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Two-year-old Huntington murder case heading toward trial in December

HUNTINGTON — Attorneys met last week to sort through final motions as they prepare to go to trial in early December in the death of a man in his West Huntington home.

Ronald Amory Witherel, 42, is charged with murder and first-degree robbery in the July 19, 2017, slaying of David Ralph in the 800 block of Virginia Avenue in Huntington. The first-degree robbery charge stems from the theft of a chain from around a man’s neck nine days prior to Ralph’s slaying.

After several continuances due to attorney changes and delay in evidence testing in the two-and-a-half years since the slaying, attorneys are all expecting the trial to go on as planned at 9 a.m. Dec. 3.

On the night of the homicide, Ralph’s live-in girlfriend told police she woke up after hearing a noise and saw Witherel, who had worked for the victim’s construction business, standing inside the home. He left, and she tended to the victim, who later died.

During a motions hearing Wednesday, attorneys said Ralph had suffered four injuries to his body, including one severe injury to his neck. Police previously said he had suffered “cutting” injuries.

Witherel’s girlfriend at the time told police the pair had left their home with two men earlier in the evening and drove Witherel to the victim’s home on the evening of Ralph’s death. One of the men later directed detectives to bloody jeans and shoes in a garbage can in South Point, Ohio.

Although Witherel told the men a dog had bitten him, the men told detectives that Witherel was wearing bloody clothing and had high adrenaline when he left the victim’s home.

Among the arguments heard Wednesday attorneys debated whether his charges should be split into two trials, what photos would be shared at trial, how a medical examiner on the case would be allowed to testify and what witness testimony would be allowed.

In the first motion, defense attorney Todd Meadows requested the robbery and murder charges be tried separately because they surrounded two different events nine days apart with different evidence and details. He said Witherel has a right to testify to one event, but not the other, if he chooses.

Wayne County Prosecutor Tom Plymale, who was assigned to the case after the Cabell County Prosecutor’s Office was recused, said both victims knew each other and had worked together in their business, which the defendant would have known. He called the events a “common scheme plan” and said the cases are intertwined in evidence.

While Cabell Circuit Judge Gregory Howard originally denied the request, he later said he would not yet rule on it after Witherel confirmed he wished to testify to the robbery charge, but not the murder. Defense attorney Kerry Nessel said Witherel would sign a binding document to uphold his statement.

The defense also requested to exclude or limit the amount of photos from the crime scene and autopsy that would be allowed to be shown at trial. Nessel said the photos depict injuries that are the worst he has seen in his career, calling them “graphic, colorful and detailed.”

“There’s no need to batter a jury by showing them these pictures,” he said.

Assistant prosecutor Mat Deerfield agreed with the defense to limit autopsy photos to four — one for each wound — but said the prosecution has a duty to also show the wounds in their “natural condition” at the crime scene.

Howard picked three additional photos that would be allowed at trial, making a total of seven.

In clearing up issues with who would be testifying at trial, Nessel said former West Virginia Medical Examiner Dr. Andrea Orvik has left the state office for Montana since the death occurred and had been seeking an estimated $10,000 to fly to Huntington to testify to the autopsy conducted on the victim.

While defense raised objections, an agreement was reached that the doctor could testify via video from a remote location. Nessel said he also understood the doctor is pregnant and might not be able to fly, which would delay the case further if he asked for her to testify in person.

Nessel also requested that Plymale would not be allowed to introduce at trial witness statements from anyone who would not be testifying on the stand at trial. Many of the witnesses have left the state since the killing, he said, and he was unsure if the prosecutors would be successful in having them come back to Huntington for the trial.

Plymale said it should not be an issue to meet Nessel’s request.

The trial will begin at 9 a.m. Dec. 3 in Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson’s courtroom. About 50 potential jurors are expected to be called for jury duty, which is larger than normal due to the number of defense attorneys and prosecutors who have worked the case.

If the trial occurs as expected in December, it will be the first murder trial in Cabell County since March 2019. According to the West Virginia Regional Jail Website, about 10 inmates are currently charged with murder in Cabell County.

Yeager Airport to add buildings for MU aviation school

A building boom will get underway at Charleston’s Yeager Airport next spring, when construction is scheduled to begin on a classroom building for Marshall University’s School of Aviation, a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection building and a new general aviation flight line building.

