Angel Downs Murder Investigation - County Commissioner Steve Nodine only suspect

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Nodine murder trial recesses for lunch

Fox 10 TV Updated: Friday, 10 Dec 2010, 12:17 PM CST
Published : Friday, 10 Dec 2010, 8:56 AM CST

Day 5 begins expert on the stand.

Alabama medical examiner says Angel Downs suffered 'contact gunshot wound'

Published: Friday, December 10, 2010, 10:01 AM     Updated: Friday, December 10, 2010, 10:04 AM

Stephen Nodine's jury hears conflicting reports on Angel Downs' death

Stephen Nodine's jury hears conflicting reports on Angel Downs' death

                     Published: Friday, December 10, 2010,  6:15 PM Katherine Sayre, Press-Register

BAY MINETTE, Ala. — An assailant shot Angel Downs with a gun pressed  to her right temple as she sat on the ground, her legs crossed and her  head bent down, one medical examiner told a jury today.
    But moments earlier, the jury in Stephen Nodine’s murder trial heard  a different assessment of his longtime girlfriend’s death. An Alabama  medical examiner testified that Downs’ death was “consistent with  suicide.”

    Nodine, 47, a former Mobile County commissioner, is standing trial  on charges of murder, stalking and misuse of his government-issued  truck. Downs, 45, was shot to death outside her Gulf Shores on May 9.
    The defense has maintained her death was a suicide and that she was alive when Nodine left her house that night.
    Dr. James Downs, a Georgia medical examiner and private consultant,  was hired by Baldwin County prosecutors to review the autopsy after the  Alabama medical examiner issued a report that was inconclusive.
    Downs said he found evidence of defensive wounds on one hand and  blunt force trauma to her head, indicating she’d been struck with  something.
    Angel Downs was found lying on her back with her hair fanned away and upward from her head.
    Dr. Downs testified that Angel Downs, sitting on the ground, slumped  forward after she was shot. Prosecutors had Dr. Downs sit on the  courtroom floor and show jurors how the victim was sitting.
    Someone at the scene then pushed her onto her back and slightly  dragged her a short distance down the driveway, leaving abrasions and  causing her hair to spread out, the forensic expert testified.
    “It’s in an unnatural position,” Downs said. “I would refer to it as partially staged.”
    “What would it take for someone to partially stage something?” asked Baldwin County District Attorney Judy Newcomb.
    “It could be a fraction of a second,” he replied. “It literally could happen in the blink of an eye.”
    Downs said the first autopsy report failed to point out some  abrasions and other marks that he discovered in reviewing photographs.  He said blood was found underneath her skirt, which indicated that she  was bent over, rather than standing up.
    At one point, defense attorney Dennis Knizley got on the courtroom  floor in his suit and cowboy boots. He sat with his legs bent and held a  plastic gun to his right temple. He then fell onto his back and asked  the forensic expert on the witness stand whether that’s what happened  when Downs was shot — but the forensic expert insisted she fell forward. 
    Knizley asked the doctor why someone would change the scene.
    “I wasn’t in the shooter’s mind to know how the shooter was thinking,” Downs said. “I do know what the shooter did.”
    “You don’t think that shooter would have some blood on them?” Knizley asked.
 Former  Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine is pictured in Judge Charles  Partin's courtroom at the Baldwin County Courthouse Monday morning, Dec.  6, 2010, in Bay Minette, Ala., for his murder trial. Nodine is accused  of fatally shooting his longtime girlfriend, Angel Downs, in the  driveway of her Gulf Shores home on May 9. He also faces stalking and  ethics charges. Photo taken through a glass panel of a door.  (Press-Register, Mike Kittrell)
“No sir, I don’t see any reason, necessarily, they would,” the expert replied.
    Investigators have said no blood was found inside Nodine’s pickup  truck or on his clothes. Detectives also could not pull any fingerprints  from the 9mm gun found near the body.
    Outside of court, Knizley said Downs’ account of what happened is  “physically impossible” and evidence on the scene is “inconsistent,  totally, with his suggestions.”
    Knizley suggested in his questioning that Downs, in his work as a  private consultant, had never been hired by a criminal defendant, and  that he’d only worked for prosecutors. Downs, who is being paid $400 per  hour, insisted that “the truth is the truth” and he doesn’t work for  one side or the other.
    During the cross-examination, Circuit Judge Charles Partin said the  trial would have to end early for the day because of a situation “beyond  the court’s control.”
    Attorneys wouldn’t comment on why the session ended. Partin said the  trial will continue Monday, but because of a scheduling conflict, Dr.  Downs will return later in the trial.
    Earlier in the day, Dr. Eugene Hart with the Alabama Department of  Forensic Sciences, testified that he performed the initial autopsy on  May 10 and determined that the evidence was “consistent with suicide,”  although that wasn’t his final finding.
    He said because he couldn’t rule out homicide, he issued an inconclusive report.
    Both medical examiners have agreed that a gun was pressed against  Downs’ head and the gunshot killed her. Hart pointed to the fact that  the gun was found lying next to her body, which is typical in a suicide. 
    “I can’t prove that someone else didn’t put the gun to Ms. Downs’  head,” Hart testified. “I can only say the findings are consistent with  suicide.”
    Hart said he told investigators about his findings, and they asked  him to reexamine parts of her body. He said his second exam didn’t  change his findings.
    He added that he didn’t find any evidence consistent with homicide,  and he considered a previous suicide attempt by Downs in his findings.
    Downs was taken to the hospital on Oct. 31, 2006, in what police at  the time called a suicide attempt, although her family disputed that  characterization.
    Prosecutors have said that Hart has only four years of experience,  while Downs is a nationally recognized expert who was Alabama’s chief  medical examiner before moving on to Georgia.
    Nodine and Downs, who had a six-year affair, had spent May 9 at  Pensacola Beach, according to earlier testimony. The defense says that  he went to her home after discovering he’d left his wallet there, and  she was alive when he drove away.
    Her sister has testified that on that day, Downs, who had a stormy  relationship with Nodine, called her to ask where on the body she should  shoot an intruder. Then, minutes before she died, Downs sent a text  message to her sister that “Stephen Nodine is here.”

