A Warren Circuit Court jury cleared Stephan Thomas of criminal wrongdoing Wednesday in the stabbing death of Tyrese Huffman, determining that Thomas acted in self-defense.
Thomas, 26, of Bowling Green, was found not guilty of murder and tampering with physical evidence after the panel of six men and six women deliberated for five hours.
Thomas and his attorney, John Stewart of Adams, Tenn., shared a long hug after Judge Steve Wilson read the verdicts, and Thomas’ family wept softly behind him.
Stewart argued that Thomas’ actions June 9, 2012, when he stabbed Huffman, 21, of Bowling Green, with a steak knife outside an apartment at 2055 Stonehenge Drive, Apt. D, were protected by the state’s self-defense law.
Stewart referred to the law as the “stand-your-ground” law, which in Kentucky allows a person to use deadly force against someone if he believes such force is necessary to protect against death, serious physical injury, kidnapping, forcible sexual intercourse or a felony involving the use of force.
“It’s been a tough life for this young man these last two years,” Stewart said after his client’s trial. “He should never have been indicted, but the prosecutor used his discretion and I respect that. I just hate that (Thomas) had to go through two years of incarceration ... all because the prosecution did not want to apply the stand your ground law.”
Huffman’s relatives, some of whom wore shirts memorializing him, filed silently out of the courtroom after the trial’s conclusion.
“I just don’t think justice was served,” said Huffman’s mother, Elaine Skiles. “My son died for nothing ... it does not feel right to me.”
Self-defense laws have entered the national consciousness largely through the trial last year in Florida of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted by a jury in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in a case fraught with controversy.
Zimmerman asserted he acted in self-defense in that case, though it emerged that Martin was unarmed at the time of his death.
“We put on every witness we were able to find who had knowledge in regards to the events of June 9, 2012, and we put on all the evidence of proof we had,” Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron said after court adjourned. “The jury has spoken, and we respect their verdict.”
Thomas’ mother, Ethel Thomas, declined to comment after the trial.
Huffman’s death was the by-product of a feud that had festered between Thomas and Dewayne Graves Jr.
Graves had been involved in a relationship with Shadee Hodges, who has a child in common with Thomas.
According to trial testimony, Thomas was in Hodges’ apartment when Graves threw a brick through a kitchen window after a series of phone calls.
Thomas and Graves were involved in a confrontation outside the apartment about three weeks before the stabbing, with Thomas testifying that Graves, who was with three other people at the time, had pulled a box-cutter on him.
A few hours before the homicide, Thomas and Graves confronted each other again outside the apartment. The meeting ended with Thomas chasing Graves with a straight razor until Graves jumped a fence at the edge of the apartment complex, according to testimony.
Hodges was hosting a party on the night of the stabbing, and Thomas was standing on the balcony of her apartment when he said he saw Huffman in the parking lot below, yelling at him to come outside.
Thomas said he grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen on the way outside and met Huffman, who had arrived at the complex with Graves, Darren Chamlee and Joe Huffman, Tyrese’s brother.
The men gave conflicting accounts to Bowling Green police investigators of the final confrontation, but it emerged at trial that Chamlee had shown a gun at some point and that Thomas was hit in the chest with either a brick or a rock.
Thomas testified that he felt he had been shot when he was struck in the chest, and that he feared for his life during the final confrontation.
He left the scene with a friend, Ralph Jennings, and went to his mother’s house. From there, Thomas was picked up by several friends, who testified that they saw him pack a duffel bag into the car and heard Thomas talking about having to “do something with these clothes.”
The group went to a wooded area behind Regency Park Apartments, where Thomas and D.J. Woodson took the bag and emerged without the bag several minutes later.
Police recovered the gun four days after the incident in a wooded area near Russell Sims Aquatic Center, and a rock that police recovered from the crime scene tested negative for blood.
A T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts were also found nearly two weeks after the stabbing in the same area, and police suspected Thomas of burning the clothes in an effort to hinder the police investigation.
Lawyers’ closing arguments
Cohron focused in his closing argument on the fact that Huffman was unarmed at the time and that no one testified about Huffman hitting or otherwise laying a hand on Thomas before being stabbed.
Cohron wove prior witness testimony into his closing argument to present a scenario that had Thomas pursuing Huffman as the group migrated slowly away from the apartment, with Graves across the street with Hodges and Joe Huffman and Chamlee not on the scene at the time of the stabbing.
“Stephan Thomas had a lot of reasons for what he did, but did he have justification? I would say the answer is no,” Cohron said.
Cohron argued that Thomas was motivated to confront Huffman because he was angry about what had happened earlier in the day with Graves and because he did not want to involve authorities because there were drugs in Thomas’ apartment.
“You don’t get to run towards a street fight and get the right to self-protection,” Cohron said. “Tyrese Huffman bore the brunt of Stephan Thomas’ rage ... someone who has no respect for the rule of law doesn’t get to use it as a shield.”
Stewart’s closing argument laid the blame for the incident on Graves, asserting that Graves set in motion the chain of events that led Thomas to arm himself with a knife to protect himself from harm.
“All of these jokers got together as a result of D.J. Graves setting the table,” Stewart said about the group that accompanied Graves to the final confrontation. Graves “selected each one of these participants to go after” Thomas.
Stewart argued that the contradictions in the police interviews and trial testimony from Chamlee, Graves and Joe Huffman, who was held in contempt of court for yelling and swearing at Thomas, showed that they lacked credibility as witnesses.
Because of what had happened previously with Graves, Thomas feared for his life, which prompted him to grab the knife before going outside to confront Huffman, Stewart said.
Stewart also pointed out that Huffman, who was 6 feet, 4 inches and weighed more than 400 pounds when he died, presented a physically imposing figure that intimidated Thomas.
“(Thomas) had to make a split-second decision based on everything that happened,” Stewart said. “Even if you discount the rock or the gun, Tyrese Huffman himself was a dangerous instrument and he inflicted fear on my client.”
While Thomas has been cleared in the homicide case, three unrelated felony cases against him remain.
Thomas is charged with trafficking in a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school, second-degree possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia based on a 2011 traffic stop outside a Brownslock Road apartment.
Thomas also faces charges of tampering with physical evidence, third-degree criminal mischief, possession of marijuana and public intoxication based on a 2011 traffic stop on Broadway Avenue.
Finally, a first-degree assault case against Thomas is pending in Warren District Court based on an accusation that Thomas last year assaulted fellow Warren County Regional Jail inmate John Shobe, a suspect in an unrelated murder case.
Cohron and Stewart both said that those cases will be addressed during a court date in the near future.