The sentencing for a man who pleaded guilty to a 2013 Cooper Landing manslaughter has been pushed into a third day after attorneys worked through evidence and testimony the defense says were a factor in the plea agreement reached for the defendant.
Paul Vermillion, a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran from Anchorage, was originally charged with one count of murder in the first degree, two counts of second-degree murder and a count of manslaughter for the death of 27-year-old Genghis Muskox in the Cooper Landing home where Vermillion was staying. The two were said to be friends who got into a fight that night after drinking that ended with Muskox being shot and killed with two different guns.
The agreement for Vermillion to plead guilty to the count of manslaughter took place just before his trial was set to start in April. His defense attorney, Andrew Lambert, has used the sentencing originally scheduled for two days to present evidence and expert testimony he says were a factor in reaching the plea deal and support his argument that Vermillion was acting in self-defense the night he killed Muskox.
Wednesday’s hearing began with District Attorney Scot Leaders’ cross examination of Timothy Charpenter, an expert witness called to talk about combat. He testified Tuesday that, based on his review of the case and an interview with Vermillion, the defendant had acted according to how he had been trained by the military when he shot Muskox with the first gun before getting a second one. Members of the military are taught to move up the combat continuum until the other person is dead if the person uses lethal force against them, Charpenter had testified.
“So those things that he was trained would have been relevant if he was engaged in war, right?” Leaders said in his cross examination of Charpenter. “But they do not justify his acts in the civil context of (a) personal residence in Cooper Landing, Alaska.”
Kenai Superior Court Judge Charles Huguelet said Wednesday he was not convinced by the earlier testimony of a strangulation expert that Vermillion had actually suffered strangulation by Muskox.
Lambert called on Wednesday expert witness Ross Gardner, a crime scene reconstructionist who analyzed the Cooper Landing scene for the defense. Gardner came to different conclusions in his report than were reached by the state’s analysis of the crime scene.
First, he determined Muskox got from the living room to the bedroom where he was killed by moving on his back, rather than by crawling or being dragged as Investigator Austin MacDonald of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation testified in an October evidentiary hearing, based on the blood patterns on the floor. Muskox had first been hit in the shoulder blade by the ice axe, Gardner said, and it was the blood from that wound he determined to be on the floor, along with a secondary source of blood.
Gardner also testified that he found no indications on Muskox’s shirt of blood dripping from a head wound, or other physical evidence of an attack with the axe on Muskox’s head.
In his cross examination of Gardner, Leaders pointed out that a human hair was found in the DNA sample taken from the ice axe. Lambert later added that the hair did not have a root, though.
Ultimately, Gardner said the secondary blood found at the scene most likely came from the head area, whether the front or back, but that he could not determine its exact source.
There was also the matter of the two guns used to shoot Muskox. Gardner determined in his report that blood found on the first one, a shotgun, had to have come from Muskox, because no blood was found on the trigger area of the second gun Vermillion used to shoot him. If the blood on the shotgun had been from Vermillion’s hands, there should have been blood on the second gun in the trigger area as well, Gardner said.
“At this point in the event, before that gun goes off, and debilitates Mr. Muskox, there appears to have been an interaction where his hands in some fashion, or a hand, was in contact with the shotgun,” he said.
Gardner also determined that the muzzle end of the shotgun, with blood already on it, had hit the wall of the bedroom and left a mark, before it was fired and killed Muskox. Throughout his testimony, Gardner described a “dynamic interaction” was indicated by the evidence at the crime scene.
Gardner stressed that crime scene analysis can at best give a partial picture of actual events, and does not take into account what happened directly before or directly after a certain event.
“We will never have the full picture — we weren’t there,” Gardner said. “… Science eliminates, we refute. What we can refute we don’t have to worry about anymore, then we’re left with whatever the remaining possibilities are. So crime scene analysis is best for saying, ‘This didn’t happen, this didn’t happen, and this is what’s left.’ And often there are many possibilities within that realm.”
Dr. John Mundt, a clinical psychologist who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, was called as the last witness in the sentencing. He testified that, based on reviewing the case and conducting two evaluations of the defendant, he believes Vermillion has been under-treated since returning from Iraq. Mundt proposed several programs and treatment options he said would be useful for Vermillion to handle his post-traumatic stress disorder going forward, and said he believes Vermillion is a good candidate to benefit from them.
Mundt stressed, and Huguelet agreed, that Vermillion’s success going forward will greatly depend on him staying away from alcohol.
Family members and a friend of Muskox’s addressed the court before the end of the day, all of them asking for Vermillion to receive a heavy sentence.
“My Genghis had a grace about him,” said John Cox, Muskox’s father. “… He was born with it. Paul Vermillion killed that grace, and I would hope you find him responsible and sentence him to the maximum amount allowed by the statutes of Alaska.”
“The testimony of Tim Charpenter was chilling as it confirmed that Paul Vermillion was unable to distinguish the difference between being in a military combat situation verses fighting with a person he knew in his home,” said Muskox’s mother, Susan Muskat.
Lambert and Leaders will present their final arguments for sentencing at 11 a.m. Thursday. Vermillion faces a sentence ranging from 5 to 9 years, but the state can ask for up to 11 of active jail time per the plea agreement. Vermillion will get credit for the time he has already served both in jail and out on an ankle monitor.
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