GRIBBINS' MURDER TRIAL: Day-to-day coverage

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By Stephen Lega, Landmark News Service

Shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday, a jury of six men and six women found Christopher Gribbins guilty of wanton murder in the death of David Litsey Jr.

After handing down their verdict, the jury went into a second deliberation to determine its recommended sentence. Mary Ann McClain Sapp of the probation and parole office testified that the jury could sentence Gribbins to 20-50 years or to life in prison. She added that he would have to serve 85 percent of his term or 20 years, whichever was less, before he would be eligible for parole.

The jury left to deliberate on the sentence at 9:13 p.m. At 9:17 p.m., they returned with a recommendation of 20 years in prison. Judge Kelly will make the final sentencing decision, and a sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 7.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Shelly Miller made only a brief comment to the media after the trial ended.

“We appreciate the jury’s service and respect their decision,” Miller said.

Neither attorney for the defense commented on the decision.

Day three

The third day of the trial opened with Nicholas Keeling returning to the witness stand. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Keeling testified that he saw Litsey outside the bar at closing time on the day of the shooting. Litsey started walking toward an area where a fight had broken out, and he and Gribbins met at that time, according to Keeling.

Keeling said Litsey was not acting in an aggressive manner. Keeling added that he saw Gribbins’ gun come up, after the shot was fired, Keeling said he heard Gribbins say that Litsey had told him to back up so he pulled out his gun and shot Litsey.

Keeling estimated that Litsey and Gribbins were within arms length when the shot was fired, and he described Gribbins’ demeanor as “stunned” after the shooting.

On Thursday morning, on cross examination, Keeling acknowledged that he is a convicted felon and that he has another case pending, but he denied that his testimony was part of any agreement in that case.

Judge Kelly then advised the jury that they could take Keeling’s status as a convicted felon into consideration with regard to his credibility.

Keeling clarified that he did not see the shot, but he did hear it.

Defense attorney Scott Hayworth asked Keeling if he recalled an interview with Detective Bradley Stotts (the lead investigator) in January of 2014. Hayworth asked if that was the first time Keeling was interviewed about the shooting. Keeling said he’d spoken with former Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Cocanougher six to eight months before that.

Hayworth also had Keeling make a diagram showing his relative location to Litsey and Gribbins at the time of the shooting. (Hayworth and James Lowery, Gribbins’ attorneys, repeatedly asked witnesses who were at the scene to diagram there relative locations outside the bar on the day of the shooting.)

The prosecution concluded its case by calling Stotts to the stand.

Stotts testified that he was called at 2:16 a.m. Eastern time to respond to the Raywick Bar and Grill the morning of the shooting. When he arrived, the crime scene had already been marked and state troopers had done some preliminary work.

The prosecution then played audio of an interview that Stotts conducted with Gribbins around 3:44 on the morning of the shooting. In that interview, Gribbins denied being outside when the shooting occurred and he said that didn’t hear the shot. Gribbins also said he heard some black guys had been fighting and some white guys were being drug around outside.

With regard to the report of a shooting, Gribbins told Stotts, “I don't know who the guy was. I hope nobody got hurt. Was there gunfire exchanged?"

Gribbins also referenced a discrimination lawsuit pending against the bar. [The was a complaint filed with the Kentucky Human Rights Commissions against Susie’s Bottoms Up. When Gribbins bought the bar and renamed it, he was added to the complaint even though the incident referenced in that complaint occurred before he owned the bar.]

Gribbins also indicted to Stotts that one of his bouncers, Michael Gibson, had broken up a fight earlier in the night.

Stotts said he performed gunshot residue kits on Gibson and another bouncer, Mark Lobb, that day, but both came back negative. 

Miller asked why he hadn’t tested Gribbins. Stotts replied that he only had two kits with him, and based on what he’d been told he believed the bouncers were the most likely suspects at that point.

Stotts also testified that he recovered a gun at the bar, but it was not the gun used in the shooting. He also photographed the scene, including spots of blood found near the edge of the parking lot and the road in front of the bar.

Miller called attention to the puddles of water near the blood spots and asked if it had been raining that night. Stotts said there was no sign that it had rained, and Miller added that there was no water in other parts of the parking lot.

Stotts said another detective brought Deshawn Douglas (one of the witnesses) to the bar.

Later that morning, Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Clements contacted Stotts because William Cochran had come forward as a witness. Stotts interviewed Cochran, who identified Gribbins as the shooter based on photos provided by Stotts.

After obtaining an arrest warrant for Gribbins, Stotts initially went to 770 Loretto Road, the address Gribbins provided to him earlier, but he and another trooper did not find anyone at that residence.

They later located Gribbins at an address on Dangerfield Road in LaRue County (which was Gribbins’ mother’s house). Gribbins was arrested and made a comment that he was just trying to run a business at the time he was arrested, according to Stotts.

Gribbins consented to a search of his vehicle, and Stotts said they found a Glock pistol, which Gribbins had purchased at Deep’s on Nov. 9 some time after his initial interview with Stotts.

