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First witnesses heard in Tribble case

Trial of former deputy charged in inmate beating opens Thursday

Posted: January 27, 2011 5:16 p.m.
Updated: January 28, 2011 5:00 a.m.

The civil rights trial of former Kershaw County deputy Oddie Tribble Jr. began with opening arguments a little after 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Opening statements at the Matthew J. Perry Jr. Courthouse in Columbia provided different interpretations of Tribble’s actions on the night of Aug. 5, 2010.

Tribble is accused of violating Charles Shelley’s civil rights by striking him repeatedly with an asp in the Kershaw County Detention Center (KCDC), fracturing one of his legs. The beating was caught on KCDC surveillance cameras. Tribble was fired the next day by former Kershaw County Sheriff Steve McCaskill.

A moderate number of people, mostly those intimately connected to the case, sat behind the bar of Courtroom II, a large room with white concave ceiling, cream walls and dark wood paneling. Most of the room is devoted to the judge, jury, prosecutors and defense with only five rows on each side for visitors to sit in.

Several preliminary issues were dealt with before the jury was brought into the courtroom, including whether one juror would be excused for a medical issue. U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie said she had already excused a juror for a medical issue. The juror was briefly brought into the courtroom for questioning, after which both parties agreed the juror could be excused. The court was then left with only one alternate juror.

Other preliminary issues dealt with whether or not certain witnesses would be allowed to attend other portions of the trial, objections to certain evidence, the judge’s charges to the jury and specific evidentiary issues.

While having no objections to the use of the videotape of the beating, the defense did assert that a proper chain of custody needed to be established. Also, Judge Currie informed both parties she would not be using the phrase “no legitimate law enforcement purpose” in her charges to the jury regarding Tribble’s beating Shelley.

Also, the judge ruled that deputies dealing with Shelley at a Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) traffic stop the day he was arrested could not testify to this behavior at the stop unless they relayed those observations to Tribble or Deputy Jimmy Simmons, who was also seen on the videotape but not indicted. The defense revealed that Deputy Miles Taylor was being added to its witness list. Although the government stated for the record that this was the first they had heard of Taylor, it did not object to his addition.

The jury was made up of five men and seven women. Each juror wore a badge so that others in the courthouse would know not to speak with them or with others about the case in their presence.

The jurors were told that some exhibits would be shown on video screens.

“This is an electronic courtroom,” said Currie.

Perry Courthouse courtrooms have special sound systems behind the jurors’ heads that can mask the comments of the judge and attorneys during sidebars.

Opening statements took about 25 minutes each, with the two sides agreeing to that beforehand as a maximum to be enforced by the jury.

U.S. Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lomax described what jurors would later see on videotape as an “unjust, unjustifiable beating” by a KCSO deputy who abused his authority.

“He struck Charles Shelley not once, not twice, but 27 times, while Mr. Shelley was handcuffed behind his back,” said Lomax. “He wasn’t harming anyone. With those strikes, the defendant broke Mr. Shelley’s skin, causing him to bleed. He broke his leg, causing him severe pain. With those 27 strikes, he broke the law.”

Lomax admitted to the jury that Shelley was driving under suspension the evening of Aug. 5 and that he had an open container in his car and marijuana on his person and that he gave a false statement to arresting deputies.

“He was upset. He had been working all day, and while in the van he said some regrettable things. He was loud, he was rude and he insulted two offices. He even went so far as to threaten the defendant’s family. But as regrettable as that was, he was all talk and no action,” said Lomax.

Lomax said those words made Tribble “very angry.”

“He told (Shelley), ‘I’m going to get you when we get to the detention center,’” Lomax said.

He said the first person taken off the van was a woman.

“The next person was the man the defendant had been waiting for,” said Lomax. “Before Mr. Shelley’s foot even touched the ground, the defendant had his asp in hand. Mr. Shelley had taken only two steps toward the entrance to the jail when he began violently striking him with the baton.”

Lomax said Shelley never tried to fight back and begged Tribble to stop.

“The defendant didn’t stop. He even hit him so hard the baton flew out of his hand. He turned his back on Mr. Shelley, picked up the baton, turned back and continued to strike him with that baton,” said Lomax.

And even after Shelley fell to the ground, said Lomax, Tribble continued to strike him. He said Tribble repeatedly told Shelley to get up.

“He said, ‘But I can’t get up … my leg hurts,’” said Lomax.

He said other government witnesses – including other prisoners on the van -- would testify that Shelley did say “terrible things,” but that he never did anything.

“They were shocked that an officer treated a handcuffed man that way,” said Lomax.

And, Lomax said, jurors would be able to see the beating with their own eyes.

“There is no audio, but witnesses will tell you what they heard … (including) the sound of the baton striking Mr. Shelley’s leg,” Lomax said. “The defendant doesn’t have to prove anything, but you will probably hear that he did something to provoke this.

“Under our laws … threatening words and insults don’t justify being beaten by a law enforcement officer. We ask that you hold him accountable.”

Greg Harris, one of three attorneys representing Tribble, opened the defense’s statement by saying that due to the threats law enforcement officer face today, they are trained to be instinctual.

“They are trained to notice things we don’t. They have to respond within a matter of seconds to things we can’t imagine,” said Harris.

The essence of Harris’ opening statement was that Tribble’s 23 years of law enforcement experience -- including work as a corrections officer -- justified his actions.

“Oddie Tribble wants you to see the video tape,” Harris said. “He knew he was being videotaped. He has been trained in just about every kind of compliance technique you can think about.”

Harris warned the jury that they were likely to view the videotape many times and that it could be slowed down or even paused. What jurors wouldn’t have, he said, was the context of those actions. For example, Shelley was drinking that night, was found to be in possession of marijuana, provided false information, was driving under a suspended license and was non-compliant during his arrest, said Harris.

He claimed Shelley resisted while metal handcuffs were switched to plastic “flexi-cuffs.”

“He’s resisting the whole time. He starts kicking out the windows of the van and the grate between the female prisoner and himself,” said Harris. “His words were beyond inciteful … the entire way, for 10 straight minutes, he uses racial slurs and makes threats.”

Harris asked jurors to remember one thing: “Law enforcement officers don’t have a pause button.”

He asked the jurors to take the videotape and all the testimony into consideration.

“We believe you will come to the same conclusion we have.”

Three witnesses were called by the government prior to a 1 p.m. lunch break. They included Peggy Spivey, Kershaw County’s director of special services, whose duties include overseeing the county jail; former KCSO training commander Kirk Corley; and Henry Crumk, from the company that manufactured and installed the security system at the KCDC.

The C-I will have a full report on their and other witnesses’ testimony Monday.

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