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Opening arguments begin in Kenan Gay murder trial

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/29/20/02/T6dUU.Em.138.jpeg|473
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    Kenan Gay
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/29/20/02/EOIJ4.Em.138.jpeg|186
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    Rob Kingston

Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented jurors Thursday with conflicting pictures of Kenan Gay and the man he is accused of killing outside of a Dilworth bar, during opening arguments of Gay’s murder trial.

Jurors will have to decide whether Gay was angry because Bobby Kingston was flirting with his girlfriend on the night in March 2012 or gallantly defending the woman he would later marry from unwanted advances and groping.

Was Kingston “drunk but pretty much harmless” at Ed’s Tavern, as a prosecutor argued Thursday, or “dangerously intoxicated” as defense attorneys have asserted?

And most importantly, did Gay, who is charged with second-degree murder, hurl Kingston into the middle of Park Road or did Kingston drunkenly stumble in front of a car and to his death?

Both men had been drinking at the bar when Kingston, an employee of the Charlotte Bobcats, tried to kiss Gay’s girlfriend, Liz Wicker, now his wife. Surveillance video played in the courtroom appears to show Kingston putting his hands on Wicker’s rear. Gay, 25, a former walk-on football player at UNC Chapel Hill who was a student at Charlotte School of Law when the incident occurred, grabbed Kingston by the collar and pushed him outside.

In Thursday’s opening statements, prosecutors said Gay went after Kingston after he’d walked away from Wicker. Gay hustled Kingston out of the bar and hurled him into the street, said Assistant District Attorney Anna Greene. Kingston was struck by a 2007 BMW and pronounced dead at the scene.

Kingston, 30, was drunk but harmless as he tried unsuccessfully to flirt with Wicker, Greene said.

Friends knew Robert Edward Kingston III as Robb or Bobby, and some by the nickname Bear.

“Ask yourself whether Robb did anything to deserve to lose his life,” she asked jurors. “Did Robb do this thing so bad, so egregious, that he doesn’t deserve to be here? ... He leaves of his own free will. Once he turns and begins to head toward that door, Mr. Gay is on his way.”

Sonya Pfeiffer, one of Gay’s defense attorneys, said Gay was defending his girlfriend from a drunk and aggressive man who had grabbed her rear and tried to kiss her as the couple hung out with friends at the bar.

Gay, she said, released Kingston at the door, and Kingston stumbled into the street.

“When Kenan Gay released Rob Kingston, Kingston, whose blood alcohol level was 0.29 – three times the legal limit to drive – stumbled into the road and was hit by a car. It was an accident,” she said.

Gay’s second-degree murder charge means the state must prove either he intended to kill Kingston but without premeditation, or he did not intend to kill Kingston but acted out of malice.

Gay has graduated from law school but cannot take the bar exam until the criminal charges against him are resolved. If convicted, he faces a sentence ranging from probation to 20 years in prison.

After opening arguments, the first person to testify was Alan Cole, the owner of Ed’s Tavern. He told jurors his bar was especially crowded that night, March 3, 2012, because of the CIAA tournament and the Duke-North Carolina basketball game. He says he was standing at the door next to a bouncer checking people’s identification when he saw Gay coming toward him, holding Kingston by his collar and his left arm.

At one point, the bar owner stood in front of the jury box and demonstrated what he saw. He mimicked holding a man by an arm and his collar, got a running start and extended his arms toward prosecutors.

“He had him here and here and then he threw him,” Cole said. “(Kingston) landed pretty much in the middle of the traffic lane. I believe he landed face down.”

The car struck about a second later, Cole said.

In Thursday’s opening arguments, both prosecutors and defense attorneys relied heavily on the bar’s surveillance videos. The footage shows Kingston talking to Wicker, then her apparently brushing him off. Later, he touches her back, puts his hands on her rear and moves in for a kiss.

Jurors will have to rely on witness testimony and other evidence to determine what happened after Gay and Kingston left Ed’s Tavern.

The bar has a surveillance camera outside pointed toward the street, but its view was obscured that night by umbrellas over the patio seats.

One of the last images from the video shows Gay walking Kingston out of the bar.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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