Medical examiners offer opinions to wrap up first week of Nodine trial
By Kevin Lee
DECEMBER 11, 2010

The first week of Stephen Nodine’s murder trial wrapped up in a day that featured a pair of medical examiners, thrusts and parries between the defense and an expert witness, a pair of men lying on the courtroom floor with a wooden gun and another early adjournment. The former Mobile County Commissioner is accused of killing longtime paramour Angel Downs by shooting her in the driveway of her Gulf Shores home on May 9.

As if proceedings weren’t somber enough, the day began on an unexpected note when a juror was excused due to the death of his mother the night before. Originally, the group of 14 were chosen for duty with the intention that the pair of alternates would sit in with the original dozen and the identities of each would be withheld from them until deliberation began. That number leaves us with only one possible alternate.

The morning’s first matter revolved a motion for discovery and divulgence that the defense planned on adding a retired forensic pathologist, Dr. Lauridsen, to their witness list. The contentious hearing included defense attorney Dennis Knizley telling the court "it’s a matter of courtesy that we’re letting them (the state) know about this.”

When Baldwin County District Attorney Judy Newcomb interjected to make a point, Circuit Judge Charles Partin cut her off.

"I was speaking,” Partin asserted loudly and sternly. "Don’t interrupt the court.” Moments later, Downs’ sister Susan Bloodworth was escorted from the courtroom in tears.

First to the stand was State Medical Examiner Eugene Hart, one of three in Mobile. He described his duties investigating "sudden unexpected deaths” and said in the lack of an elected coroner for Mobile County, his "boss acts as coroner.”

"Baldwin County sends us bodies, too,” Hart added.

"Does Mobile County pay for your services?” Newcomb asked.

