Trial for accused killer starts

The autopsy photos of homicide victim Thomas J. Schmitt were so graphic that Judge Marc E. Lovecchio cleared the courtroom after one juror began to hyperventilate. That juror was replaced with an alternate, who will hear the remainder of accused shooter William J. Kemp’s trial, which began Monday.

During opening statements, both the defense and the prosecution agreed that Kemp fired the shots that killed Schmitt – but practically every other detail is contested.

“Unfortunately, Thomas Schmitt did die as a result of gunfire by William Kemp. However, it’s your duty to judge the facts and the credibility of witnesses,” Assistant Public Defender Robert Cronin told the jury.

Commonwealth witnesses include police officers, experts in DNA and forensics and multiple eyewitnesses, District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt said during opening statements.

One eyewitness, 11-year-old Lindsey Halsted, allegedly watched from his bedroom window as Kemp pointed the gun at Schmitt’s throat and fired.

“He ran downstairs and told his mother, ‘Mommy, I think I saw a murder,’ ” Linhardt said.

Poor lighting, shaky memories and “physical limitations, including intoxication,” will detract from the witnesses’ credibility, Cronin argued during opening statements.

The homicide occured after dark on Feb. 13, 2012. Schmitt had been drinking with Michael Updegraff and his girlfriend, Kirsten Radcliffe, at Fifth Avenue Tavern when the pair got into an argument about another woman. Updegraff and Schmitt left the bar. Kemp gave Radcliffe, who he had never met before that evening, a ride to Updegraff’s residence. When Updegraff asked Kemp to leave, he refused.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Kemp was escorted and released to his car. Kemp then walks quickly to his vehicle while Updegraff and Schmitt turn to go inside. The argument is over but instead of getting into his vehicle to leave, he reaches for his .45 cal. and begins firing down the driveway,” Linhardt said.

The first bullet struck a wooden post. The second hit the side of the building. Kemp fired the third and fourth bullets point-blank into Schmitt’s throat and head.

“Did Mr. Schmitt attack Mr. Kemp in any way? Did Mr. Schmitt have a weapon when he was following Kemp?” Cronin asked the jury to consider.

Perhaps the most contested piece of evidence is a knife found near Schmitt’s body. Was Schmitt wielding it when Kemp shot him?

The crime scene diagram depicts the knife at a considerable distance from Schmitt’s body, implying that he had not been using it. However, responding Officer Marlin Smith admitted that the knife had been removed prior to his laying evidence markers at the scene.

In addition to Smith, Officer Damon Hagan, Cpl. Dustin Reeder and forensic pathologist Marianne Hamel were called to the stand.

Hamel described injuries to Schmitt’s body, including a “muzzle stamp” or imprint caused by a gun when pressed into the skin and fired. The orientation of the muzzle stamp on Schmitt’s neck drew questions from defense counsel William J. Miele. On cross examination, Hamel testifed that the gun would have had to have been fired sideways or upside down, assuming the victim and the defendent were both standing during the altercation.

Updegraff took the stand next and described what happened after he pushed Kemp outside.

“I heard two gunshots … I saw my buddy Tommy look at me with a dead stare and that’s when I knew he was shot,” Updegraff said. “It was pretty much a bloodbath.”

Updegraff will continue his testimony today. The trial is expected to last until Sept. 17.