Pretrial motions are expected to wrap up today in the first degree murder case of
Lester Kearney, who stands accused in the fatal home invasion and fire that severely
injured the Rev. John Alford and resulted in the death of his wife, Nancy, in March
2018.
Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. is presiding.
On Monday, the defense withdrew its motion to have District Attorney Mike Waters recused from the case.
Also on Monday, witnesses began taking the stand in a hearing on a defense motion to suppress Rev. Alford’s identification of Kearney on three occasions in 2018.
The motion indicates that the identification was tainted because Alford was shown only Kearney’s photograph rather than a photo lineup of multiple suspects and because the state held a press conference announcing Kearney’s arrest prior to approaching Alford with a photo lineup, which led to media coverage showing Kearney’s photo and interviews by news media, as well as social media postings. Asst. District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey called the 84-year-old minister to the stand, where he recalled the events of March 9, 2018, and the days that followed, including his recollection of media coverage, prior testimony and identification of Kearney, and statements to law enforcement and emergency response personnel. Defense attorney Amos Tyndall questioned Alford about his vision, prescription glasses and ability to see clearly after an intruder is said to have hit him with a fist at least twice in the face, including in the eye area, and extensively about Alford’s description that the suspect was wearing black makeup covering his whole face, which was described in multiple ways — flat black, camouflage and in squares. Tyndall also questioned other descriptions Alford gave of the suspect, including seeing his hands and neck, but no tattoos. Kearney has tattoos on the front of his neck and backs of both hands.
Tyndall asked Alford about who showed him photos of Kearney and when he saw them, and when he saw a televised press conference about the arrest of Kearney and a second man accused in the case — Kevin Munn, who has pleaded guilty — and other media coverage.
Former State Bureau of Investigation Agent Mallory Bennett testified remotely about her interviews with Alford and her testimony at the probable cause hearing in April 2018. She confirmed that Alford told her on March 9, 2018, that the intruder had a knife.
SBI Special Agent Kevin Snead testified that he was tasked with presenting Alford with a photo lineup, but learned before getting to the hospital, where the minister was being treated for severe burns, that Alford’s daughter-in-law had already shown him a photo of Kearney prior to his arrest. Subsequently, Alford identified Kearney as the intruder in his home, so Snead had photos texted to his cell phone and confirmed Kearney’s ID with Alford.
The defense called an expert in forensic neuropharmacology to the stand, who had reviewed Alford’s medical records and witness statements. He said that Alford, while hospitalized for his burns, was given fentanyl, described as a powerful opiate used as a painkiller and sedative with cognitive effects, and tramadol, also an opiate used for pain relief and described as having mild anti-depressive effects. The witness testified that notes from an occupational therapist in the hospital on March 14, 2018, stated that Alford was repeating himself and having trouble retaining information.
Under questioning by the state, the witness agreed that he did not know the individual cognitive effects of the medication on Alford.
The defense also called as a witness Dr. Michael Griffin, a forensic psychologist, who had examined investigative notes, the probable cause hearing transcript, a sermon Rev. Alford gave in May 2018 and other materials to testify on eyewitness identification. Griffin was in court Monday and Tuesday when Rev. Alford was called to the stand.
He said that factors negatively impacting memory include opportunities for observation, and that the morning events of March 9, 2018, interfered with Alford’s ability to form a memory of the suspect, as Alford had just woken up, was startled by someone in the bedroom, was struck multiple times in the face, was in pain and bleeding, among other factors.
Also, Griffin said the suspect wearing camouflage on his face would distort features, and people tend to focus on a weapon at the expense of a perpetrator’s features.
Information a person receives after an event can change their memory, Griffin said, and he described what he called evidence of Alford having a contaminated memory and inconsistencies in suspect description, including changes in early descriptions of events and face makeup, to Monday’s new testimony that the suspect was wearing a turtleneck and that Alford didn’t see a knife.
Sources of the shift in memory could include talking with other people, news stories, telling the story repeatedly, and hearing information from investigators, Griffin said.
Asst. District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey noted that Alford described the suspect’s collar being pulled up tight during the probable cause hearing, rather than a turtleneck; Griffin conceded that though the wording was not the same, it didn’t necessarily constitute a change in memory, though as a whole, it didn’t change his opinion of memory changing.
Defense attorney Robert Singagliese admitted into evidence handwritten notes taken by Pelfrey and provided Monday by the state. Then he asked Griffin if external influences, including reports written years before and conversations with family, could influence memory, and if that appeared to have happened over the weekend, and Griffin answered yes.
The notes were dated Friday, Oct. 8, and stated that Alford denied seeing the knife and wanted the weekend to think about his testimony. Motions were still being heard. An updated story will be published at lakegastongazette-observer.com once the court session has concluded and in next week’s print edition of the Lake Gaston Gazette-Observer..