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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

Huggins murder trial is now underway

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Opening statements were made by both the prosecution and defense Tuesday morning in the second-degree murder trial of Michael Huggins, 26, formerly of Monett, who is accused of killing Joshua Woods Utter, 21, of Pierce City on Sept. 25, 2007.

Huggins has been jailed since his arrest on Oct. 16, 2007, two and a half weeks after the badly beaten body of Utter was discovered by a Missouri Department of Conservation employee at the Stubblefield Access on Flat Creek near Jenkins.

The trial got underway Tuesday in Barry County Circuit Court with the honorable Judge J. Edward Sweeney presiding. Jury selection took place on Monday.

In his opening statement, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney J. Patrick Sullivan briefly outlined the bank of evidence that the prosecution will present to the jury. Among those items are clothing, photographs and testimony of witnesses and investigators.

Sullivan also led the jury through an abbreviated synopsis of what the prosecution understands happened the day of Utter's death and how Huggins implicated his involvement in Utter's death to law enforcement officials during questioning.

Brian Smith, Huggins' defense attorney, attempted to rebut much of Sullivan's argument, stating that much of the testimony the jury would hear was a "weaving between fact and fiction."

He said the cause of death was not certain, that animals had gotten to Utter's body to the extent that the coroner could not determine if Utter died from exsanguination or through blunt force trauma.

Smith also leaned on the life-long relationships between investigators and Gary "Hootie" Dillard, 31, of Monett, indicating that during questioning, investigators "took his word" on matters because of their previous acquaintances.

Smith also questioned why Detective Brian Martin, of the Barry County Sheriff's Department, called the state crime lab in Springfield and ordered them to "cease all testing" on 41 items of evidence collected during the investigation.

The state began witness testimony by calling Detective Doug Henry to the stand. He testified that the identity of the victim, Joshua Utter, had not been established at the crime scene. Henry said his responsibilities during the investigation included measuring the crime scene, diagramming the scene and collecting evidence. Henry said that some of the items collected at the scene included a cigarette, a blue lighter, a ball cap and an empty beer bottle.

Henry said he and other members of the Barry County Sheriff's Department had measured, photographed and identified tire tracks and shoe prints at the scene. His testimony also included a description of the body, which had received significant damage from wildlife.

On cross examination, Smith questioned why certain elements of the crime scene were not documented or diagrammed in evidence submitted for the case. Specifically, Smith questioned where the tire tracks and shoe prints were in correlation to the location of the body. Henry could not recall those details.

Smith also questioned why items that could inflict blunt force trauma from other suspects in the investigation were not collected and tested in a timely manner.

Henry said he had subpoenaed cell phone records of Huggins and Dillard and noted a flurry of activity from the time the victim, Utter, was last seen on Sept. 24 until the discovery of his body on Sept. 25.

Investigators also questioned a homeless man living under Monett's Centennial Overpass, Melvin Sutton. Sutton said that he had witnessed a fight underneath the bridge and that one man had kicked at another man but had hit the rail instead. Evidence collected at that location included a sleeping bag, orange shorts, a hammer and socks.

Smith also questioned why detectives did not collect samples of what appeared to be blood from a Dodge Durango that came to the attention of law enforcement officials during the course of the investigation.

Following Henry's testimony, the state called Dr. Keith Norton, a forensic pathologist from Springfield, to the stand. Dr. Norton performed the autopsy on Utter. Dr. Norton's testimony included findings of injuries and identifying marks on Utter's body as well as the discovery of a photo identification card in the victim's pocket.

Dr. Norton described what parts of the body had been subject to animal activity, including the nose, throat and lips. Norton also testified that he found seven puncture-type marks on the victim's face that he believed was a result of animal activity.

Other wounds he documented included scrapes, abrasions and a small area of lividity, which is pooling of the blood in a body. Norton said that he weighed and documented the organs and the lungs were "heavy."

Norton also described bleeding in the neck that was consistent with whiplash, except for an injury to the middle of the neck that he said would have had to come from a direct blow, indicative of blunt force trauma. He also said cerebral spinal fluid was located in the ventricles of the brain, which indicated swelling of the brain as well as bleeding into the brain.

Norton said fluid built up in the victim's lungs, indicating in his experience, blunt force trauma. If the victim had died by exsanguination, which is also called bleeding out, the lungs would have been lighter than normal.

At that point in Norton's testimony, Smith called for a mistrial. He claimed that Norton had not been able to express a direct cause of death in a deposition taken in January. Upon questioning by the assistant prosecutor, Norton conducted a small test based on the weight of lungs when the victim died due to exsanguination. In all three subsequent autopsies conducted, Norton said the lungs were lighter in victims who died from bleeding out.

Sweeney allowed the testimony to stand.

Norton said he now believed the cause of death was from blunt force trauma.

Other findings from the autopsy included a small amount of marijuana and a therapeutic dose of Xanax in the victim's body.

Other witnesses called to testify on Tuesday included:

* Dianna Woods, the victim's mother;

* Jerry Craig, a resource assistant with the Missouri Department of Conservation, who discovered the body; and,

* Detective Angela Cole, with the Barry County Sheriff's Department.

The trial is scheduled to continue throughout the week.



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