Stotts noted that the arrest was made at 12:07 a.m. Nov. 10.

Stotts said he later received copies of the autopsy report, and he received a call from Sheriff Clements that a revolver was found in the glove box of Gribbins’ father’s car. Stotts added that this was also not the gun used in the shooting.

Stotts added that he later conducted interviews with many of the witnesses who testified in the case and with Litsey’s parents, Linda and David Sr. Stotts added that he received the names of several witnesses from the Commonwealth’s Attorneys office, and that some of those names had some through the defense attorneys.

Miller asked if anyone called the police on the morning of the shooting. Stotts replied that he was not aware of any calls placed at the scene.

Hayworth asked Stotts to clarify where the bloodstains were located by asking him to mark it on a diagram of the bar. Stotts added that the stains were found within a two- to three-foot area.

The Commonwealth concluded its case at 10:35 a.m.

The defense

The defense called its only witness, Gribbins, to the stand around 11 a.m. Thursday. James Lowery led the questioning of Gribbins.

Gribbins said he grew up in Lebanon and graduated from Marion County High School in 1984. He worked on a dairy farm, then did bridge construction, then worked on power plants until 2012. That year he purchased the bar in Raywick.

Gribbins said Thursday nights were typically busier nights for the bar. He also said at the end of the night he would collect cash from cover charges, from the bar in the beer garden and from the main bar and take it to the kitchen, where he would put it in bank bags. Gribbins said he would then take that cash to his truck and lock it since he did not have a safe in the bar.

On the night of the shooting, he said he had about $6,000 in a bag, which he put under his jacket and took to his truck. Gribbins said a crowd was outside when he went to his vehicle. He said he put the cash inside, locked the truck and made sure the alarm was on.

Gribbins also said he was carrying a gun in his jacket pocket because of the money he was carrying and that he has a concealed carry permit.

He said he was walking back to the bar when he encountered Litsey.

“He got right up on me,” Gribbins said.

Gribbins said he pulled the gun out of his pocket and put his hands on LItsey’s chest, demonstrating that the gun was turned sideways. According to Gribbins, Litsey got down like he might come at Gribbins.

“The pistol went off … I was protecting myself,” Gribbins said, adding that he did not intend to shoot.

Gribbins denied knowing Litsey, although he said he make have spoken to him when he entered or exited the bar.

Gribbins said they were two to three feet apart when the incident happened. He said he was holding Litsey back, but Litsey kept coming. Gribbins also said he didn’t know if Litsey intended to tackle him, and he repeated that he did not intend to shoot the gun.

After the shooting, he said he was in shock, and the state trooper interviewed him more than an hour later. Lowery asked Gribbins why he hadn’t told Stotts the truth about what happened during that initial interview.

"I was scared and I thought that I need to talk to someone before I told the police exactly what happened,” Gribbins said.

After Gribbins hired an attorney, he said he told them to hire a private investigator to identify witnesses, to interview them and to turn their names over to the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Gribbins said he wanted to be up front that he had pulled the trigger.

Lowery asked Gribbins to explain why he had the gun. Gribbins said he felt vulnerable as a business owner who handled a lot of cash.

On cross-examination, Miller repeated that Gribbins decided to take his cash across the parking lot even though it was crowded. 

Gribbins reiterated that he did not know Litsey and had never had a problem with him before that night. Gribbins also said after the shooting, he went inside and placed the gun on the bar.

Miller asked why Gribbins had purchased a Glock from Deep’s after the shooting. Gribbins replied for protection.

Miller asked if he bought that weapon because he was familiar with it.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Gribbins said.

Lowery followed up on that line of questioning. Gribbins said he bought the gun to protect himself and for his family. Gribbins said he’d heard rumors that Litsey might be a gang member. Lowery added that nothing happened in retaliation, just that Gribbins was concerned.

Lowery also asked Gribbins how much time he had to react during the incident with Litsey. Gribbins said it seemed like less than a second.

Gribbins concluded his testimony at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

Closing arguments

At 3:20 p.m., the courtroom opened again. Marion Circuit Judge Dan Kelly then presented the jury with their instructions. The jury had the options of finding Gribbins guilty of intentional murder, wanton murder, first-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide or finding him not guilty.

As part of the instructions, Kelly explained that the jury could find Gribbins not guilty of murder and first-degree manslaughter if they believed that he believed he was acting in self-defense. However, they could convict him of second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide if they believe Gribbins thought he was acting in self defense, but was mistaken about the force needed to provide that protection.

After the conclusion of the jury instructions, defense attorney James Lowery presented his closing remarks. Commonwealth’s Attorney Shelly Miller completed her closing arguments at 5:27 p.m.

Lowery opened by expressing his sympathy to David Litsey’s family.

"This was a very tragic accident,” Lowery said, adding that nobody wanted the outcome that occurred that night.

He told the jurors they could disagree with some of the things that Gribbins did that night, but that did not mean he committed a criminal act.

With regard to the possibility that Gribbins acted wantonly, Lowery said that would mean someone showed extreme indifference to human life. To illustrate, he said driving a vehicle into a building with people inside would be wanton behavior. Lowery argued that was not the case in this incident. He said Gribbins was minding his own business and just reacted to the situation.

