A Sedgwick County jury began deliberations Friday in a first-degree murder trial that started just six weeks after a key witness committed suicide.
But the testimony that the deceased witness gave at an earlier hearing proved to be some of the strongest evidence that prosecutors had in their case against Travis Knighten.
Knighten, 20, is charged in the May 7, 2011, shooting death of Mario Brown, 22, at an after-hours party in a parking lot at the southwest corner of 13th and Hillside.
Witnesses on the ground that night said the fatal shots were fired from the front passenger seat of an SUV as it drove through the parking lot. Three occupants of the SUV said Knighten was in the front passenger seat when the shots were fired, but said they did not see him fire a gun.
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Arthur Gary, who was driving the SUV, testified at a preliminary hearing in May 2012 that Knighten was the shooter.
Gary’s body was found on the banks of the Arkansas River last month, and a coroner’s report said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. District Judge Terry Pullman told jurors that Gary had died, but he did not tell them the cause of death.
A transcript of Gary’s preliminary hearing testimony was read to the jury Thursday. Gary testified at that hearing that in the moments before the shooting, Brown and another man were “mugging and tripping” – giving intimidating looks – to the people in the SUV as it drove through the parking lot.
“Did they start walking toward you?” he was asked.
“One of them did, yes,” he testified.
“The one that got shot?”
Gary also said he saw Knighten with a gun.
“I seen him pull a gun out of his right pocket,” he said.
“Did you actually see Travis shooting the gun?” he was asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Evidence at the trial showed that police identified the SUV with the help of a surveillance camera, and that detectives were able to identify Gary as the driver. But Gary left town shortly after the shooting and wasn’t located until December. When he was finally interviewed, he identified all five people who were in the SUV on the night of the shooting and identified Knighten as the shooter.
Defense lawyer Gary Owens argued that aside from the testimony of the people in the SUV, there was little evidence to show that Knighten was in the passenger seat of the SUV that night. He suggested that all the witnesses in the SUV were pointing fingers at Knighten in order to protect Gary, who Owens suggested was the real shooter. Owens noted that none of the witnesses went to police after the shooting.
“We don’t have from anyone outside that vehicle that my client, Mr. Knighten, had anything to do with that shooting,” he said. “The state hasn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Travis was in that car.”
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Amyx suggested that the witnesses were afraid to tell police what they knew.
“You’ve got a bunch of 19-year-olds in a car who don’t know what to do after a murder, so they all bury their heads in the sand,” she said.
Amyx said Knighten is the only one who knows the real motive for the shooting.
“He and he alone knows why he shot Mario Brown,” she said.