By John L. Ross, Staff Writer
Testimony concerning possible prostitution, a blood-encrusted meat cleaver, and several graphic photos were among evidence seen and heard during the first day of an attempted murder trial in Whitley County Circuit Court Wednesday.
The trial of James B. Privett III is scheduled to continue today.
Privett, 27, faces charges of attempted murder, first-degree assault and first-degree burglary in connection with the attack against his wife, Erica Privett.
After a jury of 11 men and one woman was seated, Circuit Court Judge Paul K. Winchester reviewed procedure with jurors.
Just prior to Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Robert Stevens’ opening statement, both he and Defense Attorney Ron Findell approached the bench to discuss photos Stevens was holding.
After that discussion ended, Stevens took the lectern, and showed the two photos to the jurors.
“This is Erica Privett,” he said. “(This is) a week after an assault by her husband, James Privett.”
He explained the Privetts had been married since 2008, and that some time in February 2012, the couple moved in with a friend of Erica Privett’s, Brenda Booth.
Stevens continued, telling how on Feb. 20, the couple got into an argument. “You’ll hear Erica tell you the reason James Privett hit (her) with his fist in the back of the head,” he said. “(And it) escalated more and more.”
He added that Erica Privett would testify she was attacked with a knife. “(He) hit her with a butcher knife in the face (at least) once, twice, three times, four times, five times,” he said.
Why? According to Stevens, “because he wanted a beer.”
He explained that James Privett went to the refrigerator to get one beer which he thought he had left in there. “(But) it was gone,” Stevens said. “(He thought) she gave away the last beer can.”
After that discovery, Stevens said the violence escalated.
“(He) takes a butcher knife and slices her,” he said. “There’s no reason — no justifiable reason — for anyone (to take) a butcher knife and try to kill them.”
He added more photos for jurors to review, one of which included a shot of where Stevens said James Privett stomped on his wife’s back with a boot.
He explained it was Privett’s intent to kill Erica Privett. “He wanted to kill his wife and went a long step in doing so,” Stevens said.
But according to Findell, the attack itself has never been denied.
After reminding jurors that opening statements are not evidence, Findell began his opening statement.
He did agree the couple had been married since 2008, but he added one witness put it best.
“(In their) words, they’re either on, or off,” Findell said. “This was not the first fight — there were many fight before this time.”
Findell explained Erica Privett may have had a history of prostitution during the marriage.
“She was turning tricks,” he said. “She was prostituting herself for money for drugs.”
He said James Privett loved his wife “very much” and that it was an embarrassment for him that his wife “was turning tricks in the neighborhood.”
He said Erica Privett’s alleged prostitution angered James Privett.
“The frustration built,” Findell said. “He felt emasculated.”
Findell added that on the day of the attack, the couple had argued about her extramarital activities.
“(She) contracted a venereal disease, an STD,” he said. “(And James Privett) felt humiliated.”
Findell said that James Privett’s frustration toward his wife had continued to build, and when he discovered the missing beer, “this sent him into a blind rage.”
“My client (feels he should be) accountable for his actions,” Findell said to jurors. “You’re not going to hear testimony (that he) denies having done what he did.”
He explained James Privett’s rage left him unaware of his specific actions the night of the attack.
“He thought he was slapping his wife with the butcher knife,” he said. “When he saw the blood, he dropped the knife.”
He said the question came down to intent — whether James Privett meant to kill Erica Privett, or whether he was under “extreme emotional disturbance and just snapped.”
“He did not mean to do this,” Findell said, adding that James Privett was totally in love with his wife.
“(He’s) not trying to get out of this. (It was an) unspeakable act — it was wrong — (and he) should be punished.”
Then it was time for the Commonwealth to call its first witness — Erica Privett.
Still bearing the scars from the attack, Erica Privett swore under oath to tell the truth.
Stevens asked if the couple had disagreements in the past.
“Yes, several,” she answered.