Lowery also urged the jury to consider the testimony of three witnesses in particular — the medical examiner, the firearms expert and Sabrina Newton.

Lowery said Newton, a patron at the bar, did not know Gribbins or Litsey, unlike other eyewitnesses. She testified that she saw Litsey run past her to the area Gribbins was and that Gribbins was trying to push Litsey back when the gun went off.

Lowery said Matthew Clements, the firearms experts, testified that some guns have a light trigger pull, and if someone swings a gun or bumped into something, then that person could pull the trigger.

And Lowery said the medical examiner testified that there was no bruising other than the bullet wound. If Gribbins had pistol whipped Litsey as some witnesses described, then he would have had a bruise somewhere else, Lowery said.

He also referred to the path the bullet took after it was fired, noting that it entered Litsey’s neck and went slightly left. He argued that was inconsistent with descriptions of Gribbins swinging the gun, and that it was more likely that Gribbins was pushing Litsey (as Newton had described).

Lowery went through the other eyewitnesses, noting their relationships to and friendships with Litsey and how that may have shaped their perception of the events.

After the shooting, Gribbins went back in the bar, and he was shocked. Lowery said Gribbins initially tried to cover himself with the story he told the police. Lowery also said the gun disappeared, but it wasn’t like Gribbins himself had a lot of time to do anything with it since a sheriff’s deputy arrived not long after the shooting. Lowery also said Gribbins has a reason to be concerned based on what people told him after the shooting, so Gribbins bought a gun for protection.

After he retained an attorney, Gribbins asked them to hire an investigator to locate witnesses and to turn those witnesses over to the Commonwealth. According to Lowery, that was Gribbins’ way of saying that he’d made a mistake.

Lowery stressed that the events leading up to the shooting happened quickly, adding that even if Gribbins had known something like that could happen, then at most it could be was reckless behavior.

Lowery then said tattoos can tell you a lot about a person. He said his own brother has a tattoo that reads “Live Long” as a reminder to take care of himself for the sake of his own children. He then urged the jury to look at the autopsy report, to read for themselves the kinds of tattoos that Litsey had, and that they would learn why he wouldn’t back down from Gribbins.

"It was a terrible, awful tragedy, but it was not a criminal offense,” Lowery concluded.

Miller started her closing remarks with a reference to the NCAA basketball tournament. She said one of the more exciting games was the game between Louisville and Kentucky that ended with Aaron Harrison making a three-pointer to give the Wildcats the win. She added that while everyone in the room probably remembers Harrison hitting the game-winning shot, they probably don’t recall the details of how he got in that position.

She then returned to the case at hand, noting that all the eyewitnesses provided different details, but they were in basic agreement that Litsey did not swing at Gribbins, that there was no yelling or screaming and that Litsey did not have a gun.

"David Litsey lost his life that night, and there is absolutely no justification for it,” Miller told the jurors.

Miller reminded the jury of the instructions regarding self-defense, pointing out that deadly force is only justified if the defendant believed his own life was in danger. 

Like Lowery, she encouraged the jury to consider the testimony of the firearms expert and the medical examiner. Miller said the firearms expert said the internal safeties on modern guns would make it unlikely that someone would pull the trigger unintentionally. She said the autopsy report showed that Litsey was not drunk and the amount of alcohol in his system would have minimal effect on his judgment.

With regard to descriptions of Gribbins swinging the gun, Miller asked the jury to consider that Gribbins had the gun in his jacket pocket. She demonstrated pulling a gun from her own pocket, indicating that it would take a swinging motion in order to pull the gun out from that location. She repeated that no witnesses reported Litsey swinging and no witnesses reported any yelling or screaming prior to the shooting. She also argued that engaging Litsey with a .40-caliber gun was an intentional act by Gribbins.

She also argued it could be considered wanton for Gribbins to pull out a handgun when by all accounts the parking lot was crowded with people.

"When you pull that gun out, you made a decision and you are responsible for what decision you make with that,” Miller said.

She also said the jury did not hear Gribbins say he feared for his life. She added that he was concerned about his reputation.

"He went back to the bar and began his cover up immediately,” Miller said.

Miller pointed out that they do not have the gun that was used in the shooting. Gribbins testified that he put the gun on the bar, but the troopers who searched the bar did not see it, according to Miller. She also said a musician testified to hearing Gribbins talking about getting rid of the gun.

Miller then thanked the jury for listening. She thanked the opposing attorneys. She thanked her staff, and she thanked Litsey’s family, adding how sorry she is about what has happened.

She then said many people believe the police or the prosecutor or the judge is who enforces the law, but she said that is not the case.

“The only people who can enforce the law against Christopher Gribbins are you,” she told the jury.

After the alternate juror was dismissed, the six men and six women on the jury left the courtroom at 5:27 p.m. Thursday to deliberate. Nearly three and a half hours later they returned, and handed down their decision that Gribbins was guilty of wanton murder.