August 15, 2013 10:49:25 AM
Sarah Fowler - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The body of Laura Lee Holliman was discovered mere feet from her wedding dress, law enforcement testified Wednesday.
Testimony continued Wednesday in the murder trail of Brian Holliman, who stands accused of killing his wife, Laura Lee Holliman, on Oct. 25, 2008, in the couple's Caledonia home.
In a surprise move, shortly after the state rested its case this morning, the defense rested its case, calling no witnesses.
Wednesday's testimony focused on the investigation of the death and three statements the defendant made before being charged with murder.
Investigator Eli Perrigen of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department identified photos Wednesday morning during the murder trial.
The photos showed Laura Lee Holliman's body lying in her bedroom less than two feet from her wedding dress. Holliman is charged with murdering Laura Lee after he allegedly shot her in the face with a shotgun.
Photos entered into evidence by District Attorney Forrest Allgood showed the victim's feet lying partially inside the closet with her upper body lying towards the couple's bed.
Perrigen said that when he arrived at the home he asked to speak to Holliman, but was told that he was at his parents' home. While waiting for Holliman to return to the scene, Perrigen entered the house. He testified that he immediately saw bloody footprints throughout the residence. Perrigen testified that the bedroom was a "tight" space and "very cluttered," so much so that at one point a deputy had to stand on the bed to get a proper angle for to take a crime scene photo.
Photos showed Laura Lee's body lying on the floor in a pool of blood with her feet partially inside the closet with her wedding dress hanging less than two feet away, a shoe rack hanging on the back of the closet door with splatters of blood and flesh as well as photos of the bed with the bedspread half on, half off and piles of clothes and shoes on the floor.
Due to the position of the body and her right arm partially covering her face, Perrigen said investigators had to move the bed to see where Laura Lee received the fatal wound.
"Once we moved the bed and moved her arm, and moved the shotgun, you could actually see the wound," Perrigen said.
Photos of Laura Lee's body were placed on the courtroom projector while Perrigen described the scene. While some jurors could be seen leaning in to get a better view, Laura Lee's mother exited the courtroom in tears.
Allgood questioned Perrigen on a photo that showed Laura Lee's right ring finger nearly severed. Perrigen testified that her hands later tested positive for gunshot residue. He said the line of powder on Laura Lee's finger was consistent with the choke on the Remington .380 shotgun used in her death.
In addition to the blood, hair and flesh found on the closet door, Perrigen testified that gun tracks were found on the bottom of a shelf in the master bedroom closet. He said the shelf was "a little bit higher" than the closet door by approximately one foot. Shotgun wading, pieces of a shotgun pellet and parts of Laura Lee's broken necklace was also found on the floor.
Investigator questions Holliman
Perrigen said he left the home to retrieve something from his car as Brian Holliman approached him.
"During this time he was crying, mumbling and he told me that he was outside he heard a noise, a loud noise. He said he ran inside. Once he made it inside, that's when he found Laura Lee lying on the floor with a shotgun and apparently she had killed herself."
According to Perrigen, Brian Holliman then said Laura Lee had mentioned wanting to take the easy way out.
"He told me that Laura Lee had been having problems, health problems. She had made statement to him about wanting to go, take the easy way out," Perrigen testified. The investigator added that Holliman said after Laura Lee mentioned "wishing she had a bullet" he had taken all of the guns out of the house. Holliman told Perrigen that he had forgotten to remove the shotgun from under the bed. He said the shotgun was "always under the bed, loaded with one round in the chamber with the safety off."
Perrigen said he told Holliman that he would need to test his skin and his clothing for gunshot residue and Holliman replied that he had already washed his face and his hands. Perrigen said he then asked Holliman to ride with him to the sheriff's department to give a statement. The investigator testified that once he asked Holliman to give a statement, he offered an explanation for potentially having gunshot residue on his clothes.
"His demeanor changed," Perrigen said. "He started asking me a few questions. He said he had been shooting, probably an hour to two hours before that, sighting his gun for hunting season. He said there could be some stuff on his clothing from shooting."
Perrigen, Brian Holliman and Brian Holliman's brother, Brad, rode to the sheriff's department in Perrigen's car for Brian Holliman to make a statement. On the way to the department, Perrigen said Holliman did not appear to be upset.
