Conviction in Oak Tree Club death

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2008

COURTLAND—He may not have bought Dexter Grant’s story that he was a collector of shell casings, but a judge in Southampton on Tuesday had enough questions about the commonwealth’s case against Grant that he refused to convict him of the charges that had been brought.

Circuit Court Judge E. Everett Bagnell, sitting as a substitute judge, declined to convict Grant of malicious wounding and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in connection with a June 2007 shooting at the Oak Tree Club near Franklin.

Instead, the judge, ruling a month after hearing evidence in the case, found the man guilty of unlawful wounding, a lesser charge that under state law does not support the firearm count.

“There was lots of conflicting testimony,” Bagnell explained in delivering his verdict after brief closing arguments by prosecution and defense attorneys. “We never heard from the victim, and there was no explanation as to why we didn’t.”

Bagnell had taken the unusual step in July of taking the case under advisement and ordering a transcript of the testimony that had been presented during the trial. He said Tuesday that he had taken time to read through the transcript during the break.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke said he, too, had examined the trial record in the month before returning to make his closing arguments. What he found during that review, he told the court, was “particularly compelling.”

Two witnesses, he said, had described seeing Grant pull out a gun and shoot the victim in the leg during a birthday party at the club.

Two inmates, he added, had testified that Grant told them he was involved in the shooting, with one recalling that Grant had “said he hit one guy in the head with a pistol, then shot another guy in the leg.”

The early morning melee that took place at the club that Saturday night resulted in at least two people receiving gunshot wounds and indirectly led to the death of another in a violent car crash.

A quarrel inside the club turned violent, and shots were fired, according to police and witness reports. One man was hit in the leg before the blowup moved outside. The fight continued in the club’s parking lot, and 23-year-old William Carl Fenner of Franklin was either grazed by a bullet or hit in the head with a pistol.

Thinking their friend had been shot, Travis Mabry and Octavia Hodge loaded Fenner into the car and allegedly sped into Franklin toward the hospital. Police say they missed their turn on College Drive because of their speed and continued down Armory Drive, where the car crashed into a ditch, killing Fenner and injuring Hodge.

Doctors later determined that Mabry also had been a gunshot victim that night, finding a chest wound and shrapnel after the accident.

Mabry still faces trial on a charge of aggravated involuntary manslaughter for the traffic death.

Cooke argued that the forensic evidence in the case was “very compelling.” That evidence included a .45-caliber handgun that was turned in at Nathan’s Checkerboard Corner Store; a bullet that matched the gun and had the victim’s DNA on it, found inside the club; and a shell casing that matched the gun, found outside Grant’s home.

Grant had explained the existence of another shell casing found inside his home by telling police he was a collector, a claim Cooke treated with derision on Tuesday.

“All of it ties together, and all of it points to the defendant,” he told the judge.

Defense attorney Martin Bullock, however, said the gun could not be linked to his client beyond a reasonable doubt. He also challenged the reliability of Cooke’s witnesses, noting that none of the defense witnesses had criminal records.

The inmate witnesses who told the court that Grant had bragged about his involvement in the shooting, he said, “would come in here and say, ‘My momma shot President Lincoln” if they thought the testimony would earn them a break.

Noting that his client had spent the last 14 months in jail—potentially longer than his sentence under the reduced charge for which he was convicted—Bullock asked the judge to set bond for Grant.

The judge refused that request and set sentencing for Oct. 10.