COLUMBIA — In her opening statement Tuesday, assistant prosecutor Andrea Hayes described Tausha L. Fields as a manipulative woman, full of strange and contradictory stories, with several last names and numerous male romantic companions.
During the second day of proceedings, attorneys attempted to sort out the complicated case of Fields, accused of murder in the death of her former husband Mitchell W. Kemp. Fields is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action for the Aug. 24, 2004, killing — the culmination of a tumultuous separation between Fields and Kemp. Attorneys for both sides began Tuesday's trial by describing conflicting timelines of the events leading up to, during and following the murder.
Prosecutors argued that Fields — who at various times accused Kemp of sexually assaulting her and their then-1-year-old daughter, Lexie — guilted another ex-husband into killing Kemp.
They said that, after Fields brought Kemp to the Deer Park Road farm she shared with her then-husband Gregory Morton, Morton fatally shot and buried him with her help. Hayes said Morton succumbed to Fields' stories of distress and "took care of" a man he believed to be abusing a woman and child he'd come to love.
Fields' attorneys painted a drastically different picture, though it was based on many of the same events. Public defender Paul Hood said Fields lived in perpetual fear of Morton, whom she married in Arkansas 12 days before the murder.
Hood said Morton was a jealous man with a violent temper; he didn't like the continuing relationship between Fields and the father of her child, and he knew the only way to end it would be to end Kemp's life.
Hood pointed to Fields' cooperation with the initial investigation as proof that the killing wasn't premeditated on her part: Before her arrest, she engaged in six voluntary interviews with detectives, and in August 2008, she led them to Kemp's grave.
“Tausha led them to Mitchell Kemp’s body," Hood said. "Tausha, in a sense, solved Mitchell Kemp’s murder.”
Hood also read extensively from a May 25 deposition with Morton, then he outlined numerous changes made by Morton five days ago. The inconsistencies, Hood said, indicate that Morton was lying about Fields' involvement.
"Greg Morton knew he was in trouble," Hood said. "He knew he had one way out, and the one way out was to say Tausha had planned it all."
'A family guy'
Following opening statements, the state called the first nine witnesses for questioning and cross-examination.
Kemp's mother, son and brother took the stand Tuesday. Each described a close relationship with Mitchell Kemp, remembering him as a "family guy."
The three also spoke about first meeting Fields; each described an initially positive relationship with Mitchell Kemp's new girlfriend.
"We took her in right away as one of our own," said Tracy Kemp, Mitchell Kemp's youngest brother. He added that the family felt sorry for her because of all the terrible and bizarre stories she told.
Tracy Kemp said his opinion of Fields changed, however, once he noticed his brother's uncharacteristically distant and pliant behavior, which he attributed to her controlling nature. Mitchell Kemp's behavior strained the brothers' relationship in the year preceding the murder, but the two made several plans to get together in the fall of 2004.
When Mitchell Kemp didn't show up for these family events — odd behavior, according to his mother and brother — the family grew increasingly worried and contacted the police. They were told there wasn't enough evidence to prove foul play and that he'd probably resurface soon.
A shared crime
Prosecutor Richard Hicks spent the bulk of Tuesday afternoon questioning Gregory Morton, 42, who pleaded guilty last June to second-degree murder of Mitchell Kemp. Charges against Morton, the shooter, were downgraded from first-degree murder in exchange for his testimony against Fields.
Morton and Fields met at an Ashland gym, where Fields worked, in late 2003; Morton said he admired Fields' personal strength and that the pair quickly built a serious relationship. He said he believed her to be a divorced mother of one.
After Fields moved into his house, he witnessed frequent screaming matches on the phone or in person between her and Kemp and listened to her traumatic tales of domestic abuse. He met and physically fought Kemp on at least one occasion.
Morton said he didn't understand Fields' insistence on maintaining a relationship with Kemp but wanted to be supportive.
"I think I'm probably the biggest fool that ever drew a breath," Morton said of his trust in Fields' stories. He added that Fields' second claim that Kemp had raped her, on the day before the murder, is what prompted him to act.
As Hicks questioned Morton about the day of the murder, Kemp's family reacted viscerally to the story he told. Relatives cried and laid hands on one another's shoulders; Mitchell Kemp's son, Shane, 20, left in the middle of Morton's testimony.
Morton said he had promised his wife he would "take care of" Kemp if the man were ever on their property. When Fields brought Kemp to the farm on Aug. 24, Morton emerged from behind the house, pistol in hand, and shot Kemp in the chest five times.
He then went to get a tarp to wrap up the body. When he returned, he said, Fields was standing over Kemp and kicked and spit on his struggling body before Morton shot him once more, this time in the heart.
"He stopped struggling," Morton said, adding that at the time of the murder, he thought Kemp "got what he deserved."
Morton and Fields then buried Kemp in a large hole near the southeast corner of the property. Morton had dug the hole — approximately 12 feet deep — several months before the murder to deal with sewage problems on the farm.
As the day of testimony drew to a close, Hicks started asking Morton about events after the murder.
Morton said he wanted to call the police at the time because he was sure they could justify their actions based on the allegations of rape but that Fields grew hysterical at the suggestion.
Instead, Morton said, the two destroyed the evidence, cut ties with Morton's family members and sold the property that Morton said he once considered "sacred." With nearly $300,000 cash in hand, they decided to leave the state and eventually settled with Fields' daughter in Elberta, Ala., he said.
Hicks will continue with this line of questioning Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.
The trial, which began Monday with jury selection, is expected to extend into next week.