By LEONNA HEURING
SEMO News Service
BENTON, Mo. -- Twenty-year-old Brianna M. Branson of Miner looked straight ahead Wednesday afternoon as 34th Circuit Court Judge Fred Copeland told a full courtroom he found her not guilty on charges of felony murder, assault in the second degree and armed criminal action for the July 24, 2010, death of 18-year-old Kendra Gray.
Branson and her family silently rejoiced with smiles and hugs as some members of Gray's family and friends fled the courtroom in tears and holding hands.
Branson previously pled not guilty to the charges, and a bench trial was conducted Sept. 27 in the circuit courtroom at Scott County Courthouse in Benton. Branson did not take the stand.
According to initial police reports, Branson, who was 17 at the time and in an ongoing feud with Gray, hit Gray with a truck while leaving an underage drinking party the morning of July 24, 2010, on Westview Road. Gray, who was 18, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Branson was initially charged with second-degree murder the day after the incident.
According to initial reports, Gray attempted to assault Branson as Branson left the residence, but was stopped by other minors. Branson and her friend, Heather Adams, then hurried to leave the scene in Adams' truck, which Branson drove.
Reports stated that as the truck was ready to move forward, Gray was running from the house into the street where she stopped near the middle of the road. As Branson moved forward in the vehicle, she struck Gray and continued in a northern direction as Gray's body was run over by the truck. Branson drove the vehicle away from the scene, returning to the scene after disposing of the alcohol in the truck. Gray died of her injuries from being hit by the motor vehicle.
In August 2010, that information was presented to a Scott County Grand Jury that returned an indictment for leaving the scene and disposing of evidence from the party -- declining to charge the then 17-year-old with second degree murder and second-degree assault.
New charges were filed in October 2010, following additional investigation by the Sikeston Department of Public Safety. The Department, as well as Missouri State Highway Patrol, revisited the scene to reconstruct the accident and draft a computer regenerated video.
Before rendering his verdict Wednesday, Copeland spoke to the courtroom for about 15 minutes, explaining how he'd come to his decision.
"The court's responsibility in this case is determining the facts," Copeland said.
To do that, Copeland reviewed physical evidence as well as the other aspect of evidence -- testimony, he said.
"The court has to look at credibility of witnesses and their ability to perceive what took place that morning," Copeland said, adding everyone had their own intentions and were under some type of intoxication.
However, Copeland pointed out Branson's blood alcohol content level that July 24 morning -- .013 -- was well below the level a person is considered legally intoxicated, which is .08 or greater.
Copeland said at the Sept. 27 bench trial the court allowed a video statement given to police officers, but in looking back, he didn't not use anything in the video to determine his ruling because it wouldn't have been allowed in a jury trial.
"I think what this whole case boils down to is the reckless issue -- whether the defendant's conduct that morning was reckless," Copeland said.
Copeland said the defendant didn't want to go to the party. After she was reassured by a friend it would be OK, Branson went to the party.
"The defendant never intended to get behind the wheel at all. She was going to get in the vehicle as a passenger -- the same way she got there. It was her friend's father's car," Copeland said.
The friend couldn't drive and another said to let the defendant drive, Copeland said.
After weighing the evidence, Copeland said the defendant didn't knowingly and intentionally hit Gray.
"The victim's body was on the entire west side of the road. ... The defendant veered to the left," Copeland said.
The judge also noted two or three people tried to grab Gray as she was running down the street.
"The truck couldn't go south because it was at the end of a cul-de-sac," Copeland said. "The only route the defendant had was to go north."
Copeland reminded the courtroom the state had to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.
"The judge did the right thing. He carefully -- obviously, with the statement he made -- reviewed the testimony," said Branson's attorney George Gilmore, adding Branson was facing up to life in prison if found guilty.
Gilmore said he thought the correct verdict was reached.
"I felt very confident all along this wasn't a murder case," Gilmore said. "It was an accident, and so we just stood by that all the way."
"We didn't negotiate anything or any kind of plea bargain," Gilmore continued. "It was an all-or-nothing proposition, and I think he obviously reviewed all the evidence and gave it the weight he felt appropriate."
Following Copeland's ruling, Scott County Prosecuting Attorney Paul R. Boyd said at the moment he could only offer one comment: "I'm disappointed."