.  It is then sprayed with a series of chemical solutions (I won’t go into the chemistry).  The chemicals react with the burned and unburned granules and, as the chemicals wash through by gravity, it leaves an orange dot on the paper in the exact same pattern as the granules were lodged in the garment.  The results of the Griess Test help with distance (the granules  travel roughly 5 feet).  But the test also shows the orientation of the gun to the target, because the Griess Test gives a two dimensional slice of the three dimensional cloud of gases and propellant granules, at the instant of muzzle exit.

The defense attorney successfully fought separation of witnesses and I sat behind the rail during the trial.  When crossing any prosecution technical fellow, he frequently stopped to clean his glasses  and “Allow me to consult with my expert, Col. Alphin.”.   That was one exceedingly clean pair of glasses, because he consulted me on almost a by question basis.   He did a perfect job of setting up the technical witnesses and then had them held for recall.

The ex-girlfriend testified, being led by the prosecutor.  Her testimony was mostly along the lines of “Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”  The daughter was questioned by the Judge.  He was very friendly and kind, but the little girl was terrified and could not contribute anything.

When the defense started, the defense attorney brought the lab expert back to the stand and forced the lab expert to admit (using their own Griess test results) that the shooting did not happen as the prosecution witnesses stated; ie. the shot was not fired from 15 feet across the room but the muzzle of the revolver was close to the deceased’s chest and pointed at a down angle.  The defense attorney did the same thing using the autopsy photographs showing the debridement pattern around the entry wound.  We also got into the record that, in gunfight dynamics, when a victim grabs the handgun barrel, he has greater leverage than the assailant.  The grip of the handgun breaks free of the thumb and 3 fingers of the assailant; but the assailant’s trigger finger remains inside the trigger guard.  Consequently, the assailant actually shoots himself if there is a discharge.

As the defense presentation continued, the Prosecutor became enraged, seized a demonstration cap pistol from the evidence table, and convinced the Judge to allow him to continue.  The Prosecutor stood the defendant up, pointed the cap pistol at him and dared the defendant to save himself.  In one move, the defendant grabbed at the pistol barrel and the cap fired as the barrel was pointing down, just in front of the Prosecutor’s collarbone; exactly as I had theorized and testified, and exactly as the autopsy photographs and Griess Test showed.  The courtroom went dead silent.  The prosecutor went back to his table looking like a whipped puppy.

The defense immediately rested.  The jury got the case the following morning and returned a Not Guilty in less than an hour.

When I last checked, in 1999, the ex-defendant had married, had a child, still worked at Coca-Cola, and was still right with the Lord.

The Corsair pilot (defense attorney, I will remember his name when I recover my records) has flown his last sortie.