Stevens asked if the arguments ever became physical.
“Yes, a lot,” she said.
What happened that night? According to Erica Privett, “My sister and her husband (were at the house) drinking and they left,” she said.
She went on and said once they left, James Privett accused her of giving her sister’s husband his last beer.
She said James Privett punched her in the head.
“He grabbed my hair and started punching me,” she said.
She testified that she had “blacked out” and that her roommate, Brenda Booth, “got in the middle” to try to help. “All three (of us) were in the floor wrestling around,” she said. “She (Booth was) trying to get him off of me.”
She said the next thing she remembered was waking up three days later at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn.
Findell and Stevens both approached the bench, again to discuss photos held by Stevens.
Stevens then continued his questioning, asking about her injuries. Erica Privett testified she had five cuts on her face, broken ribs, a broken nose — which drew an objection from Findell. Then when asked to continue, Erica Privett added that she suffered abdominal injuries, which left her in pain for more than a month. She also said the lacerations on her face required more than 1,000 stitches “inside and out.”
Stevens showed her pictures of her after the attack — which left Erica Privett in tears. She then testified that was how she looked after she had been released from UT Medical Center in Knoxville.
Findell then cross-examined Erica Privett. While she had testified earlier she had lived with Booth for about a month at the time of the attack, upon questioning from Findell she stated the couple had moved into Booth’s home around Thanksgiving in 2011.
She also said she was under the influence of drugs at the time of the attack.
Findell asked her if she had been a prostitute — which she denied.
He pushed again, saying statements from witnesses claim the opposite.
“Everybody’s got an opinion, I guess,” Erica Privett said.
Under Findell’s questioning she said James Privett accused her of prostitution and that she did indeed contract a venereal disease.
“(You) told him right before this incident?” Findell asked. She said James Privett was told by her the month before.
She further testified that she had no sex with anyone else, implying that maybe James Privett was the carrier of the venereal disease.
Findell countered, saying Booth told police she was “turning tricks.”
“Everybody has an opinion,” Erica Privett again answered.
Findell then questioned her about visiting James Privett while he was jailed — which she apparently did on two occasions.
Erica Privett said she visited him to get an apology and an explanation from her husband, even telling him she didn’t think he wanted to kill her.
Findell produced a letter written by Erica Privett to her husband in December, and requested she read it aloud.
According to her written words, Erica Privett missed him “like crazy” and loved him “with all my heart.”
She also said in the letter she knew it was hard for him in jail.
Erica Privett then stepped down, although she may still be called back to further testify.
The next witness was Kristen Kennedy, who at the time was a reporter with a regional TV station. The night of the attack, Kennedy, with a camera rolling, had asked James Privett about what had happened to lead to his arrest. That news story became evidence, and the courtroom heard the TV report. During her interview, a handcuffed James Privett said “I’m sorry for what I did…I’m sorry.”
Then Brenda Booth took the witness stand. She said the couple lived with her because the parents of both didn’t like the two to be together.
She testified she was at home the night of the attack, in her bedroom with the door closed. She heard the couple arguing, she said, but they did that all the time.
Booth said she came out of her room to see the “argument start to get physical.”
She said James Privett punched his wife, and when she fell he started kicking her and punching her in the face. That’s when she said she tried to stop the fight.
“He elbowed me, and I was addled,” Booth said, adding she saw James Privett head toward her kitchen — where her mother’s meat cleaver hung on the wall.
She tried to follow, but she fell.
“I got up and run back in (the room),” Booth said. “Erica’s face was just blood.
“I started screaming,” she said. “(I) started saying ‘give me a phone, give me a phone, he’s killing her.’”
Booth told jurors she never saw James Privett actually strike Erica Privett with the kitchen utensil.
“(I saw) he had a meat cleaver in his hand, and blood on her face,” she said. “That’s when I freaked out and ran out the front door.”
She also said the couple’s relationship was either “really, really good, (or) really, really bad — more often bad,” she said.
