Beaten Nearly to Death, Weak Video Lets Attackers Go Free

By Carlton Purvis, Published Jan 22, 2014, 12:00am EST

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If you were a juror could you make a decision on what happened here? Eyewitness testimony and this video are the evidence prosecutors in Whitman County, Washington have to use in a felony assault case where a professor was beaten nearly to death. The video quality is so poor that prosecutors have declined to file charges in the case because they don’t feel they can support what eyewitnesses say happened.

The Case

Washington State University professor David Warner and his friend Lawrence McDonald had been drinking and were walking near campus when McDonald got belligerent with a group of people who were standing nearby. The video shows McDonald “move aggressively” toward the group and then Warner grab him from behind to pull him away from the confrontation. They fall. It’s not clear if they trip or were pushed. Immediately the group descends on the men.

The Injuries

Warner suffered a broken skull and was rushed to an intensive care unit at a local hospital. He didn't open his eyes for a month. Warner's head injuries were so bad he had to re-learn how to walk, talk and eat.

What Witnesses Say

Police say they talked to 20 people "related to the case" and interviewed eight witnesses. Witnesses say they saw punches and kicks thrown while the men were on the ground, but the prosecutor says the video doesn’t show it.

“There were individuals who said that he was struck by one person or that he was struck by another person, and we know based on video evidence that nobody ever punched him particularly,” Whitman County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bill Druffel told KREM, a local TV station [link no longer available].

What the Prosecutor Says

Druffel says McDonald could have been punched or shoved causing them to fall, or Warner could have just lost his balance and brought them both down, injuring is own head in the fall. He says he’s watched the video hundreds of times and, he doesn’t think he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the men were kicked or punched.

Obstructed Video

Crucial moments in the video that would show if McDonald was hit first or if they were kicked were blocked by a vehicle and a tree and the quality is questionable. Here is a screenshot of the assault happening:



The suspects then fled on food and were eventually identified by police using footage from nearby cameras. Prosecutors announced last week that they would not file charges.

Analysis

Given the seriousness of Warner's injuries, the way the group descended on the men after they fell and how the group fled after the incident, it's likely that there was some sort of assault that took place. In this case the prosecutor decided that even with eyewitness testimony, the case wasn’t strong enough to prosecute because the video didn’t show it clearly. Just because the video doesn't show it, doesn't mean it didn't happen.

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