"I’m not aware of the finances,” Hart said. He then recited his qualifications, his medical degree, training in general pathology and forensic pathology, the last a sub-specialty he developed in Houston in 2004 – ’05. He had no articles or published works.

Hart said the Mobile lab rents space from University of South Alabama Medical Center and cover eight counties worth of autopsies. He said they also run the morgue, along with a firearms and drug chemistry section. Hart said the toxicology section recently closed and that there’s no handwriting analysis or trace evidence sections.

Hart told the court he performed the May 10 autopsy on Downs. With that note, Newcomb switched on a projector and autopsy photos of Downs flashed on the wall. Her ex-husband, Chris Downs, turned his head at the grisly vision. Hart described his measurements of the deceased, his establishment that she was 65 inches tall and 115 pounds.

"If the cause is traumatic, we do one (an autopsy),” Hart said. "If the cause is undetermined, we do an autopsy. That cause varies from case to case.” He said they normally don’t get a body from another county unless asked by their district attorney requests it.

The examiner’s autopsy appeared on the wall as he described his notations, the marking of wounds and circles drawn for the EMT’s electrodes that were still glued to Downs. Alongside a full body diagram was a similar outline of the head with an entrance wound on drawn on the right side of the head and another, smaller exit wound on the left.

Hart said he pulled out a length of hair and measured it at 15 inches. Newcomb mentioned a second exam that placed it at 21 inches and Hart allowed for the variance.

An x-ray of Downs’ head was shown then Hart walked through the preparations for autopsy, the undressing of the body, removing bags from hands, photographs and the cleaning of the body. More photos appeared, one showing a small cut on Downs’ right thumb and another of Downs’ shaved head and the bare gunshot wounds. The entrance was gaping, a ragged hole reaching upward with a semicircular wound at its base. Her family members averted their eyes, save her mother who was being comforted by those flanking her.

Hart told the court the injury was consistent with contact gunshot wounds. He described the lower mark as a curvilinear abrasion consistent with a hard contact wound.

When talking about the bullet’s path through skin, muscle, skull and brain, Hart talked about the gas pushed in front of the round that created the jagged wound on her right temple. He went on to say there was no stippling but soot on the bone, indicators the muzzle was pressed hard against her head.

Hart told about a second autopsy requested to look at specific points, namely the back of her head and the sub-scalpular contusions there. In his opinion, it could be attributed to a fall after her death.

Hart acknowledged that he didn’t examine for defensive wounds or perform full-body x-rays in the first exam. There were lack of nail clippings taken in that initial work. He said there was no bruising or abrasions noted either.

He identified a silver necklace Downs wore saying there was no alteration or damage to the jewelry in any way. Her stomach contents were simply what Hart surmised were the remains of tomatoes. He found no capsules or tablets and turned blood over to toxicology. Those toxicology reports indicated the presence of Xanax, Ambien and amphetamines and a high level of alcohol.

Downs’ hands were not swabbed because it was not requested. Hart didn’t recall receiving the bone fragments found to the left of her body.

During the 9:45 a.m. recess, others milled about the halls. Hart paced the floor in silence next to the jury box.

The medical examiner found it easy enough to determine the cause of death as the gunshot wound. The manner of death he listed as "inconclusive.”

Knizley’s cross-examination derived that Gulf Shores Police Detective Justin Clopton, the investigating officer, was present during the autopsy. Hart also told him the body was received back for the second exam days after the original and after the body had been to a funeral home.

Hart told Knizley there was no evidence of blunt force injury and no abrasions or breaks in the skin on the first look. The second exam, requested by the D.A., showed some blunt force injuries to the right hand that included abrasions on the knuckle of the index finger and the second joint of the middle finger. He didn’t characterize them as defensive wounds.

The forensic specialist classified the lividity – caused when blood pools in the body’s lowest points after the heart stops – in the back as "unremarkable.” The fingernails, he said, revealed nothing notable.

