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Retrial begins for man convicted of 2003 MU student's murder

Thursday, July 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:28 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 16, 2009
Taron Crawford, center, looks towards the courtroom entrance as another witness is called to the stand Wednesday in Columbia. Crawford, convicted for the killing of Charles Blondis in 2004, was granted a retrial because of ineffective counsel.

COLUMBIA — A string of witnesses for the prosecution testified Wednesday that Taron Crawford intentionally shot an MU student in the chest at a 2003 house party.

Crawford, 26, was in Boone County Circuit Court for the first day of his murder retrial. He was sentenced in January 2005 to 25 years in prison for the murder of 20-year-old Charles Blondis after being convicted of second-degree murder and armed criminal action. After an appeal in which Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton ruled that Crawford's counsel was ineffective, Crawford was granted the retrial.

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On Wednesday, the state called a variety of eyewitnesses, forensic experts and police officers to explain what happened on the night Blondis was shot and killed. Attorneys on both sides agree on many of the facts of the case: Crawford and Blondis were at a party in November 2003 when a fight broke out involving several people. During the fight, Blondis was shot in the chest and Crawford fled. The gun was later recovered behind the apartment where Crawford was staying.

However, the case will hinge on conflicting claims as to whether Crawford meant to shoot directly at Blondis. Assistant District Attorney Andrew Scholz argued that Crawford was guilty of both charges because he purposefully shot Blondis. The defense, led by public defender Tony Manansala, contended that what happened that night was a "tragic accident" and that it was a ricocheting bullet that killed Blondis.

The first witness the prosecution called to the stand was Samuel Hileman, a witness to the shooting and host of the party where the shooting occurred. He called himself a "good friend of the victim." Hileman said Blondis was breaking up the fight and not being physical with Crawford when Crawford drew his gun and shot Blondis in the chest with the first of three shots. Another two eyewitnesses testified that they saw Crawford with a gun that night.

Boone County Medical Examiner Eddie Adelstein was brought in to testify about the bullet wound that Blondis sustained, and whether it could have been from a ricocheting bullet. Adelstein said that the bullet was intact and the entry wound was a straight line that was "inconsistent with a ricochet." The first bullet struck Blondis in the heart.

Kathleen Green, a ballistics expert for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, agreed that the bullet did not ricochet. The defense contended that the bullet had to have struck something before hitting Blondis because the bullet mushroomed and showed signs of hitting a hard object. Green said the bullet could have sustained that damage from simply entering the body.

Columbia Police Detective Bryan Liebhart, who questioned Crawford after his arrest, said Crawford continually changed his story during the interview. At first, Crawford said a gun fell on the ground next to him after he had been knocked over and kicked in the head, Liebhart testified. Crawford then said he did not fire the gun and when he left the party he tossed it into a drainage ditch. After more questioning, Crawford said he brought the gun to the party but said he did not fire it, Liebhart testified. Crawford later admitted to firing the gun, but said he only fired two shots straight into the air.

Liebhart testified that Crawford eventually admitted it was possible he pointed the gun at Blondis and may have shot him. Scholz also played for the jurors a large portion of the video of the interview with Crawford after his arrest.

The prosecution rested after a nine-hour day. The trial is scheduled to continue at 8:30 a.m. today in Boone County Circuit Court.

Missourian reporter Andrew Denney contributed to this report.


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