Other airport construction set to take place in 2020 includes the rehabilitation and reconfiguration of a taxiway in the general aviation area, to provide aircraft access for the MU flight school, and a reconfigured parking lot with 45 additional spaces and new lighting at the Capital Jet Center.

Members of Yeager Airport’s construction committee were briefed on the upcoming activity Thursday by engineers assigned to the projects.

Richard Holes, of L.R. Kimball & Associates, said current plans call for an 8,900-square-foot building for Marshall’s aviation school, scheduled to open in the fall of 2021 at a site between the general aviation area and the 130th Airlift Wing’s flight operations area. Construction is expected to begin next summer. An extension of Eagle Mountain Road was recently completed, to provide vehicle access to the MU site.

The construction committee voted to recommend that the airport’s governing board award $138,913 to Kimball to plan the rehabilitation and reconfiguration of the taxiway serving the MU site and Capital Jet Center.

The new flight school will initially make use of two aircraft, add another two or three in the first few years of operation and eventually have a fleet of 10 instructional aircraft, according to Nick Keller, Yeager’s executive director.

Plans call for the new Customs and Border Protection building to be located adjacent to the Capital Jet Center terminal building and share a common wall with the CJC’s new flight line operations building and garage.

The new Customs building will serve as a portal for international travelers arriving at the Charleston airport by private aircraft, and as an inspection site for auto parts and other imported goods arriving by air for use by area manufacturers. Last summer, $2 million was awarded to the airport through the state’s Infrastructure Development Fund to construct the building.

Meanwhile, design work is expected to begin next year for a $23.5 million rehabilitation project for Yeager’s runway. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin on that project in early 2021.

Paging Dr. Robot: Artificial intelligence moves into care

The next time you get sick, your care may involve a form of the technology people use to navigate road trips or pick the right vacuum cleaner online.

Artificial intelligence is spreading into health care, often as software or a computer program capable of learning from large amounts of data and making predictions to guide care or help patients.

It already detects an eye disease tied to diabetes and does other behind-the-scenes work like helping doctors interpret MRI scans and other imaging tests for some forms of cancer.

Now, parts of the health system are starting to use it directly with patients. During some clinic and telemedicine appointments, AI-powered software asks patients initial questions about their symptoms that physicians or nurses normally pose.

And an AI program featuring a talking image of the Greek philosopher Aristotle is starting to help University of Southern California students cope with stress.

Researchers say this push into medicine is at an early stage, but they expect the technology to grow by helping people stay healthy, assisting doctors with tasks and doing more behind-the-scenes work. They also think patients will get used to AI in their care just like they’ve gotten accustomed to using the technology when they travel or shop.

But they say there are limits. Even the most advanced software has yet to master important parts of care like a doctor’s ability to feel compassion or use common sense.

“Our mission isn’t to replace human beings where only human beings can do the job,” said University of Southern California research professor Albert Rizzo.

Rizzo and his team have been working on a program that uses AI and a virtual reality character named “Ellie” that was originally designed to determine whether veterans returning from a deployment might need therapy.

Ellie appears on computer monitors and leads a person through initial questions. Ellie makes eye contact, nods and uses hand gestures like a human therapist. It even pauses if the person gives a short answer, to push them to say more.

“After the first or second question, you kind of forget that it’s a robot,” said Cheyenne Quilter, a West Point cadet helping to test the program.

Ellie does not diagnose or treat. Instead, human therapists used recordings of its sessions to help determine what the patient might need.

“This is not AI trying to be your therapist,” said another researcher, Gale Lucas. “This is AI trying to predict who is most likely to be suffering.”

The team that developed Ellie also has put together a newer AI-based program to help students manage stress and stay healthy.

Ask Ari is making its debut at USC this semester to give students easy access to advice on dealing with loneliness, getting better sleep or handling other complications that crop up in college life.

Ari does not replace a therapist, but its designers say it will connect students through their phones or laptops to reliable help whenever they need it

USC senior Jason Lewis didn’t think the program would have much for him when he helped test it because he wasn’t seeking counseling. But he found that Ari covered many topics he could relate to, including information on how social media affects people.

“Everybody thinks they are alone in their thoughts and problems,” he said. “Ari definitely counters that isolation.”