She was asked about Erica Privett’s possible prostitution habits — all of which she denied. However, Findell asked if she remembered saying to police “(that Erica Privett would perform a sex act) for money for drugs?”
Booth answered, “If I said it, yes.” She added that she had heard the couple fight about Erica Privett’s alleged prostitution.
“He didn’t want her to do it as much as he did want her to,” Booth said. “It was usually him sending her out to go do it.”
She could not remember whether the couple argued over Erica Privett contracting an STD.
“I truly believe he was out to kill her — that’s my opinion,” Booth said.
But Findell countered that statement, saying “it would’ve been easier to kill her, and if he wants to kill, he could (have) got (Booth) too.”
Booth then agreed.
The next witnesses were on the stand briefly. Now retired Lt. Detective William Riley, with the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, took the stand to verify he was at first dispatched to the Booth home, then changed to Jellico Community Hospital, where Erica Privett was originally transported after the attack. He further testified Erica Privett appeared to be in “a lot of pain” and “hurting bad.” Riley “stood guard” with her until the ambulance transported her to UT Medical Center in Knoxville.
The next brief witness appearance came from Carrie Davis, who testified her boyfriend’s aunt lives across the street from the Booth home. On the night in question, Davis said she and her boyfriend came across the street to check the mail when they saw Booth burst out of her home, screaming for a phone.
Davis said she saw Erica Privett walk out all bloody. She added she saw James Privett “dragging her up the steps to a neighbor’s house,” but said she wasn’t sure whether he was “pulling or helping” her.
She testified the neighbor was Donna Cunningham who lived there with her daughters.
Davis’ boyfriend, Aaron Burnette, was the next to take the stand. He testified he saw Erica Privett’s bloody face in his rearview mirror after the attack.
“I’ve seen some bad things — (this) was pretty bad,” he said, adding he himself did not see Erica Privett in the yard.
Findell asked whether he believed what his girlfriend, Davis, had said she’d seen.
“It’s my girlfriend,” Burnette said. “If that’s what she seen, it’s what she seen.”
Whitley County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Ken Shepherd was the last witness to testify Wednesday.
He said Whitley County EMS was the first to arrive at the scene in the 4000 block of KY 1804. Shepherd said he was the first law enforcement at the home.
When he arrived at the residence, Shepherd said Erica Privett had already been transported to the hospital in Jellico.
“(There were) less than 15 people standing there,” he said. “All were pointing and saying ‘there he goes.’”
Shepherd further testified James Privett was to whom the group was pointing, and he was approximately 500 feet away.
After catching up to the suspect with his car, Shepherd said he came up behind him. He said James Privett had his hands in his pockets, and after some wrangling, “both of them ended up on the ground.”
“He was secured in handcuffs” until other law enforcement arrived.
More photos were brought forth during Shepherd’s testimony, which he said he actually took the shots. Those pictures were of the living room area and included blood spatter on the floor and chairs. He also said the meat cleaver was found in the Booth residence.
Then a box, which had been sitting on the Commonwealth’s table, was brought to Shepherd on the witness stand. After careful cutting and tearing, and with a pair of blue rubber gloves, Shepherd removed the contents of the box.
And that revealed a blood-encrusted meat cleaver, which was added to the evidence against Privett.
Shepherd then testified about the condition of the Cunningham residence, where James Privett is alleged to have either dragged or helped Erica Privett get to.
“While on the scene (we) found a footprint on the door (that) appeared like someone forced their way in,” he said.
During a walk-through of the Cunningham residence, Shepherd testified he found more blood, including bloody towels, a blood trail on the steps to the residence, blood spots on the bathroom floor and in the sink. He said he photographed what he discovered through the home, and those photos were entered into evidence.
An audio recording was planned for next, however, there were equipment troubles, so Winchester continued the trial for today, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Privett remains jailed at the Whitley County Detention Center under a $1 million cash bond.