Hart told Clopton the manner of death was consistent with suicide but wrote "inconclusive” on his report. He said the weapon’s proximity to the body was indicative of suicide, especially combined with Downs’ 2006 attempt via overdose. The second exam, in his opinion, did nothing to change that and he pronounced it as inconsistent with homicide.

On re-direct, Hart told Newcomb he couldn’t exclude the cause of some injuries as a result of her falling. He said Downs’ heart would have beat for a minute or two and bruising could have occurred then. He called it "common for bruising to the back of the head in the event of a fall.”

The blood spatter on Downs’ legs? "I don’t know, it’s outside my area of expertise,” Hart said. He said lividity would reach its maximum within 24 hours and that there wouldn’t be any of it on higher points due to gravity’s effect. Hart exited the jury box after nearly two hours of testimony.

The state called Dr. James Downs – no relation to Angel Downs – to the stand. Bespectacled, bearded with bowtie and briefcase, the doctor’s demeanor seemed professional and professorial. An expert witness hired by the state at $400 an hour, Dr. Downs traveled from Savannah where he is Coastal Regional Medical Examiner for the state of Georgia. Newcomb gave his lengthy curriculum vitae, a recitation that included two decades of experience including a lengthy stint in Mobile in the same role and FBI training.

When asked his areas of expertise, he noted that though he wasn’t classified as a blood spatter expert, his training made his evaluations in that area "over and above the average.” Knizley objected to Dr. Downs’ admission as a blood spatter specialist and a bench conference resulted in a ruling that denied the specificity but retained the status.
Dr. Downs said his research for the case involved scouring the complete autopsy and crime reports, a visit to the scene with officers, reports from EMTs, body cam footage, the 9mm Kel-Tec handgun and its analysis and site analysis. Though he didn’t examine the actual body, he said he had worked many times under similar conditions.

Immediately, the doctor focused on photos of the scene and Angel Downs’ hair, "splayed out” as he said. He pointed out the EMTs squatting rather than kneeling, a change one testified he made with the hair in mind. His laser pointer circled spots of blood on the concrete to Angel’s left, the sole strands of hair across her face, the blood on her upper left chest.

"The left leg is of primary importance,” Dr. Downs said. He points to the spatter on the thigh, calf and knee, noting its "directionality.”  He said the knee and thigh had no injury; the blood didn’t come from that. He thought the head wound was the obvious answer but the angle of the splotches would put Angel’s head near her left knee.

The doctor turned to an "out of place blood drip on the left cheek” flowing from her ear to her mouth. He maintained should have run the other direction had she been lying on her back.

Downs’ returned to the leg and noted the upward scattering of drops on her thigh. He explained about "shadowing,” about drops that can’t go around materials blocking a straight path. He believed for the drops to end up beneath her skirt, her head would have had to been closer to her knee.

Downs turned his attention to what he saw as defensive wounds. He noted the abrasions on the right hand. He drew a connection between the nick on the thumb and fingernail marks.

The doctor pointed out bruising on the second and third knuckles of the left hand, something that he said couldn’t be attributed to lividity since the knuckles are protuberances. "The lividity would have been in the low point, in the valley between there,” he said.

Downs looked at the hard contact wound and explained its cause from the sliding mechanism on the weapon. He said it left no doubt where the entry point was.

Partin recessed for lunch. The first image greeting the court afterward was a photo of Angel Downs’ open head.

Knizley also requested his expert witness, a seeming rebuttal to Dr. Downs, be allowed to step into the court rather than be excluded as is customary with other witnesses. The bench granted it and Dr. Lauridsen was allowed to stand in a corner next to the door, about the only spot left in the full courtroom.

Downs addressed the a sub-scalpular clot of blood. "In my opinion, she was struck,” he said. "It was blunt force trauma.”

"I found injuries consistent with abrasions on her upper back in the vicinity of her scapula,” he continued, noting other linear gouging on her lower outside left thigh. He matched them with other abrasions on her lower back.

Newcomb asked Downs what the point of his fee was, what they asked for.

"The Baldwin County D.A. asked me to look at a difficult case and render an opinion on whether it was homicide or suicide,” Downs said.

