ST. ALBANS CITY — Attorneys in the trial of Ethan Gratton agreed on one thing during the first day of proceedings: the heart of this case is the events that preceded the shooting.
The State has charged Gratton with second-degree murder for fatally shooting David Hill, and attempted second-degree murder for shooting Mark Brito. Gratton shot both on Jan. 2, 2017, outside his parents’ Georgia Mountain Road home.
In his opening remarks Wednesday morning, State’s Attorney Jim Hughes, who’s prosecuting the case, directed the jury to focus on two factors above all as they listen to testimony in the coming days: whether Gratton was protecting himself from death or serious bodily injury and, if so, whether he used appropriate force in doing so.
Hughes also urged the jury to consider whether the shooting occurred mid-assault or during a “cooling off period.”
Hughes spent most of his opening remarks informing the jury of the coming testimony, from Gratton’s neighbors, state troopers, crime scene team members, forensic analysts, a firearm expert and the doctor who conducted Hill’s autopsy.
Kelly Green, Gratton’s defense attorney, used her remarks to characterize her client as a small-town boy with no criminal record and the best intentions.
Green’s remarks were the first indication of what precipitated the shooting, details that have been entirely missing from public hearings until Wednesday, although attorneys’ statements during opening remarks are not legally considered facts or evidence.
Court affidavits and attorney statements have, until now, generally said that Hill and Brito tried to turn their skidsteer around in Gratton’s driveway, that a verbal altercation broke out and that Gratton then shot them both.
Green established critical elements of Gratton’s character before offering her characterization of the events leading up to the shooting.
She told the jury Gratton grew up hunting with his father, Jeff, that the two enjoyed target shooting and collecting guns.
She told the jury that a car crash scarred Gratton at age 13. A teenage driver with a learners permit came careening around a bend in the road on an icy December day and collided with the Grattons’ vehicle.
Green said the teen girl and her mother died in front of the Grattons. She said Gratton was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the experience, and that although he completed counseling, the incident “left a real impact on Ethan.” Green said he became hypersensitive to road safety.
She told the jury about an aortic dissection that nearly killed Jeff, and how Gratton stepped up to take on his father’s responsibilities. How he graduated Castleton with a business degree, semesters on the Dean’s List and a lot of debt. How he then moved back to his parents’ home to take care of the house and pay his debt.
Green talked about Gratton’s four years of work at the Cupboard Deli & Bakery in Jeffersonville, including his duties opening the store at 2 a.m.. She said questionable people in the area when Gratton opened led him to begin carrying a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson M&P Shield.
And then she told the jury the defense’s theory of the shooting.
The second day of 2017, Gratton’s boss told him to head home early — not a lot of customers at the Cupboard after New Year’s. Gratton’s parents had gone to bring food to friends and family.
Green said Gratton heard and felt “a rumble,” and looked out the “big picture window” of his home to see a tractor trailer unit park in front of his driveway.
Green said Gratton is a “helpful person.” She said he often offered to wash the dishes at the Cupboard Bakery despite operating the counter.
He told the trucker — Hill — that it wasn’t safe to park the tractor trailer there. Green said the Grattons’ driveway comes after a knoll and immediately before a sharp corner, and that drivers consistently speed on Georgia Mountain Road, assertions witness testimony supported later in the day.
Hill was 100 lbs. heavier and a head taller than Gratton, according to Green. She told the jury autopsy photos would confirm Hill had “huge shoulders, huge fists… and he’s just a big dude.”
Green also said Hill had a reputation in the community for being a big bully who “snaps” when frustrated or inconvenienced.
Green told the jury Hill’s response to Gratton was, “I’ll park wherever the [expletive] I want.”
Gratton went back into his house, Green went on, only to see a 27-foot-long logging skidder pull into his driveway — what she called a “kind of intimidating piece of equipment.”
Green said Gratton walked back outside to tell Hill he couldn’t turn the skidder around in the driveway. Brito drove the skidder on to Hill’s truck.
Hill was dead and Brito close five minutes later.
“What happened in those five minutes,” Green said, “is what this case is about.”
Per Green’s version of events, Gratton asked Brito who Hill was and whether Brito worked for him. Brito said he didn’t.
