State: Bryant had motives for murder
Prosecutor Ronald W. Simpson and deputy prosecutor John Colin contend that “money, jewelry and the car” were Arthur John Bryant’s motives for killing his stepmother, Carol A. Bryant, on Jan. 5, 2000.
Bryant, 20, Corydon, took the stand in his own defense Friday afternoon in Harrison Superior Court in Corydon. He admitted to taking Carol’s purse, jewelry and car, but denied murdering her. During testimony, John resorted to vulgar language. “I’m tired of you (expletive deleted) drilling me on stuff that don’t make no sense,” he told Simpson during cross-examination.
Bryant accused his father, Arthur Leroy (Lee) Bryant, of the crime, but the elder Bryant flatly and calmly denied that from the witness stand. He told the court he doesn’t know who killed his wife. He said he wasn’t privy to information because he has been treated as a suspect (but never charged).
The two-week murder trial concluded with the state resting its case yesterday at 4:05 p.m. Closing statements from the prosecution and defense are expected to begin at 9 this morning and conclude before noon.
Following that, the jury will be sent to deliberate. If necessary, the jury will be sequestered at a local hotel, and at all times will be in the care of the bailiff and others on the court staff, Judge Roger D. Davis told the jury yesterday.
He instructed the jury (comprised of six men and eight women including two alternates who will remain on stand-by) to bring enough clothing and other personal necessities for two days. But he carefully explained that the amount of time the jury takes is completely up to them.
John Bryant testified he woke on the morning of Jan. 5 about 10. His father came home for lunch around noon and asked his son if he wanted a sandwich. Carol was asleep on the couch. When she awoke, she declined to eat because she did not feel well.
John, who was 17 then, said Lee and Carol began to argue, so he went outside to escape the noise. He returned when they quieted down. That’s when he said he saw his father holding a thin belt, standing over Carol. She was on the floor, obviously dead.
He said his father told him to get something to tie the body up inside a comforter the father had brought into the kitchen from a back room. John said that’s what he did. He said his father placed the body in the trunk of Carol’s car, gave him the keys, and told him to take care of it. Lee went back to work, John said.
John said he was afraid not to obey his father, and left. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was scared.”
John packed clothes and other possessions in a duffel bag and left an hour or so later. He drove to Salem where he met with friends and then went to Clarksville with one who sold some of the jewelry at a pawn shop.
John testified he stayed at the home of two close friends and became afraid when he heard his father was looking for him. He placed a “Fear this” decal in the back window of the car in an attempt to camouflage the vehicle.
John said he never disposed of the body because he didn’t want to leave it by the side of the road, at the mercy of wildlife.
After the car broke down on S.R. 56, John said he got a ride to a friend’s place of work in Salem, where he stayed until he was taken into custody as a runaway and returned to Harrison County.
He was released after turning 18, but was picked up a few months later on other charges. John was indicted in June 2001 by a grand jury for murder, theft and obstruction of justice.
Carol Bryant died of asphyxiation (strangulation with an object other than the hands) at the home where the three lived, on Zoar Church Road in Corydon. The state contends John wrapped and tied the body in a comforter and placed it in the trunk of her car, then packed his belongings in a duffel bag and took off in her car with her body in the trunk, plus her jewelry and purse, which held a few dollars and change.
The car, a maroon 1989 Pontiac Grand Am, apparently developed engine trouble and was found abandoned three days later, alongside S.R. 56 at the Washington-Scott county line.
Carol Bryant was 35 years old, and John, 17. (He turned 20 in February this year.)
The medical examiner testified last week that the exact time of Carol’s death could not be determined, but from the evidence she concluded it was the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2000. Dr. Barbara Wheatley Jones testified that although there was a discoloration on the right side of Carol’s right eye, there was no evidence that a “blunt force trauma” had occurred. Wheatley said Carol was likely unconscious within a minute from an object — which could have been the neck band on her T-shirt or a thin belt — held tightly up and under the front of her neck.
A “special sister” charm was found tangled in Carol’s hair, which the prosecution said came from a broken gold chain that was among jewelry in John’s possession. John denied the two items went together. He said the chain was among other items of jewelry he took from her jewelry boxes and from a pile he said was on the kitchen table. He admitted taking the jewelry because he said he needed money, and didn’t know what else to do.
Wheatley said Carol bled from the mouth, a frothy, bloody substance, which, a DNA forensic expert later testified, was linked to a spot on a pair of jeans in the trunk. John Bryant said the blood could have gotten on the jeans when the body was moved about in the trunk, possibly when he pushed the body forward to get a spare tire from the trunk.
Lead defense attorney Leah Fink, assisted by attorney Michael Summers, attempted to establish a pattern of spouse abuse on Lee’s part and thus “hostility” as a motive for killing her. However, witnesses to alleged incidents occurring as early as 1995 and later in 1998 were not allowed to testify because the judge ruled the allegations were too long ago to be relevant.
Two neighbors, Allen Ferguson and Richard McKinstry, were allowed to take the stand.
Ferguson said he recalled hearing Lee and Carol Bryant “yelling and screaming” at each other in the summer of 1999 in front of their home. He said Lee struck Carol “with his fist” in the nose, which was bleeding, and cut her lip. Ferguson said he and a friend (who was camped in Ferguson’s driveway) ran across the road, and Lee went inside the house.
McKinstry said he was in Ferguson’s garage, directly across the road from the Bryants’ home, in September or October 1999 when he saw Lee and Carol arguing in the front yard. He said Carol “was in his (Lee’s) face,” and he pushed her away.
As to Ferguson’s allegations, Lee later testified he had never hit Carol with his fist, although he had slapped her. He said he tried to stop Carol from leaving in her car, because he didn’t think she should drive. “I believed she was intoxicated,” he said.
Their relationship was, for the most part, good, he said, but they had arguments and problems as most couples do.
Responding to questions from both Fink and Simpson, Lee told the court he did not kill his wife. He said he doesn’t know who did, and he doubts that John could have done so without help. “I don’t believe he was physically capable of doing it by himself … unless he rendered her unconscious by surprise.”
“Oh? That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” Fink said, to an immediate rebuff by Simpson that she should “ask questions properly.”
Her retort:: “… When Mr. Simpson is done protecting” the father.
Judge Davis stepped in: “That’s enough!” he said.
In response to Simpson’s question as to why he didn’t think John could have killed Carol by himself, Lee elaborated: “She would have whupped his little a–.”
Lee also testified in response to testimony from others in court, including John and his mother, Kristi Judd, that he had not threatened John’s life or the lives of others.
Lee said he told John, following a brief meeting with his mother in an interview room at the Harrison County Sheriff’s Dept., that he would never speak to him again unless he talked to police.
A video and recording of the meeting between John and his mother was made, but the sound was garbled, except for a few words that could be distinguished. His mother said John never admitted killing Carol, just that he had told his father he and Carol didn’t get along and he should choose between them.
“He’s my son,” Lee said of John. “I love him, but I don’t like him at all.”
During cross-examination, Simpson established, and John Bryant admitted, a pattern of rebellion and dishonesty.
“I’ve been in trouble for lying before,” said John, who has faced multiple charges in Harrison and neighboring counties of check deception, fraud and forgery (and found guilty by a jury in Harrison County on Oct. 18, 2001) for stealing blank checks from the accounts of relatives and then using the checks.
If convicted of murder, John could serve a maximum prison term of 65 years. Circumstances in the case don’t warrant the death penalty, Simpson said.