Jury deliberating charges in Curtis Harper hit-and-run trial

Jury deliberating charges in Curtis Harper hit-and-run trial

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Curtis Harper took the stand Monday in his own defense, testifying that he was not impaired the night of the crash. Curtis Harper took the stand Monday in his own defense, testifying that he was not impaired the night of the crash.

By STEPHANIE BEECKEN
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - After attorneys presented their closing statements, jurors began deliberating Tuesday in the trial for Curtis Harper, the University of Tennessee student accused of killing two people and an unborn child in a hit-and-run accident

After five hours of deliberations, the jury was sent home. They will return to court at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Harper is accused of killing Chasity Thornell, her unborn child, and Nelzon Soto while driving drunk, then fleeing the scene.

Harper took the stand Monday in his own defense, testifying that he was not impaired the night of the crash.

On Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Sarah Keith spoke first to start closing arguments and attempted to portray Harper as someone more concerned with himself than the victims.

"At every chance he had to make the right decision. He chose the wrong thing. He thought of no one but himself," Keith argued. "Others involved were shocked and scared, but they helped. Harper ran."

She reminded jurors about Thornell's friend Sarah Tinder who told people she had never seen a car driving so fast as she did that night.

Keith spoke about a witness who remembered Harper telling his roommate he wasn't sober and another witness testifying about how strong his drink was that evening.

"If he was impaired to any extent that it affected his ability to operate a vehicle, then he is guilty," said Keith.

Keith told the jury, evidence shows Harper was speeding and witness testimony from Harper's friends prove Harper was drunk.

"'He was intoxicated,'" Keith said, quoting a witness and friend of Harper's. "What motive does Chance have to say he was drunk? 'He told me he was drunk. He told me he had vodka. He told me it was a flask-sized bottle,"' said Keith.

She described Harper washing the blood off of his car, but still choosing not to call police.

The attorney questioned Harper's assertion that he did not know until much later that he had hit people with his car.

"Soto's hair was stuck in the windshield wipers, but he didn't know he hit anything?" Keith questioned. "He hit Chasity two times."

She asked jurors to find Harper guilty and hold him accountable for the crimes.

"Everything he did shows he was guilty and he just tried to hide evidence," she said. "Harper was only thinking about himself."

Defense attorney James W. Price Jr. then began his closing statements by questioning whether the state had met its burden of proof in the case.

"Each element is subject to reasonable doubt - doubt that you can't rest easy thinking it could have happened like that," Price argued.

He said there was reasonable doubt that Harper was drunk the night of the accident and contended that his blood alcohol level was no more than .06.

Price says according to evidence the vodka was metabolized by the time of the accident and the beer would not have caused his blood alcohol level to be above the legal limit.

"That's not necessarily to say he wasn't impaired, but that's not necessarily enough to make you be intoxicated within the meaning of the law," said Price.

Price said on the stand the witness admitted to having no proof Harper was drunk.

"'He was intoxicated mostly but I didn't see or smell anything.' He's just presuming this kid is drunk," said Price.

Harper's attorney said his client admitted to leaving the scene of the accident, but is not guilty of vehicular homicide or DUI.

"Harper knew he hit something. He thought he hit a car. There is reasonable doubt as to if he was drunk," Price said.

He noted that the stranded car had no headlights on, only one taillight on and the area had a number of trees, making it difficult to see.

Price also called into question a reaction time test, saying it was done during the day, but the accident took place at night.

"When you're driving a familiar road, you go into autopilot and may look away for a second," he said.

"This is a sad case. Images will not go away, but the truth is it's an unavoidable accident," Price concluded.

Assistant District Attorney Sarah Keith was given a chance to respond.

"Harper showed no remorse," she said.

Keith said evidence showed that Harper backed up and went around the body and said that was when the body dislodged.

"There's no way to create this kind of damage if he wasn't speeding. He was drunk, crashes into them and never hits the brakes," Keith argued.

She again questioned whether he was drunk.

"His friends told you he was drunk," she said. "They cried doing it on the stand because telling this truth hurt."

The case was handed over to the jury around noon.

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

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