Crimetracker: Curtis Harper trial day five

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- On Friday, the state rested its case and Curtis Harper's defense attorneys began calling witnesses. Testimony on both sides focused on whether Harper was drunk when he left a bar called The Hill, shortly before the crash that killed Chasity Thornell, her unborn daughter and Nelson Soto.

The state called Elizabeth Stanford to the stand, one of Curtis Harper's friends. She was emotional and testified that she tried to comfort him after the crash.

"And I was like,' It's fine, it's just a wreck it's gonna be okay.' And he said, 'No, I hit somebody.'" said Stanford.

Harper's former roommate told jurors he thought Harper was drunk when Harper got home around 2 a.m. after the crash.

"I had lived with him for over 2 years and from his mannerisms and slurred speech, I felt and had reason to believe that yes, he was." said Allen Nida, Harper's former roommate.

Chance Losher testified that Harper brought his SUV to his house after the crash, where he washed blood off of it.

"I didn't physically see him, but I gave him a rag to go out there and wash it," said Losher.

Harper's defense attorneys spent the afternoon trying to prove Harper wasn't drunk while at The Hill, or when he left the bar, shortly before the crash.

"Sober is the best I can say. His speech was normal," said Ryan McGee, who'd been with Harper at The Hill until about 11:30 p.m.

Friends told jurors that Harper had two or two and a half cups of beer at the bar, and when he left:

"There was no question in mind. He looked completely sober," said Chase Stubbs, who was with Harper at The Hill and saw him leave.

Defense attorneys will continue to call witnesses Monday morning.

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Thursday was an emotional day for the Thornell and Soto families, who listened as accident reconstructionists described the position of Chasity Thornell, her unborn daughter and Nelson Soto's bodies on Washington Pike. Family members had to leave the courtroom at times because graphic pictures were shown, making them very upset.

The reconstructionists told jurors Thornell was hit twice and then dragged, and Soto was hit and then thrown into the SUV's windshield. An officer testified that based on tire marks and calculations, he believes Curtis Harper knew he hit someone that morning.

"It tells us that the suspect vehicle actually stopped - it stopped and the only way that it could have not hit Ms. Thornell a third time was to go around her," said Officer Greg Womac, with the Knoxville Police Department.

The defense had witnesses do mathematical calculations to prove Harper had been driving the speed limit, based on the position of Soto's body in the road. However, other reconstructionists told jurors there are no calculations that can accurately prove speed, since Thornell was hit and then dragged.

Womac also described a crash re-enactment and told jurors that based upon the re-enactment, a normal person would have seen Sarah Tinder's car - and Tornell and Soto standing in the road - from hundreds of feet away.

At the end of the day, a medical examiner took the stand. Autopsy photographs were shown, and he told jurors that Thornell had methamphetamine and the metabolite amphetamine in her system.

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Testimony continued in the Curtis Harper trial Wednesday.

The state called several officers and other witnesses to the stand, building its case that it was Curtis Harper's SUV that hit and killed Chasity Thornell, her unborn daughter and Nelson Soto early May 30, 2012.

Multiple officers testified finding parts of a vehicle on Washington Pike and nearby Alice Bell Road. They told jurors they looked up the serial numbers on the parts and discovered that they belonged to a Ford Explorer.

A truck driver who was heading into work that morning told the jury he saw an SUV with heavy damage to its front end parked at the intersection of Alice Bell and Washington Pike, and said a college-aged boy with a pony-tail was standing outside of the SUV looking at the damage.

Later in the day, pictures of the SUV found at Harper's friends home were shown to the jury. There were several shots of damage to the vehicle, including a broken side mirror and a shattered windshield.

Officers testified that they conducted a search warrant on the SUV and on garbage bags they found nearby. They found a beer coozie in the SUV, and a crushed beer can and a Budweiser beer bottle holder in the garbage bags.

As officers began showing clothing found at the scene to jurors, including Soto's blue shorts. Soto's wife, Elvia, burst into tears and left the courtroom.

The judge told the courtroom Thursday will likely be another tough day because graphic pictures will be shown.

On Tuesday, witnesses Clay and Cody King, who lived in front of the crash scene, told jurors they thought someone had been shot at first, but then they saw the bodies of Chasity Thornell, her unborn child and Nelson Soto. They told jurors that Sarah Tinder was crying for help and hysterical, and kept screaming, "I've never seen anyone drive that fast!"

During opening statements, prosecutors told jurors that evidence will prove Curtis Harper was drunk and tried to cover up what happened. Assistant District Attorney Sarah Keith told the jury that Harper had started the night off by making his own vodka drinks, and then went to a bar called "The Hill", where he drank a lot of beer before deciding to drive home drunk. The state said that's when he hit Thornell and Soto, but didn't stop or call police. Keith said Harper then hid his SUV and washed it off.

The defense painted a much different picture of that night. Harper's attorney, James Price, told jurors that Harper had one vodka drink around 8:30 p.m., and then two 12-ounce beers around 10:45 p.m., and maybe part of a third beer. Price said Harper wasn't drunk when he drove home, and didn't see Thornell and Soto, who were standing in the middle of the road. He also said Harper didn't see Tinder's car, which was partially in the road without a functioning rear left taillight.

Price told jurors that Harper made a mistake by leaving the scene and not calling authorities, but said he did that because he was scared, not because he was drunk.

A jury was selected in the case Tuesday morning. It's made up of 15 people - 9 women and 6 men, and of those, two are African Americans. The three alternates will be picked randomly from that group once the case is ready to be sent to the jury..

It was early May 30th of last year when 24-year-old Chasity Thornell, who was seven months pregnant, drove to help a friend whose car had stalled near the intersection of Washington Pike and Atoka Lane in North Knoxville. Nelson Soto, who lived nearby, brought them gasoline. As Thornell was hugging him to say thanks, police say Curtis Harper ran into them and kept going. Thornell, her unborn daughter and Soto didn't survive.

"It's very hard to remember my husband - he's a very nice man, i was married to him for 24 years," said Soto's wife, Elvia Soto, during an interview about a week after the wreck.

"I just want to see him get the maximum sentence he can for this just because of the fact that there was nothing there - he just kept going," said Stephanie Thornell, Chasity's mom, who also spoke about about a week after the crash.

Police reported they found pieces of Harper's 2004 Ford Explorer at the scene of the crash, along with traces of blood, skin and hair on the car.

Several days later, Harper turned himself in.

The Thornell and Soto families didn't want to go on camera on Friday, but Chasity's mom said the past few days have been difficult as she prepares to face Harper during trial. One of Soto's sons said the family is no longer mad at Harper, just disappointed by what happened.

Harper faces three counts each of vehicular homicide by intoxication and vehicular homicide by reckless endangerment. He's also charged with two counts of DUI, and one count each of tampering with evidence, failing to render aid after an accident and reckless endangerment.

Civil cases are also pending. The Thornell and Soto families have filed lawsuits against Harper, his parents and The Hill, which is the bar they say served him too much alcohol.


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