Police chief not guilty of assault

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 20, 2004

LINDEN – Cuba Police Chief Chris Vaughan has been acquitted of charges that he assaulted the suspect in a Sumter County murder case.

Sitting stoically through nearly three hours of testimony and attorney summations, Vaughan listened as a Marengo County jury found him innocent on Tuesday of assaulting Anthony Collins. The jury took less than 25 minutes to deliver its verdict.

The break for Vaughan’s defense attorneys Belinda Weldon and Eric Guster came when a key state witness testified that Vaughan acted properly when he fired six shots at Collins.

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“I believe it to be a justified shooting,” said Agent Greg Hodges, who investigated the case for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation.

Hodges was called by District Attorney Greg Griggers to testify about specific evidence found on July 19, 2003, near U.S. Highway 80 in Sumter County. Earlier that night, Collins had been involved in an altercation with his stepfather, Gethsemane “Pappy” Walker, who was shot and killed.

According to testimony given by Collins on Tuesday, he and Walker “got into a tussle” over two guns – a rifle and a pistol. While Collins said he doesn’t remember what happened and how his stepfather was killed, he testified that he took the pistol and began walking down U.S. 80.

Vaughan was called to the crime scene that night, and upon passing Collins on the highway, Vaughan stopped and began talking to the suspect.

Photos introduced as evidence in the Tuesday trial showed blood along Vaughan’s police car, and Collins admitted during direct examination that he and Vaughan stood at the trunk of the car talking.

“He said, ‘Come on, talk to me,'” Collins said of his conversation with Vaughan.

As his testimony continued, Collins suggested that after a brief conversation with the police chief, he walked away with a pistol in his hand.

“I left… and he said ‘Hold it.’,” Collins said. “Then he starts to shooting.”

Defense attorneys painted a different picture of the meeting between Collins and Vaughan. They introduced evidence that Collins acted violently during his conversation with the police chief, and that he even pointed a gun at the chief.

Hodges suggested that he likely would have defended himself much sooner than Vaughan did against the actions of Collins.

Collins was transported to Rush Hospital in Meridian after he sustained three gunshot wounds.

Upon cross examination during the trial, Guster drilled Collins on his recollections about the incident, beginning with Collins’ blood alcohol level that night.

“I had two or three beers,” Collins testified. However, defense attorneys introduced evidence that Collins’ BAC was .14 – almost twice the legal limit.

On another round of questions, in which defense attorneys dug into Collins’ recollections of the death of Pappy Walker, Collins pleaded the Fifth Amendment – a Constitutional right that a person can refuse to answer incriminating questions.

At another point, Collins was asked if he shot a gun into the air.

“I’m going to plead the Fifth,” he said again.

To Guster, Collins’ testimony was the key to Vaughan’s acquittal as much as Hodges’ testimony that the Chief was justified in shooting the suspect.

“Anthony Collins took the stand and lied and lied and lied,” Guster said. “He took the Fifth Amendment when he had already testified about an altercation.”

Guster also agreed that Hodges’ testimony helped defense attorneys seal a fairly open-and-close case.

“These were frivolous accusations from the start,” Guster said. “Because [Walker’s murder was involved], it required the district attorney to present this to the jurors. But it was a case that had no merit.”

Griggers did not regret bringing the case to trial. He did, however, believe the jury made the right decision.

“Based on the evidence, I think the verdict was fair, and I think it supported the evidence,” Griggers said after the trial.

Much of the hype surrounding the early stages of this case was noticeably absent Tuesday. In the weeks and months following the incident between Vaughan and Collins, a group of protestors called for the prosecution and firing of Vaughan. At one point, protestors planned a march from Cuba to the Sumter County Courthouse in Livingston. That march never transpired, and the ire toward Vaughan was undetected in the Marengo County Courthouse on Tuesday.

Collins, who was the first to testify in the half-day trial, often scampered in and out of Judge Eddie Hardaway’s courtroom. For the first hour, he was flanked by three friends, who left soon after Collins’ completed his testimony.

The trial was held in Linden, as opposed to Livingston, because Hardaway granted a motion for a change of venue following a great deal of media coverage of the case. However, only one media outlet was present during the trial. During the trial, Hardaway denied another motion for acquittal by the defense.

Guster said he expects Vaughan to reassume his position as police chief in Cuba.

“He’s relieved. Everyone’s relieved,” Guster said of his client. “This entire thing is a shame because [Vaughan] was protecting the folks in Cuba. He put his life on the line that night and he didn’t deserve this.”

While Tuesday’s verdict acquits Vaughan of any criminal charges, he and the city of Cuba have been sued in civil court by Collins and some of his family members.

Collins, meanwhile, faces trial on charges that he murdered his stepfather.