COLUMBIA — The courtroom filled quickly with familiar faces from the stand and spectators Tuesday morning, as proceedings drew to a close in the murder trial of Tausha L. Fields, which began June 21.
Fields is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action for the Aug. 24, 2004 killing of Mitchell W. Kemp, one of her former husbands.
Both sides agree that Fields brought Kemp to the south Boone County property she shared with then-husband Gregory W. Morton, where Morton then shot Kemp and Fields helped bury the body on the property.
However, the sides dispute the nature of Fields’ involvement.
Prosecutors argued Kemp’s murder was Fields’ idea and the result of her manipulation of Morton; defense attorneys argued Morton killed Kemp in a jealous rage and scared Fields into helping him cover up his crime.
Attorneys also debated the credibility of Fields and others involved in this case.
Jurors entered deliberation shortly before noon. As of 6 p.m., no verdict had been returned.
The “ultimate question”
Hicks began Tuesday by advising jurors to set aside the case’s agreed-upon points – mainly, the details of the murder itself – and to focus instead on the several issues of dispute.
Throughout the trial, attorneys have argued about the nature of Fields’ involvement. Hicks said the answer to this “ultimate question” depends on the answer of a much simpler one: Why did Fields bring Kemp to the Deer Park Road property on Aug. 24, 2004?
Hicks argued that Fields’ eventual explanation — that she was seeing Kemp behind Morton’s back and brought Kemp to the farm while she thought Morton was away — was plausible, but came too late, after too many lies.
Fields’ insistence that she never brought Kemp to the property was just one of several false statements she made to detectives that she admitted later, Hicks said. The prosecutor also pointed to unfounded allegations Fields reportedly made to Morton and others about Kemp’s abuse of her and her daughter, Lexie.
These “wild stories," Hicks said, might not have been entirely untrue, but they were certainly exaggerations.
“We take a kernel of truth, a nugget of truth, and we cover it in a chocolate of lies,” Hicks said.
Hicks argued that Fields’ credibility stood in stark contrast to that of two other important players in this case: Morton and Keith Jones, one of Fields' ex-boyfriends.
Hicks said Morton always owned up to his role in the crime, adding that “you can also believe Greg – and this is important – because he confessed.”
Hicks told jurors that even without Morton’s testimony, a case could have been made against Fields with testimony from Jones who testified last week.
Hicks acknowledged that Morton and Jones had become “buddies” after Jones’ relationship with Fields ended, but dismissed claims by the defense that the two had conspired against Fields as illogical.
Hicks said the defense’s argument was inconsistent with Fields’ actions following Kemp’s murder. Her changing story was an act of self-preservation, he argued,that indicates her guilt.
“She’s a liar,” Hicks argued. “Sometimes a good liar, but not a smart liar.”
“The real monster”
Fields’ attorneys indicated Tuesday that Fields’ trial had resulted from a conspiratorial manipulation of the justice system by Morton and the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Greg Morton was in a terrible position,” Hood told jurors.
The body of Kemp, a man Morton was known to have disliked, had been found on his property, riddled with bullets; Morton had multiple gun permits. He knew he needed a good attorney – and a good lie, Hood said – if he wanted to escape a first-degree murder charge and a sentence of life without parole.
And so, Hood said, Morton hooked up with “highly-esteemed Columbia attorney” Milt Harper, who used his connections in the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office to get the information he needed to create a story that took some of the heat off his client and instead implicated Fields.
Morton pleaded guilty in June 2009 to killing Kemp. Charges against him were downgraded from first- to second-degree murder in exchange for his testimony against Fields.
Hicks denied all allegations that his office had been “gaming the system.”
Hood said Morton concocted a story – accepted by the prosecution – that made Fields out to be “a conniving, manipulative monster.”
But, Hood told jurors, Morton was the real monster in this case, adding that Kemp’s murder was about Morton’s ego and his desire to control Fields.
Hood said Morton’s murder of Kemp was “an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence, a sentence stated to Tausha – ‘You will obey me.’”
Deliberation and verdict
After closing arguments, jurors were sent into deliberation with previously provided instructions about how to handle specific nuances of Fields' case.
Jurors were told to base their decision solely on the facts of the case; Fields' two charges, her admitted presence during the murder and her decision not to take the stand were not to be inferred as indications of her guilt.
Jurors are allowed to consider Fields' presence during the murder in conjunction with other evidence presented to them.
The panel must return a verdict for each charge against Fields. They must first decide if she was guilty of first-degree murder based on whether they believe she and Morton acted with the shared purpose of killing Kemp and that Fields aided or encouraged Morton to shoot Kemp. The charge could be downgraded to second-degree murder if the jury believes the crime wasn't premeditated.
If the jury finds Fields guilty of murder in any degree, they can also find her guilty of the second charge, armed criminal action.