"There was no crying or nothing like that on the way down there. He was talking normal to us...we're talking normal, carrying on a general conversation, more or less."
Perrigen said that once at the sheriff's department he did not read Holliman his Miranda rights because Holliman was not under arrest at the time. Holliman then wrote a two page statement of his account of the shooting.
In the statement, Holliman said Laura Lee had taken a shower and changed into a pair of pajamas. Brian Holliman said he went outside to play with the children and had been outside for "15 to 20 minutes" when he heard a gunshot.
"I ran into the house to see what was going on and there she was laid out with my gun," the statement read.
On Oct. 28, three days after the shooting, Perrigen said he and several other investigators returned to the scene. Once in the bedroom, the investigators discovered a gun cabinet hidden behind Laura Lee's wedding dress. Perrigen said the cabinet contained three guns -- two shotguns and a rifle. A third slot in the cabinet was empty.
Perrigen testified the cabinet was dusty but the empty slot was dust free. "It was all covered in dust on the inside of the gun cabinet. It appeared as if somebody had had their hand in the gun cabinet fairly recently," he said, which raised an objection from Holliman's attorney, Steve Farese. The objection was sustained and Perrigen reworded his statement saying, "I saw a mark, rub marks, where the dust had been disturbed. It was very clean looking. When I say clean looking, I mean there was no dust. There was dust all the way around it but there was no dust."
There was also a box of 12-gauge shell casings and several loose 20 gauge shells in the cabinet, Perrigen said.
After the results of the autopsy came back as a homicide and not a suicide, Perrigen said he called Holliman and told him "some things weren't adding up." Holliman agreed to come to the department and speak with Perrigen. Once at the department, Holliman gave investigators a second statement that differed from his first. In his second statement, Holliman admitted to accidentally shooting Laura Lee during an argument. Holliman did not receive his Miranda rights before giving his second statement.
Perrigen read the statement aloud:
"Me and Laura Lee was fussing with each other about where she was going and it did get a little loud...I went into the backyard to play with the kids and Laura Lee stayed in the bed in our bedroom.
"My youngest daughter wanted to see her mother. Instead of the baby waking her up, I went in there to check and see if she was awake...I went back in the bedroom and I noticed my shotgun between the gun cabinet and the wall. I usually keep it there or under my bed. I thought I had put it under the bed the day before so when I saw it in the corner after what she had said the day before I was concerned with it being out of place. I always kept that gun and only that gun with a shell in the chamber and the safety off. I picked the gun up and I heard clothes rattling in the closet.
"I had the gun in one hand and the other hand I was opening the closet door. I saw that Laura Lee had her cellphone in her hand. At this point, the gun was pointed up. I opened the door and Laura Lee was in there. I then asked her what she was doing and I told her, 'This is not going to happen.'
"In the process of talking, I was bringing the gun down leveling it off with both hands pointed toward her. The barrel touched her upper body and she grabbed hold of the barrel. She pushed the barrel away from her and the gun went off.
"I didn't mean to pull the trigger and I didn't realize my finger was on the trigger. She then fell and I dropped the gun. The gun landed cross-ways on her body. I then threw the gun toward her feet and then tried to call my mom on my cell phone and I then called 911 on my house phone. The lady told me to check her for a pulse. I touched her nose, hand, and then shook her. The lady asked was she breathing and I told her no...In the general time I picked the shotgun back up and placed it on her body. I put it back on her body to make it look like a suicide because I didn't want people to think I shot her..."
On Oct. 29, Holliman was arrested and charged with his wife's murder. He was transported to the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center. That night, Perrigen said he received a call from jail personnel who claimed Holliman was acting out the scene in his jail cell. Perrigen went to the jail and spoke with Holliman who said he needed to tell the investigator another piece of information that had been "bothering him."
Perrigen, Holliman and detective Tony Cooper sat in Cooper's office as Holliman gave a third statement. Holliman was advised of his Miranda rights but waived them, Perrigen said. Perrigen said Holliman admitted to intentionally pointing the gun at Laura Lee to frighten her.
