Crime & Courts

Kenan Gay trial enters showdown phase

Kenan Gay told the jury Monday that he had never been in a fight.

Tuesday, he could face a big one.

Gay, the final witness in his second-degree murder trial, will play a pivotal role in deciding his own guilt or innocence. The 25-year-old law school graduate, accused two years ago of shoving a man who had tried to kiss his girlfriend into the path of a passing car, is expected to testify for several hours in what could be the decisive day of his case.

Gay’s judge and jury also are scheduled to visit Ed’s Tavern, the Dilworth nightspot whose bar and parking lot have become key pieces of evidence in the circumstances surrounding Robert “Robb” Kingston’s death.

When court opens Tuesday, Gay will again answer questions from defense attorney David Rudolf, who led the seemingly nervous Gay through 30 minutes of testimony Monday about his family and how he fell in love with Liz Wicker, now his wife.

Gay, so stoic through the weeks of jury selection and testimony, had to gather himself several times while testifying about Wicker Gay. The Gays became engaged two months after his arrest, and they celebrated their first anniversary last month.

“You fell in love?” Rudolf asked.

“I did,” Gay said, his voice trembling as Liz Wicker Gay wept quietly in her aisle seat behind the defense table.

“How quickly did it happen?”

Again, Gay paused before answering. “Very,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gay’s testimony will turn to the night of March 3, 2012, when Wicker became the target of Kingston’s advances at Ed’s Tavern. As Kingston appeared to be leaving the Park Road bar, he tried to kiss Wicker. Defense attorneys say he also put his hands on her bottom.

Gay rushed in from behind, and the two men disappeared through the bar’s front door. In a matter of seconds, Kingston, 30, was lying dead in Park Road.

Witnesses say Gay pushed Kingston into the street, then ran from the bar after Kingston was struck and dragged by a passing car. Prosecutors say the defense has exaggerated the level of Kingston’s advances toward Wicker to justify Gay’s aggression.

Rudolf and co-counsel Sonya Pfeiffer, however, say Kingston, who was heavily drunk at the time, stumbled into the street after Gay let him go on the sidewalk. They also argued Monday that Gay was protecting his girlfriend from a man who made a habit of drinking too much and then acting inappropriately around women.

Eventually, prosecutors will have the final word with Gay in open court. Among the questions they’ll likely bore in with: Why does Gay say Kingston tripped when eye witnesses say Gay shoved him? If Gay was innocent, why did he run?

Both sides have plenty riding on Gay’s answers. If convicted, Gay faces a sentence that could range from probation to 20 years in prison.

James Wyatt, a veteran Charlotte defense attorney, said once Gay’s lawyers argued that Kingston’s death was an accident, they had to put their client on the stand to convince the jury that he is not guilty of a predetermined act.

Given the chance to cross-examine, he said prosecutors will do whatever they can to damage Gay’s credibility and trap him in some inconsistency with other evidence.

Both sides have been preparing for this moment for months, Wyatt said. “It should be gripping and pivotal testimony.”

Monday’s proceedings appeared to drain both families, who occupied opposite sides of a standing-room-only courtroom filled with more than 100 people.

Robb Kingston’s parents and a brother sat a few feet across the aisle from Liz Wicker Gay. After a legal debate that dragged on for almost two hours, Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges allowed the jury – and Kingston’s loved ones – to hear testimony that described the dead man as a heavy drinker who could turn boorish and heavy-handed toward women.

Earlier in the trial, Bridges had blocked the defense from using sexually explicit text messages between Kingston and his friends, which Pfeiffer said showed that Kingston went bar trolling March 3 to find someone to sleep with. This time, Bridges said the testimony from Charlotte bar owner Jerry Hebert shed light on how Kingston possibly acted toward Liz Wicker in 2012.

Hebert, owner of the Blind Pig in Davidson and several other clubs, said Kingston, a regular customer, “had a tipping point.” When he crossed it, Kingston went from “the life of the party” to becoming “crude and obnoxious,” picking fights and turning aggressive toward women. “He’d almost become a different person.”

Hebert said on three of four occasions in January and February at his NoDa bar, he “had to get involved” after Kingston groped women, frequently causing confrontations with boyfriends or husbands.

Pfeiffer also showed the courtroom surveillance video from the night of the incident that showed Kingston grabbing the rear of a woman inside Ed’s Tavern.

In his cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf basically said that the woman in the photo had spent an enjoyable time with Kingston and his friends that night. He also asked Hebert if he knew that Kingston had gone through difficult emotional times since the end of an engagement in December.

Hebert, who said he met Kingston in January, testified that the broken engagement was among the first things he and his former customer ever talked about. Staff writer Claire Williams contributed.

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