Piper sentencing trial gets underway with autopsy photos
Heidi Bell Gease
Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 7:00 am
Briley Piper admits he helped beat and stab Chester Allan Poage to death. Still, he averted his eyes Monday as jurors in his sentencing trial were shown graphic autopsy photos of Poage’s wounds.
So did Piper’s and Poage’s mothers, who were in the courtroom as what is expected to be a two-week hearing got underway in Rapid City.
Poage was 19 years old in March 2000 when he was killed by Piper, then 19, Elijah Page, 18, and Darrell Hoadley, 20. Piper, Page and Hoadley drove Poage to a remote wooded area near Spearfish where they kicked him, stabbed him and threw large rocks at him as he pleaded for his life. The three then took Poage’s Blazer, stole items from his mother’s house and drove to Missouri for a “mini-vacation.”
Jurors in the case aren’t there to determine Piper’s guilt, but instead to decide whether he deserves the death penalty for his crime. Piper, now 30, pleaded guilty to Poage’s murder in 2001 and was sentenced to death by Judge Warren G. Johnson. He later appealed Johnson’s sentence. The state Supreme Court overturned the sentence and said a jury should decide Piper’s fate.
For Piper to receive the death penalty, the prosecutor must prove one of three things: that Piper participated in the murder for financial benefit, that Poage’s death was outrageously vile or inhuman, or that Poage was murdered to prevent Piper’s arrest.
Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald told jurors that he believes the evidence will prove all three elements. And he wasted no time addressing the heinousness of the crime, calling forensic pathologist Dr. Donald Habbe as his first witness.
Habbe performed the autopsy on Poage, whose nearly naked body was found in a creek in Higgins Gulch in April 2000. Habbe testified that bruising and blood on and inside Poage’s body proved Poage was alive as he was beaten and when he received three stab wounds to the neck and head. Two of those stab wounds may have been fatal.
Evidence photos projected onto a screen in the courtroom showed bruising and lacerations on Poage’s head. The photos also showed that parts of both ears and most of the skin on the back of Poage’s head were missing.
Habbe said one of the potentially lethal stab wounds cut Poage’s jugular vein. The other, above his right ear, penetrated his skull and went about one inch into his brain – something Habbe has never seen before.
“The skull is a bone,” he explained. “To penetrate the skull, that’s a good deal of force.”
Habbe said Poage could have survived for some time despite his wounds.
Defense attorney Robert Van Norman didn’t dispute the evidence or the awfulness of the crime.
“This is a true tragedy,” he said. “I think of this case, really, as an instance of four lost boys,” all of them “awash in drugs.”
Van Norman said Piper “was not wired correctly” from birth. He had severe attention deficit problems and a learning disability, plus older siblings involved with drugs. He was suspended from kindergarten and in trouble with the law by age 9 for stealing.
None of that excuses Piper’s actions, Van Norman said, but it helps explain things.
Piper has taken responsibility for his actions. While in prison he has been baptized as a Catholic; he has also earned 45 college credit hours. “He’s actually trying to do something with himself,” Van Norman said. “Briley wants to live.”
If at the end of the trial 12 jurors agree that Fitzgerald has proven at least one of the three aggravating circumstances, they could sentence Piper to death by lethal injection.
Page, who also pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Judge Johnson, waived his right to appeal and was executed in July 2007. Hoadley was convicted at trial and is serving life in prison.
Testimony is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. today.
Photo : Briley Piper is escorted from the Pennington County Jail to the Pennington County Courthouse on Tuesday, July 5, 2011. Jury selection began on Tuesday for Piper's sentencing trial. (Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)