His third statement read:
"When I went to the bedroom I was looking for Laura and I didn't see her. I heard the clothes rattling and I opened the closet door. I had the gun in my hands and I was pointing it in the air. I was upset because Laura wouldn't tell me where she was going. I was asking her where she was going. On purpose, I pointed the gun at Laura to scare her to tell me where she was going...I told her I wanted to know where my wife was going if I was going to be at home with the kids.
"As I was lowering the gun, Laura shocked up and it hit her in the upper body. Laura was standing about two foot from me and then end of the barrel was touching her. I don't remember how she did it, but I remember she hit the gun and I was jarred and the gun went off.
"When I put the shotgun back in Laura's hands, I put her finger on the trigger and placed the gun on her to make it look like a suicide. I had gone back in the house to check on Laura and the 911 woman was still talking to me.
"My girls were coming in the house and I got them back outside. While I was talking to 911, I was thinking that even if it was an accident I was going to get locked up. I told the lady on 911 to hold a second. I laid the phone down and I picked the gun up to Laura's hand. I think I touched at least one of Laura's fingers to the trigger so there would be her fingerprints on it.
"I laid the gun back down. I touched her on the nose and said I was sorry..."
Brian Holliman then signed and initialed his third and final statement after Detective Cooper typed it.
On cross examination, Farese noted that the Holliman case was Perrigen's first murder case as an investigator.
Farese then asked Perrigen if he had ever lied under oath. Referring to the 2009 trial, Farese recalled that Perrigen's affidavit said Holliman shot Laura Lee in the head. Perrigen said he misspoke and meant to say upper body.
During Farese's questioning of Perrigen, Allgood repeatedly objected to Farese saying Perrigen "lied."
Perrigen told Farese he was human and made mistakes, saying, "Sometimes when we get into the middle of stuff, you do things that you don't really know you've done. We're all human beings. We're not perfect and we make mistakes. Lord knows, I've had my share of mistakes, but I didn't intentionally lie."
Farese then asked Perrigen to step down from the witness box and, without either directly pointing the gun at the other, the two acted out what could have happened that Saturday.
After Perrigen returned to his seat in the witness box, Farese asked the detective if Holliman ever confessed to intentionally shooting his wife. Perrigen said he had not.
Dr. Lisa Funte, a forensic pathology expert and the medical examiner who performed Laura Lee's autopsy, then took the stand as the state's witness.
Funte testified that Laura Lee's injuries included a hinge fracture which severed the base of her skull, inter-cranial hemorrhaging, pellet wounds and tissue missing from the left side of her face, jaw fracture and injury to branches of vessels in her face. In addition to the wounds on her face and neck, Laura Lee's right ring finger had been nearly shot off at the joint. She also had several abrasions on the back of her hands as well as bruises and contusions on her body.
In her medical opinion, Funte said Laura Lee's death was not a suicide.
She said the gunshot wound could be consistent with Laura Lee pushing the gun away but could also be consistent with pushing gun away during a struggle.
On cross examination, Funte conceded that she could not determine what position Laura Lee's body was in when she was shot.
Funte could not speak on the trajectory pattern after Howard ruled Tuesday afternoon that Funte was not a "trajectory expert."
The state then called David Whitehead with the Mississippi Crime Lab. The crime lab performed the gunshot residue tests on the body. Whitehead said the deceased had gunshot residue on her right hand, right palm and back of left hand. No traces of the powder were found on her left palm.
Brain Holliman's gunshot residue test came back negative. Whitehead said if someone washed their hands, the powder is likely to disappear.
"If you wash your hands you would remove the residue," Whitehead said. "This stuff is a powder, it's on top of the skin, it's not embedded so washing will remove the residue."
Steve Byrd, also with the Mississippi Crime Lab, was then called on behalf of the state. Byrd works in the firearms divisions and routinely performs "drop tests" and "jar tests" on weapons. Byrd testified that during numerous drop tests and jar tests, Holliman's confiscated Remington .380 failed to fire. He maintained the pump action gun did not have a "hair trigger" and would not fire unless the trigger was pulled. Byrd testified that when tested, the weapon had been fired under five and a half pounds of pressure on the trigger.
Several male jurors were leaning forwarding during Byrd's testimony and nodded several times as he described the gun's characteristics.
With the close of Byrd's testimony, the state rested.
The defense rested this morning without calling any witness and closing arguments began.
If convicted of murder, Holliman faces the possibility of life in prison.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.