Convict seeks new trial in Miles Heard murder

Friday, April 19, 2013 | 4:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:15 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 20, 2013

FULTON — Defense attorney Cinda Eichner peppered District Defender David Wallis with questions about the way he defended Grady Dortch in his 2009 murder trial.

She asked why he didn't call William Stapleton, whom she called a "key witness," to the stand. All Wallis could offer was what he wrote on a sticky note attached to the top of his case file: “Stapleton not good for us!!”


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Wallis wasn't sure what made him think Stapleton wouldn't have helped in the defense of Dortch, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the murder of Miles Heard in Douglass Park. But he insisted he had good reasons.

Stapleton’s absence on the witness stand, Eichner said, kept the court from hearing key testimony in the original trial.

At a Friday morning hearing in the Callaway County Courthouse, Judge Christine Carpenter heard arguments from Dortch and state attorneys about whether he deserves a retrial. She chose to wait to issue a decision and gave both sides 30 days to submit written arguments.

Stapleton took the stand to tell an account of the shooting in which Dortch acted in self-defense. He said he saw Dortch pull into Douglass Park, talk to Heard, and return to his vehicle. When Dortch started driving out of the park, Heard ran after him and tried to open the driver’s-side door. That’s when shots were fired.

“I’d say three or four shots,” Stapleton said. Dortch laughed quietly, shaking his head.

Stapleton said Heard had a gun and that one of Heard's friends took it and chased after Dortch after the shooting.

When police questioned him at the scene, Stapleton didn't tell them he saw Heard with a gun.

“That’s because they never asked me that,” Stapleton said. “They were just in a rush to find (Dortch). I know my people. They’ll try to flash a pistol, intimidate you. That’s what (Heard) did.”

A retrial is also justified, Eichner said, because Dortch didn't testify in the original trial and two jurors were partial in giving credibility to testimony of law enforcement.

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Morrell used her cross examination of Wallis to dismiss the claim that the two jurors were partial and to show that Dortch had chosen not to testify.

After Wallis, Dortch took the stand, telling Eichner that the plan from the start of the trial was to testify only if necessary.

“If I didn’t need to get on the stand, I didn’t want to get on the stand,” Dortch said.

His tone changed before sentencing, when he wrote a letter to Judge Gene Hamilton, who presided over the trial, saying he wasn't given the right to testify. He said there was miscommunication between him and his attorneys.

“During this trial, you advised me of my right to testify,” Dortch wrote in the letter. “I didn’t want to, but I changed my mind.”

In cross-examination, Dortch admitted he didn't express a desire to take the stand to either of his attorneys, Wallis or Sarah Watson, before the defense rested its case.

Morrell attacked Dortch’s testimony, getting him to admit that he pulled his gun first in the encounter with Heard. Dortch said he pulled the gun because he assumed Heard wouldn't have approached his vehicle without having a weapon on him.

“That’s my best friend,” Dortch said of Heard. “He knows me. He knows I have a gun.”

The “best friends” had two fights in the weeks before the murder: a fist fight at Pepper’s, a night club, and an argument at a gas station because Heard handed Dortch counterfeit money.

After leaving the witness stand, Dortch returned slowly to his seat, sat in his chair, closed his eyes and hung his head. 

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.

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