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Surprise finish at Bryant murder trial?

Promising a “Perry Mason-style” finish by shifting the blame, the defense expects to start calling witnesses late this afternoon or tomorrow in the murder trial of Arthur John Bryant, the 19-year-old accused of strangling his stepmother, Carol, 2-1/2 years ago in Harrison County.
“I want it in the record that it is our defense — the theory of our case — that John is innocent, and that Arthur Leroy (Lee) Bryant is guilty of strangling and murdering Carol Bryant, and as such he had a motive, he had opportunity to kill her, and I should be able to impeach him on such issues,” public defender Leah Fink argued in Harrison Superior Court late Thursday afternoon.
Her comments, made while the jury was not in the room, followed her request to question Lee Bryant as a “hostile witness,” which was denied.
“He has just set up here today and given damning evidence against John, saying he was the last one to see her,” Fink said. “He (Lee) went back to work and everything was just fine, and when he got home, they weren’t there.
“That damning evidence — all perjury by the way — is designed to frame John for something he didn’t do.”
She asserted that matters of domestic violence should also be heard by the jury.
But saying so doesn’t automatically make it so. Prosecutor Ronald W. Simpson, who is assisted by deputy prosecutor John Colin, told Superior Court Judge Roger Davis:
“She can ask him (Lee) if he in fact killed Carol Bryant … I don’t think she has the right to say he has to show us everything he’s ever done.”
And in the face of “nothing more specific in the way of proof” to back her claims, the judge denied the defense motion.
Fink, co-counsel with attorney Michael Summers, then served Lee Bryant with a subpoena to return as a defense witness for questioning, tentatively on Thursday at 1 p.m. She had no further questions for him after that.
Lee Bryant declined to comment. “I’ll say what I have to say in court,” he said.
Arthur John Bryant is accused of killing his 35-year-old stepmother, Carol, on Jan. 5, 2000. He was picked up several days later and held as a runaway. He has been in custody since then, and was charged with the murder in June 2001, following a grand-jury investigation and indictment.
The trial began Thursday following two days of jury selection. So far testimony backs up the prosecution’s charge that John Bryant stole jewelry from his stepmother and her car, and drove it several days with her body in the trunk. For that, he is accused of theft and obstruction of justice, both felonies.
Carol Bryant’s body was found three days after her disappearance in the trunk of her maroon 1989 Pontiac Grand Am, wrapped and tied cocoon-like in a quilted mauve, gray and blue comforter. It was a gift from her mother.
Carol prized the car and allowed few to drive it, except her husband, Lee Byrant. An apparently talented, self-taught mechanic, Lee testified that he replaced the engine in the Pontiac just two months before she was killed.
Evidence pointing to John for Carol’s murder thus far appears circumstantial. As of noon yesterday, police investigators had not taken the stand except to introduce evidence and establish chain of custody.
John’s father testified that he had gone home on Jan. 5 for lunch, as was customary because the home on Zoar Church Road was only minutes from his job. He was gone from work an hour, either from noon until 1 p.m. or 12:30 until 1:30 p.m. (He wasn’t sure which and no time clock was required on the job.)
“I saw her at lunch; that was the last time I seen her,” he told the court.
Lee said his wife was asleep on the couch when he arrived but woke while he ate a sandwich. He said Carol told him she didn’t feel well but would take John to see about a job “after a while.”
Physical custody of John had been transferred from his mother in Paoli to his father’s home in Corydon in late August or early September. Lee Bryant testified that the probation department placed his son with him. He said his son and wife “did not get along,” but appeared to do so until John quit going to work or coming home when he should. Prior to Jan. 5, Lee said he had asked his son to do one of three things: accompany his dad to work, get a job or go to school.
Lee said John needed Carol to drive him to look for work because he had been banned from using his father’s car. John had been allowed to drive that car earlier to apply for a job, but had not done as he was supposed to do. The teen also was gone from home for two weeks prior to Christmas and had taken his father’s ’85 Oldsmobile without permission, Lee said, adding that John was also reported then as a runaway.
On Jan. 5, Lee said his son and Carol argued at lunch about her taking him to see about a job. “He got mad because she wouldn’t take him right then.”
When Lee returned home that day after work, he said neither John nor Carol was there, but that wasn’t necessarily unusual, and John had left a note as to his whereabouts.
According to testimony of friends and acquaintances, John drove Carol’s car to Salem, which he and other teens from Paoli frequented, on the afternoon of Jan. 5. He picked up friends, visited in Salem for a time, and then drove with friends to a pawn shop in Clarksville. There, he convinced an 18-year-old friend (who had an ID and was thus eligible to do business at a pawn shop), to sell the jewelry. John told his friends, according to the testimony of several, that he had given the jewelry to his girlfriend, who returned it because they had broken up. He also told at least one friend the car had been given to him as a Christmas gift.
While back on the road, apparently to Salem, John called a friend and asked him for a spare tire because one of the tires had gone flat and he didn’t have a spare. He continued to drive the car using the “donut” spare. Also according to testimony, air fresheners were used inside the car, which apparently broke down and was abandoned alongside S.R. 56 near the Washington-Scott County line.
Several of Carol Bryant’s relatives in the courtroom Friday sobbed quietly as Indiana State Police crime scene technician Jeff Franklin showed a video of the car, the trunk and of Carol’s body wrapped in the comforter. The car was combed for other evidence, which might have been left behind by the perpetrator, Franklin said.
The body was removed to the medical examiner’s office in Kentucky for autopsy. Dr. Barbara Wheatley Jones, assistant medical examiner since 1981, testified that Carol died of “asphyxia” caused by an object held tightly up and under the front of her neck. It probably took less than a minute before she became unconscious, and, although she was under the influence of cocaine at the time of her death, likely put up a good fight because cocaine is a stimulant. No swabs were taken beneath Carol’s fingernails, however, because they had been bitten to the quick.
Jones could not pinpoint a time of death, except to say it was likely that Wednesday afternoon. “There are too many variables,” she said. “I’m not ‘Quincy.’ It just isn’t possible to pinpoint your time of death.”

The trial continues tomorrow and may last another week. Whether John Bryant will take the stand in his own defense has not been established.

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