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Searls verdict waits until Monday

Jul. 12, 2013 @ 03:41 PM

HUNTINGTON — The jury in the trial of Aaron Alexander Searls will wait until Monday to begin deliberations. They announced that decision in court shortly after 3:40 p.m.

Cabell Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell accepted that decision and instructed them to return at 9 a.m. Monday.

Closing arguments in the case finished just after 3 p.m. Friday.

One woman was excused as an alternate leaving eight women and four men to deliberate upon a verdict. Deliberations were to shortly after a 3:25 p.m. recess. A verdict could come later in the day.

Both sides rested just after 10:15 a.m. Friday, following a decision a short time earlier by Searls not to testify in his own defense.

The state presented two rebuttal witnesses, both of whom testified as to forensic evidence in the case.

Other events from Friday morning has included testimony from two defense witnesses who spoke of injuries Searls received on the night of the fatal shooting. Another woman, also for the defense, testified to a dispute the victim, Larry John Keaton Jr., had been at another bar earlier that evening.

The quick-moving events increase the likeihood jury deliberations will begin later Friday. Cabell Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell allowed the jury to take a long lunch, instructing them to return at 12:30 p.m. when he will begin a reading of instructions. Closing arguments will follow.

On Thursday, a two-hour, video interview with police provided jurors Thursday with murder suspect Aaron Alexander Searls' side of a dispute that led to the death of a Catlettsburg, Ky., man.

Searls' statement was laced with profanities, showcased a wide range of emotion including suicidal thoughts, and contained his dire insistence that the 29-year-old fired his laser-guided pistol in self-defense. The video included Searls re-creating the night's events, demonstrating for investigators that the deceased, Larry John Keaton Jr., exited the bar first and he followed only to be jumped without reason.

"I go out the back door and that guy just grabbed a hold of me, starting hitting on me, starting choking me and said he was going to kill me," Searls told investigators. "He slammed me to the ground and I tried to break free ... He said he was going to kill me. I felt threatened for my life like I've never felt threatened."

The video, which showed two separate interviews with police, came in the third day of testimony in Searls' murder trial. He is charged in the Jan. 9, 2012, shooting of Keaton outside of The Lounge, a Huntington bar in the 1500 block of 3rd Avenue. Keaton, 45, died at a local hospital a short time later.

Both sides have argued the man they represent acted in self-defense.

Thursday's video, which was taken within hours of the shooting, stood in contrast to surveillance video and testimony from the victim's girlfriend, a bartender and another man who said they tried to calm Searls earlier that night. His frequent profanities and fluctuating emotions also were consistent with the bartender's testimony.

Searls blamed his inconsistency as to who exited the bar first on confusion, perhaps related to his night of drinking alcohol and head injuries suffered in the beating that he claimed as motivation for him to fire the fatal gunshots.

The statement was introduced during testimony from the case's lead investigator, Huntington Police Cpl. Ryan Bentley. The video and related discussion closed out the prosecution's case about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

The defense followed with one witness and will continue presenting its case at 9 a.m. Friday, July 12. A verdict remains possible by late Friday.

On Thursday, defense attorneys Abraham Saad and Dennis Kelley attempted to poke holes in the prosecution's case by calling attention to evidence not collected and tested. Their first witness, forensics expert Larry M. Dehus, testified gunpowder on Searls' jacket and other evidence led him to believe the gunshots were fired at closer range than prosecution experts had concluded.

Searls' statement, starting at 5:52 a.m. Jan. 9, 2012, opened with him crying for police to help him notify his wife and a mention that he had been scheduled to begin classes that morning at Mountwest Community & Technical College. He planned to study network security software.

Searls repeatedly said the man who attacked him was a stranger. He insisted Keaton exited first, stood outside in wait and grabbed the defendant as he stepped outside. He insisted investigators review surveillance video to corroborate his story and when the video showed otherwise he remained adamant he was attacked.

"All I can remember is that I'm a victim and that I wasn't doing anything wrong," Searls told detectives. "I wasn't talking (expletive) to anybody. I wasn't manipulating anybody. I wasn't provoking anybody. I was just there. And the guy attacked me. So maybe I got my facts a little bit backward."

Searls' continually mentioned the crime-focused newsmagazine "48 Hours," and accused the detectives of already having made up their mind.

Bentley and fellow detective Chris Sperry denied Searls' assertion and repeatedly urged him to provide evidence that would support his version of events and offset the surveillance video and witness accounts. They specifically pointed to the presence of a laser sight on Searls' pistol and the girlfriend's mention of such a laser in her initial statement as bolstering her story over his.

Searls called the girlfriend's account that he pointed the laser at both her and Keaton "a straight up lie."

"I never pulled my gun out, ever," Searls told police. "Never pulled my gun out for any reason. You can't show me anywhere on any video where I pulled out my gun and pointed it at any woman or any man. You can't. I mean I didn't. That's crazy."

After Searls was informed of Keaton's death, Sperry repeatedly urged Searls to calm down and take deep breaths, but he responded saying, "it's game over." He later mentioned suicide as a better alternative, talked about the potential impact on his marriage and voluntarily stood for several minutes with his hands in a position for arrest.

"My life is over," he told police. "It doesn't matter if I'm guilty or not guilty, my life is over. It's over."

Searls had owned the pistol since he turned 21. He told the detectives it was his first weapon, and one that he legally carried everywhere courtesy of his concealed carry permit. He further claimed to have never pulled it on anyone prior to the Jan. 9, 2012, shooting and said he had thoroughly studied state and federal laws as to when he could use deadly force.

"I never was looking for an excuse to hurt somebody," he told them. "I just wanted to be left alone and I know I'm so tiny, that's why I carry a gun, because I'm so little. Somebody can just take advantage of me so easy."

Also included in the video were statements by Bentley suggesting he believed Searls neither fired the weapon with malice nor with the intent to kill, both of which are prerequisites for a first-degree murder conviction. He told jurors those statements were simply a strategy to befriend Searls with hopes to keep him calm and get more information.

Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.



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