“This is the mistake Gratton made,” Green said: he tried to wipe dirt off the door of Hill’s truck to get the company’s phone number so he could complain.
Green said that set Hill off. That he charged at Gratton, who had turned and started back up his driveway. That Hill punched Gratton in the face and Gratton blacked out.
Green said Gratton doesn’t remember pulling his Smith & Wesson or firing. But he remembers the sound of the shots.
Green said Gratton shot at Brito while his vision blurred. She said Brito had run around the front of the truck and was “running at” Gratton.
She told the jury the State’s case hinges on Georgia Mountain Road resident Caleb McLane’s testimony that Gratton told him he went into the house to grab his gun before shooting Hill and Brito. But Green said McLane was “too rattled to even dial 911” at the time.
She told the jury she plans to call a bloodstain pattern analyst, a firearm expert, Gratton’s doctor and a specialist on the effects of a concussion.
She told the jury the State cannot prove — beyond a reasonable doubt — that Gratton was not acting in self-defense.
Seven people testified during the trial’s first day: Georgia Mountain Road residents Deanna Never and Lawrence and Robert Simon, Kelly Backus and his son Isaac, who were completing a heating job up the road, Jeff Gratton, and Brito himself.
Brito was first, but his testimony was brief.
He testified that he’d known Hill five years, that they were “pretty much family,” that he visited Hill’s house three times a week or more.
He explained the process of loading a skidsteer onto a lowboy trailer like the one Hill parked near the Gratton driveway, a process Brito estimated takes 30-45 minutes with two people.
Green asked Brito if he was aware of Hill’s reputation.
Brito said, “He was a great man.”
Green asked Brito if he played sports in high school. Brito said he did, football.
“Were you good at that?” Green asked.
“I was good at that,” Brito said. “But I was very good at hockey.”
Those in attendance laughed at that, and there were plenty in attendance: family members on each side of the room, plus a high school law class, members of the media and local attorneys. The trial was standing room only before the first testimony.
Never, the first Georgia Mountain resident to testify, works nights. She was napping when she heard anywhere from two to six shots, which she said wasn’t unusual on Georgia Mountain Road — “back country,” as Never put it.
Green questioned Never’s memory. She told police she heard two shots in her first interview, but later said there could have been up to six. Never testified she heard three shots clearly, and was unsure if there were others.
Attorneys used the Backuses to establish where the situation stood around 1:30 p.m. Both testified Hill and Gratton stood on opposite sides of the driveway when the Backuses drove past the truck around that time, and that someone seemed to be parking the skidsteer on the truck at that time.
Isaac testified they heard seven to nine gunshots about five minutes after parking their van at a residence not far from the Grattons’.
The Simons’ testimony served a similar purpose. The two men passed the scene around the same time as the Backuses and described Hill and Gratton in similar positions.
Hughes asked Robert if anything out of the ordinary happened the rest of the day.
“Later, when my nephew came by, he said, ‘I couldn’t get to the dentist, there’s a dead guy lying in the road,’” Robert said. “That was about it.”
Jeff Gratton described his arrival at the scene of the crime with his wife, Pam.
Jeff said he saw two bodies on the ground near the tractor trailer. He got out of the car and investigated. He said McLane appeared beside him, that he’d noticed McLane’s car parked nearby.
Jeff said Hill’s shoulders weren’t moving, so he assumed he was dead, whereas Brito was breathing, despite blood in his mouth.
Jeff said he didn’t want Brito to drown from his own blood, but he wasn’t strong enough to turn him over. He said he asked McLane for help, but McLane said he didn’t want to touch the body.
Jeff said Pam called 911 and he called Gratton and asked him to come out of the house.
Jeff said Gratton told him he shot the guys, and that Hill broke his nose. Per Jeff, Gratton said he’d been in the bathroom, trying to shift his smashed nose back into place.
Jeff said Gratton was “hysterical,” so he directed him to Pam, who was sitting in the car. Jeff said Pam has a way of calming Gratton “in these situations.”
Gratton’s parents were afraid he could be shot by police, based on the wave of police shootings in national media coverage at the time, so Jeff took Gratton’s pistol, made sure it was safe, and put it in the back of the car for police.
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