Downs went on to look at her blouse, pointing out a seam pulled apart in two spots. He showed a photo of a button from the back left side of her skirt with gouging around its edge. He perused the surveyor’s rendering of the driveway.

Downs said Dr. Hart didn’t record every single injury as he did later. "I concur with his autopsy,” Downs said. He complimented the recording of data.

The doctor then looked at Angel’s right hand, pointing to the blood spatter on the webbing between thumb and forefinger. "There’s an absence of object or shadowing,” Downs said. "It’s like the little boy with his finger in the dike; you’re plugging the hole with the muzzle, as established by the hard contact wound.” He thought the spatter impossible while holding a gun and therefore concluded she must not have been firing at her own head from the right hand side.

"The blood evidence is not consistent with suicide,” Downs pronounced. "The blood evidence is consistent with homicide.” He said the drug levels in her blood would make an attack easier.

The doctor mentioned blood droplets over her left shoulder that had no directionality. He also looked at spots outside her left calf.

"This doesn’t fit the circumstances of her death,” Downs said. "It was partially staged. That staging wouldn’t have to be extensive. It could take a few seconds and be done in the blink of an eye.

At the state’s behest, Downs left the witness stand with a wooden gun in hand to show the presumed position of Angel at the time of her death. He sat on the floor and muttered "I’m getting too old for this” as the entire courtroom shifted. The gallery flowed to the left. The jurors stood in the box and craned to see near its base.

Once on the floor, he crooked his left knee, saying her other leg could have been straight or bent "Indian style.” He put the wooden gun to his right temple and bent his head over to his left knee.

"There is an overabundance of evidence to rule this case a homicide,” Downs said after returning to the witness stand.

As the court settled down, Nodine stared blankly at the display he had witnessed. He turned and stared straight ahead for a few minutes, the brought his hand to his chin and watched.

Following a short recess, Knizley stood for cross-examination. The men exchanged pleasantries and mild recognition attributed to crossing professional paths in years past.

"Tell me about the ‘Little Boy in the Dike’ theory,” Knizley asked.

"I don’t know what you mean,” Downs said. "I didn’t say that.”

Knizley’s eyebrows arched. "You didn’t say that?” he asked and crossed toward the court reporter. "You didn’t say that just a while ago?”

"No sir, what I said was the ‘little boy with his finger in the dike’ and I don’t believe I used the word ‘theory,’” Downs answered. Knizley smiled almost imperceptibly.

The attorney unfurled his skills. He stopped looking at the witness stand, took up position squarely in front of the jury box and faced its occupants.

Knizley went on to touch on the gas tears that created the larger entrance wound, the bursting of tissue and ostensibly fluid. "Shouldn’t that blood be all over the person holding the gun?” he asked. Knizley expressions grew more animated.

"Not necessarily,” Downs said. He was undaunted.

The attorney called up the picture of the blood spatter on Angel’s right hand. "What do you see here?” he asked. He took his pen and traced a line connecting splotches together along the interior of her thumb. "Is that kind of a crescent shape? Couldn’t that be caused by a hand gripping the gun?” Knizley said and nodded vigorously at the jury.

"I don’t think so, no,” Downs said.

Knizley then walked out to the spot where Downs knelt previously. "Let me see if I’ve got this straight,”  he said as squatted. As he sat on carpet, he scooted slightly back and forth, seemingly looking for the right spot, grunting when he moved.

Stiffly he twisted up in a similar position. "Is this right?” he asked, pulling the gun up toward his head as he appeared to have no luck getting his head near his knee.

Once again, the entire court shifted to watch the display. Downs left the stand and stepped over, standing behind Knizley and pushing him into position with a hand and knee on his shoulders.

"Right here?” he asked as Downs agreed. "Then why is there no bullet mark in the concrete?” Downs had little answer.

"Why is there no blood on the shooter?” Knizley asked again.

"Her body could have been in the way,” Downs said, looking at the jury. "Remember the wound we saw in the photo was fully exposed because the head was shaved for the autopsy. When she was shot, that wound was covered by thick, long hair.”

