Curtis Harper testifies, defense rests

Curtis Harper testifies, defense rests in trial for deadly hit-and-run

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Curtis Harper took the stand in his own defense Monday. Curtis Harper took the stand in his own defense Monday.

By STEPHANIE BEECKEN
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - The defense rested after the man accused of killing three in a hit-and-run wreck last year told a Knox County jury he was not drowsy or impaired on the night his SUV hit them.

Curtis Harper is accused of killing Chasity Thornell, her unborn child, and Nelzon Soto while driving drunk, then fleeing the scene. He took the stand Monday to testify in his own defense.

Harper faces several charges, including three counts of vehicular homicide, three counts of vehicular homicide by intoxication, driving under the influence, tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, leaving the scene of an accident and DUI second offense.

Harper said he was driving 35 mph on Washington Pike as he returned to his apartment, the speed at which he always drove on that road, he claimed.

When asked about the accident, Harper said, "I tried to swerve out of way of the car parked in my lane. I didn't see any people. I was freaking out."

Realizing he had hit something, Harper told jurors, he pulled over at Alice Bell Park. It was there he saw damage to his vehicle.

"Were you drunk?" Harper's attorney asked.

"No I wasn't," he answered. "I was just scared and kept making the situation worse."

Harper said he then went to a friend's house to calm down.

At 7 a.m., he said, he got a text from a friend telling him that he had hit people. Harper said he searched online and found out that people had died.

"I sat there in disbelief," he testified.

After seeing the article, Harper said he went back to his car, noticed the blood and hosed the blood off of the car.

"It was the first time I thought people were involved," he said. "I was scared."

He said he borrowed his friend's car and went home. When his roommate asked him what happened, he told him that he had been in an accident and had killed two people.

"I told my roommate I wished this never happened," he said.

When asked if he considered running, Harper said he considered getting his car fixed out of state and telling people he had hit a deer.

After thinking things over, Harper said he told his dad and a friend that he decided to turn himself in. He said he had his attorney call police.

He said he didn't realize his car had hit the victims with his car until he saw discovery evidence from the state that he had hit them. Prior to that, he assumed that he hit the car and it hit the victims or that they were in the car at the time of the accident.

The state then cross examined Harper.

A state attorney asked Harper if he had been drinking beer and vodka that night. He responded that he had.

They asked why a friend said he was drunk.

"He must have been mistaken," Harper testified.

The state asked Harper if he recalled Soto's head hitting his windshield, seeing the blood splatter or noticing Thornell's body clinging to his car. Harper answered no to all questions.

They also asked whether he saw Thornell's body as he went around it. Harper testified that he did not go around it.

He said he washed pieces of Thornell's fetus down the drain at his parking lot. He acknowledged that he didn't call police and instead called his girlfriend.

"The victims were bleeding out and you didn't think about them. You thought about yourself?" they asked Harper.

"Yes," he replied.

The state asked Harper, "You didn't see them when you crashed into them?"

"No," Harper stated.

After Harper's testimony, the defense rested.

Monday's testimony in Knox County Criminal Court began with the defense calling Scott Reling, an expert in traffic accident reconstruction.

Reling testified that the car the victims had just refilled with gas was between street lights in a dark area.

He also said that it was not possible to tell the speed of the vehicle involved in the accident because an analysis of sheet metal wouldn't work in this case.

On cross examination, he added said that speed could not be determined because of the second hit and the dragging of a body.

He said it was impossible to tell which impact caused what damage, and therefore the speed could not be analyzed.

The state asked Reling if there was any indication that the car hit the brakes during the accident. He said no.

The defense next called Harper's girlfriend Amy Morrow to the stand. She testified that she had known him for 7.5 years.

She told defense attorneys that Harper called her the night of the accident and said he'd hit something in the road and that it was dark.

Morrow said Harper never told her that he was drunk.

Under cross examination, state attorneys asked her if she knew about Harper drinking vodka the night of the crash. She said no.

The state also asked if Harper mentioned that he had stopped not far from the crash site, pulled the fender down the road and later washed blood off of the car. Morrow said no again.

Morrow testified that if Harper told other people he was drunk, she wouldn't believe it because he was hysterical at the time of the incident. She told the state she believed what he told her that evening.

State and defense attorneys presented witnesses on Friday with conflicting testimony about Harper's sobriety that night.

Prosecution witnesses Allen Nida, Elizabeth Stanford, Leslie Davis, and Bradley Jones described Harper's condition after the wreck.

Nida said Harper told him that night on the phone, "I'm not sober."

All of the state's witnesses said Harper was visibly shaken.

After the state rested Friday, the defense brought four people to the the stand who said they were with him the night of the wreck. All said he did not appear to be intoxicated and some said they never saw him with a drink.

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