Aside from addressing mental health needs, artificial intelligence also is at work in more common forms of medicine.

The tech company AdviNOW Medical and 98point6, which provides treatment through secure text messaging, both use artificial intelligence to question patients at the beginning of an appointment.

AdviNOW CEO James Bates said their AI program decides what questions to ask and what information it needs. It passes that information and a suggested diagnosis to a physician who then treats the patient remotely through telemedicine.

The company currently uses the technology in a handful of Safeway and Albertsons grocery store clinics in Arizona and Idaho. But it expects to expand to about 1,000 clinics by the end of next year.

Eventually, the company wants to have AI diagnose and treat some minor illnesses, Bates said

Researchers say much of AI’s potential for medicine lies in what it can do behind the scenes by examining large amounts of data or images to spot problems or predict how a disease will develop, sometimes quicker than a doctor.

Future uses might include programs like one that hospitals currently use to tell doctors which patients are more likely to get sepsis, said Darren Dworkin, chief information officer at California’s Cedars-Sinai medical center. Those warnings can help doctors prevent the deadly illness or treat it quickly.

“It’s basically that little tap on the shoulder that we all want to get of, ‘Hey, perhaps you should look over here,’” Dworkin said.

Dr. Eric Topol predicts in his book “Deep Medicine” that artificial intelligence will change medicine, in part by freeing doctors to spend more time with patients. But he also notes that the technology will not take over care.

Even the most advanced program cannot replicate empathy, Topol said. Patients stick to their treatment and prescriptions more and do better if they know their doctor is pulling for them.

Artificial intelligence also can’t process everything a doctor considers when deciding on treatment, noted Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Isaac Kohane. That might include a patient’s tolerance for pain or the desire to live a few more months to attend a child’s wedding or graduation.

“Good doctors are the ones who understand us and our goals as human beings,” he said.

Fans create winning atmosphere at MU-WVU match

HUNTINGTON — Depending on the season, Huntington is typically a football or a basketball town, but Sunday, it was all soccer.

Fans sold out the Hoops Family Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex Sunday for the Marshall University men’s soccer match-up against West Virginia University. The facility held a record-breaking crowd of 2,126, with fans who couldn’t snag tickets surrounding the stadium and even taking to the rooftops of homes behind the field to watch the team’s first venture into the national tournament.

Armed with thunder sticks, vuvuzelas, drums and homemade signs, the crowd stayed energized as the team fought to beat WVU 2-1.

“Thank you guys for the support before anything,” said acting head coach Petsa Ivanovic after the game. “We created a fantastic atmosphere together, and that’s what it’s all about. We were playing beautiful soccer, as well, so I hope you guys enjoyed it.”

Before the game (and during it for those who couldn’t get tickets), fans across the street tailgated at an event hosted by Soccer by Sniatecki, a Huntington soccer training program run by former Marshall soccer player Kyle Sniatecki.

A Buffalo, New York, native, Sniatecki played at Marshall from 2008-2012 then settled in Huntington to start his training program. Some of the current players come and help train up-and-coming soccer stars.

“All the kids that I train and coach, it’s a neat experience for them,” Sniatecki said. “What’s important for them is to look up to these kids as role models. They are able to look at the men and women’s soccer programs and be able to say this is something that is attainable. This is something I could represent and be a part of.”

The players also help out with Tate Kelly’s team in the West Virginia Futball Club. Kelly, 9, said he hopes to play at the college level one day and he knows what it will take to get him there.

“A lot of hard work and practicing my skills,” he said.

Sniatecki said he thinks soccer’s popularity has really grown in West Virginia, even just since he started his program.

“The numbers have increased in my club every year,” he said. “There are more and more people willing to work for the next level.”

Sarah Ivanovic, wife of Petsa Ivanovic, said the fact both Marshall and WVU made it this far in the national tournament shows how far soccer in the state has come.

“We aren’t known as a soccer school,” she said. “It’s huge to feel the energy here. It really makes a difference in the play.”

Sarah Ivanovic and friend Emily Saulle were armed with encouraging signs and frequently started chants throughout Sunday’s game. They said they want to build the soccer community support, especially for a team that gives back to the community as much as this one does.

“The players are from all over,” Ivanovic said. “Many of their parents probably can’t be here. We have to support them.”