The attorney changed tacks and addressed the witness’ defense, asking whether he worked "for both sides.” Downs asked for specifics and received them.

"I don’t testify for a side. I testify for the truth,” Downs told the jury. "I don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Knizley shifted again, asking Downs if he agreed with Dr. Hart’s previous report. When Downs began elucidate, trying to say he agreed with the cause of death but not the manner, Knizley stared at the ceiling, eyes darting. He interrupted the witness and asked again.

"They supplied sufficient documentation to render and opinion otherwise I couldn’t have done it,” Downs said.

Knizley asked again. Downs began again. Knizley asked the bench to direct the witness and stared upward again. "You seem to talk a lot,” Knizley shot.

"Let’s move on,” the judge intervened.

When Knizley questioned the time the button was scratched, Downs countered with his belief that an earlier scratch would have shown signs of wear and filth.

When Knizley grabbed the plexiglass holding blouse and stood it on the edge of the jury box, he called Downs from the stand. Together they searched the blouse for the torn seam, trading barbs.

"Couldn’t that tear have been from earlier?” Knizley offered.

"There would have been fraying on the tear,” Downs countered.

Judge Partin stepped in with a short recess but upon reconvention told the room a " matter beyond the control of the court” created a need for early adjournment. He also notified that Dr. Downs wouldn’t return for the remaining cross-examination

As Partin spoke, Downs stood slightly behind Knizley. In low tones they shared smiles and nods of apparent enjoyment and appreciation.

Court reconvenes Monday, Dec. 13 at 8:30 a.m.


Stephen Nodine, Angel Downs quarreled day she died from gunshot, friend says
Monday, December 13, 2010, 2:50 PM
Brendan Kirby, Press-Register

Angel Downs and Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine argued during a beach outing the day she died from a gunshot wound, an acquaintance of the couple testified on Dec. 13, 2010.

BAY MINETTE, Ala. – Stephen Nodine and Angel Down quarreled during a beach outing the day she died from a gunshot wound, an acquaintance of the couple testified this afternoon.

The testimony of Derik Hare contradicts Nodine’s statement to Baldwin County sheriff’s investigators that he had a good but uneventful day with Downs at Pensacola Beach on May 9.

Hare, who lives in Milton, Fla., told jurors at Nodine’s murder trial that Downs and Nodine arrived about 15 minutes after he did. He testified that Downs was “very chipper and happy” and told him something about no longer being afraid of Nodine.

When defense attorney Dennis Knizley asked Hare if he understood Downs to be describing herself as physically afraid of Nodine, Hare responded, “Not that day.”

Hare said that later that day, Nodine and Downs began to argue.

“Things were rubbing him wrong and he said, ‘We’ll talk about that later,’” Hare said of Nodine, who was a Mobile County commissioner at the time.

In the months following Downs’ death, Hare testified, Nodine called him three different times. He testified that on the second call, which lasted 40 minutes, Nodine revealed surprising details about the circumstances of that day.

Hare said that Nodine told him the Downs was drunk, drove them part of the way home, and insisted on continuing behind the wheel after they stopped at a gas station. That contradicts Nodine’s statement to investigators that he drove both ways.

Hare testified that Nodine also made a point to tell him that he forgot his wallet at Downs’ Gulf Shores condo that evening and that it was in a different place from where he usually left it when he was there.

Hare testified that after 15 or 20 minutes, he had his wife listen in on the call. At one point, he said, Nodine told him that Downs pleaded with him, “Please don’t leave; please don’t leave.”

Hare testified that he does not remember whether Nodine was referring to the first time Nodine was at Downs’ condo or after he returned.

Fanny Mae:
CHERRY 6905 I really thank you for keeping this thread up to date. I am from the area but I don't live there any more. Mobile and the general area has really had some bad things happen that has made the national news lately. Knowing the political climate there, I am awfully worried about him getting off. I hope he doesn't. JMO


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