September 30, 2011 10:33:00 PM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- The tension in Leslie Sharp's shoulders released and her family exhaled Friday when the not guilty verdict was read in her murder trial.
After three-and-a-half hours of deliberation, an Oktibbeha County jury found Sharp, 22, acted in self-defense when she shot and killed Christopher Cole on Nov. 10, 2008 on Kelly Road.
Sharp shot and killed Cole, who was 20 at the time, following a confrontation between him, his girlfriend and another girl he was pursuing a relationship with. Sharp was in a vehicle with the two girls who were involved with Cole.
Sharp said she shot Cole seven times after he pulled out a revolver and fired a shot. Cole died at the scene.
Sharp was initially tried in May, but a juror got sick during deliberation and needed to be hospitalized, prompting Sixteenth Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard to declare a mistrial.
Sharp's family declined comment Friday.
Unlike the first trial, the jury had the option to find Sharp guilty of manslaughter if it could not reach a verdict on the murder charge.
The crux of the trial was whether Cole threatened Sharp or any of the other three girls in the car and prompted Sharp to get out and fire.
The three eyewitnesses testified that they never felt threatened by Cole, despite saying he fired his weapon and was yelling and cursing at them for confronting him.
The defense's case was strengthened by the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne, who concluded, based on the original autopsy report and Sharp's testimony, that the first bullets fired hit Cole in the front of his body, while the two entrance wounds to his back were among the last to occur.
During rebuttal, prosecutor Rhonda Hayes-Ellis recalled forensic pathologist, Dr. Adele Lewis, who performed the autopsy on Cole's body. Lewis said Wednesday that there was no way to determine which shot was fired first because of the multiple variables involved -- the position of the person shooting the gun and how the gun was angled.
Lewis stuck to that finding Friday.
"There's an infinite number of scenarios in which you can pose the shooter," Lewis said. "An honest and competent pathologist would not be able to tell you which order the shots were fired and the position of the person. It's not scientifically possible."
During closing arguments, Sharp's defense team focused on Hayne's finding, how it fit Sharp's testimony, and how the firing order contradicted the testimony of eyewitnesses. Nicole Transchina, Kayla Huffman and Alissandra Inzunza all testified that Sharp shot Cole in the back while he was walking away from them and back to his truck.
On Thursday, the prosecution moved to have evidence of Sharp's initial statement the night of the shooting admitted for rebuttal. After recessing early, Howard returned Friday and, citing case law, denied the request because the defense would have no way to address it.
But defense attorney Jack Brown opened the door for Hayes-Ellis to admit the video as evidence after he surprisingly submitted the transcript from the video. Brown wanted to note the errors in the transcription and only asked two questions to former Starkville Police Detective Maurice Johnson, who conducted the interview.
Howard allowed Hayes-Ellis to admit the video, which the prosecution used to show the contrast in Sharp's demeanor and highlight her differing accounts of the shooting. Sharp, at different points of the statement, gave varying accounts of how many shots Cole fired and when he tried to fire at her. Sharp eventually requested to write her statement for Johnson so she could get her story straight.
She remained adamant throughout the entire hour-and-a-half video that she acted in self-defense.
"He was firing," Sharp said, "trying to kill us all."
Sharp is the daughter of Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office Deputy Rick Sharp.