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Jurors return not guilty verdict in Tabor football player’s death

  • Hutchinson News
  • Published Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at 7:41 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at 7:41 p.m.

— After two hours of deliberations, a jury of seven men and five women decided that a former McPherson College football player was not guilty of second-degree murder, alleging he unintentionally and recklessly killed a rival player last September outside of a house party in McPherson.

McPherson County jurors began deliberating shortly before noon Tuesday in the seventh day of trial for 20-year-old Dallas native Alton Franklin, charged in the death of 26-year-old Brandon Brown, a defensive lineman for Tabor College in Hillsboro. Prosecutors alleged Franklin attacked Brown amid the party in September, and that co-defendant and fellow McPherson College football player DeQuinte Flournoy held Brown down.

By Tuesday afternoon, Franklin was being discharged from the McPherson County Jail and released from a $250,000 bond, as ordered by Judge Richard Walker.

An autopsy indicated Brown died as a result of blunt-force trauma to the head, with acute alcohol intoxication a contributing cause. He was found on the ground, unconscious, alone and bleeding from the mouth, after a party early Sept. 16 at 438 N. Carrie St. in McPherson, where two McPherson College football players lived. Brown, a Sacramento, Calif., native, was airlifted to a Wichita hospital, where he died six days later.

In closing arguments, McPherson County Attorney David Page told jurors that Franklin “sucker-punched” Brown twice — a backhand and then a right punch to Brown’s left cheekbone, which fractured — and that he also hit Brown while Brown was on the ground.

Defense attorney David Harger countered there was no evidence Franklin struck Brown except for statements from witnesses whose stories changed multiple times. He noted there was no evidence of injuries to Franklin’s hands, something “you’d expect on someone who’s hit someone repeatedly” in the head. Medical personnel testified the only injuries to Brown were his fractured cheekbone and the injury above his right ear.

An autopsy also indicated Brown’s blood-alcohol content was .30 — nearly four times the legal limit — and attorneys offered different takes on Brown’s actions that night.

Harger noted witnesses testified Brown and another Tabor College player, Ilai Eteaki, were the “instigators,” drinking Everclear straight from the bottle, being disruptive at the party, and eventually being kicked out by McPherson College players. Once the Tabor players were outside, those who were inside heard loud pounding on the door and then saw Eteaki throw a sign into the front window, according to testimony from McPherson College player Taajon Richardson and Franklin’s videotaped statements to investigators.

Harger told jurors that if they believed Franklin struck Brown at all, then the state had to prove it wasn’t self-defense or in defense of others, beyond a reasonable doubt. Richardson and Flournoy testified they saw Brown with a knife, and Harger reminded jurors there were nine puncture marks in the front door.

Page, however, reminded jurors that police testified the knife belonged to Eteaki, that Eteaki’s blood was found on the knife, and that Eteaki also had lacerations on his hands. Pointing to the low puncture marks on the door, which was displayed in the courtroom, Page said it was more likely Eteaki used the knife to make those marks.

“Brandon didn’t make those marks unless he lay on the ground,” Page said. “Counsel is trying to merge Eteaki’s behavior into Brandon … (You) can’t do it.”

Harger also pointed to inconsistencies in witnesses’ statements — and the lack of some witnesses.

In three interviews with investigators, Richardson first said he knew nothing, then said Franklin struck Brown once, and in a third interview, after learning Brown died, said Franklin struck Brown multiple times. McPherson College football player Torry Hamill initially denied wielding a 6-foot-long wooden board outside of the party but later acknowledged he held it like a baseball bat but put it down after a friend advised him to. No blood was found on the board.

Flournoy, who prior to Franklin’s trial pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of aggravated battery indicating he aided and abetted in the crime, testified he saw Brown trying to get up off the ground and pushed his head down but said he didn’t see Franklin hit Brown. Franklin, in his interview with investigators, “never wavered” in denying he struck Brown, Harger said.

Harger questioned the state’s allegations that Franklin, 197 pounds and 5-feet-6-inches tall, picked out an intoxicated Brown, more than 300 pounds and 6-feet-4-inches tall, as an “easy target” outside of the party. He also questioned why several other people who were at the party and interviewed by police didn’t testify, including Eteaki and DeMarcus Trotter, captain of the McPherson College football team who lived at 438 N. Carrie St.

People who did testify, however, said they didn’t see Brown outside at first and described he was “minding his own business,” walking back toward the house from down the street, while Trotter confronted Eteaki about the broken window, Page said.

“He wasn’t holding a knife, he wasn’t yelling — he was standing and watching,” Page said of Brown. “ … Self-defense doesn’t work when a person is just standing there.”

Harger told jurors neither Franklin nor anyone else but a medical professional could’ve foreseen Brown would develop a severe case of negative pressure pulmonary edema, which possibly occurred due to an obstruction in the upper airway combined with Brown’s attempt to breathe. A doctor testified people who are more muscular “can have breathing muscles generating a negative force, even when they’re unconscious,” and Harger suggested it was Brown’s high level of intoxication that rendered him unconscious. He noted officers at the scene who were heard on videotape laughing or joking around while Brown was on the ground also couldn’t foresee what was happening to Brown and likely thought it was a routine fight after they’d responded to a noise complaint.

The jury considered a second-degree murder charge and a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, both alleging Franklin unintentionally but recklessly killed Brown, but the murder charge alleged Franklin acted with “extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

“Guess the state’s conclusion is that anybody who’s ever thrown a punch in a fight is depraved,” Harger told jurors.

Page argued Franklin shouldn’t “get a pass” just because he doesn’t understand the pulmonary condition.

“Sucker-punching someone twice, then hitting him in the head when he’s raising his head … you ought to know there’s a substantial risk that something like that could occur,” Page told the jury.

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