Crime & Courts

Panthers Greg Hardy guilty of assaulting female, communicating threats

Carolina Panther Greg Hardy was found guilty Tuesday night of assaulting his former girlfriend and threatening to kill her.

Attorneys for the 25-year-old Pro Bowl defensive end announced an immediate appeal. That means Hardy will have a second day in court, this time before a jury and likely after the NFL team’s upcoming season.

“We respect the judge’s decision today,” said Hardy’s attorney, Chris Fialko. “But Greg Hardy will now have a jury trial, a brand-new jury trial, and we’re confident he will be acquitted on both of these charges.”

Mecklenburg District Judge Becky Thorne Tin sentenced Hardy to a 60-day suspended sentence and 18 months’ probation on the misdemeanor charges, a punishment set aside by the appeal.

State law automatically gives those convicted of misdemeanors in a so-called bench trials a right to a jury trial in Superior Court. There, Hardy and his accusers will be judged by 12 of their peers. A unanimous verdict is required, and both sides go in knowing far more about the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence.

For now, Tuesday’s verdict raises more questions about Hardy’s long-term status with the team. He signed a $13.1 million, one-year contract with the team this spring. But character concerns have followed Hardy since high school.

Following Hardy’s arrest, the Panthers said they would defer judgment until after the trial.

“We have just learned of the verdict and are respectful of the process,” the team said in a statement Tuesday night. “We do not have a comment at this time.”

The judge’s verdict followed an exhaustive 10-hour trial, unusual in domestic-violence court, where women and men are forced to sit on separate sides of the aisle and cases can be settled in minutes.

The case against Hardy, however, started in late morning and ended at 9 p.m. It drew a dozen witnesses and featured hour after hour of testimony into the darker side of youth, beauty and celebrity, with drugs, sex and violence playing key roles in the narrative.

Tin pushed the trial far into the night, she said, because domestic-violence court could not afford a two-day delay in its case backlog. So while witnesses in the Hardy case talked about $1,000 bottles of champagne, court-appointed attorneys wandered through the courtroom, calling out the names of clients they had never met.

In announcing her decision, Tin noted that Hardy and Nicole Holder told wildly differentversions from the witness stand of what happened in the football player’s luxury uptown apartment on May 13. But the judge said the evidence persuaded her beyond reasonable doubt that Hardy beat Holder, threw her around his apartment, then tried to hide his actions with a fabricated 911 call.

Assistant District Attorney Jamie Adams told Tin in her closing arguments that Holder told the truth when she described how Hardy erupted while the two were in his bedroom after a long night of drinking at some of the city’s most popular and exclusive nightspots.

Hardy, Holder said, flung her from the bed, threw her into a bathtub, then tossed her on a futon covered with rifles. Holder said Hardy ripped a necklace he had given her off her neck, threw it into a toilet and slammed the lid on her arm when she tried to fish it out.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Hardy dragged her by the hair room to room, she said, before putting his hands around her throat.

“He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,” said Holder, 24, who said she used to live with Hardy.

“I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said, ‘Just do it. Kill me.’ ”

Later, as Holder said she was held by her former boyfriend’s personal assistant, she said Hardy made the 911 call, showed her the phone, and said, “Run, little girl. You’re going to jail.”

In his closing argument, defense attorney Fialko described Holder as an erratic young woman desperate to be back at Hardy’s side and in the limelight that commands. He said she was high on hours of drinking and buzzing on cocaine when she flew into a jealous rage after Hardy told her to leave the apartment.

Fialko said the state had failed to carry the burden of proof largely because Holder’s testimony could not be believed. He reminded the judge that Hardy made the 911 call, and that the responding Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers – “maybe gun-shy of doubting a woman” in an assault case – had decided prematurely that Holder was the victim, and not his client.

Fialko called two witnesses who said Holder had followed Hardy out of the EpiCentre on May 10, crying and later blocking his car from leaving. Police had to intervene after a security guard on the scene said Holder had kicked the door of Hardy’s car.

During his cross-examination of Holder, Fialko accused her of making up her entire story. No man as big as Hardy, he said, could do what she said he did and not leave her seriously injured.

“You didn’t break a fingernail, did you?” he asked.

“I did break a fingernail, a toenail, ” she replied.

“Well, good,” Fialko said sarcastically.

Even in court, Hardy and Holder made a striking pair. He wore a black suit and Pantheresque blue-and-black tie. She came to court in a stylish black dress with towering high heels.

They spoke of $2,000 bar tabs and VIP tables at Bubble and Blackfinn. Even the couple’s arguments took on a celebrity feel. In court documents, Holder said Hardy stayed angry over her brief affair with the rapper Nelly. During one of their stops the night of their fight, Holder said the mood of the party changed “when a Nelly song came on.”

When Holder took the stand, she repeatedly looked Hardy’s way. He, however, looked at the ground. During Hardy’s testimony, Holder shook her head at several of his statements, sent texts on her phone, or just stared.

Hardy said Holder swung at him, threatened to kill herself, then threw herself into the bathtub. He said when she hit him, he didn’t hit back.

“I don’t fight,” he said. “I don’t even fight dudes.”

In the end, two of the most telling pieces of testimony came from smaller players in Hardy’s entourage that night.

Christina Lawrence, an uptown bartender, was in a bedroom with one of Hardy’s friends when she said she heard arguing, scuffling and someone being slammed into a wall. She said she heard a woman say, “What are you going to do, break my arm?” (Later, Holder testified to those very words when she said Hardy grabbed her.)

Lawrence said she ran barefoot from the apartment looking for help, and she can be heard shouting in the background of the security guard’s call to 911.

The most surprising piece of testimony came from a defense witness, Laura Iwanicki, Holder’s co-worker at the Suite nightclub in EpiCentre. She testified that she was an occasional companion of Hardy’s personal manager, Sammy Curtis.

Iwanicki described the couple’s relationship as “really good, really bad with nothing in between,” and took the Fifth Amendment when asked if she had snorted cocaine that night with Holder.

At one point in Hardy’s apartment, Iwanicki said she walked past a futon that was covered with guns. “I thought it was strange. I’d never seen guns like that,” she said.

So she took a photo with her phone. When shown the image by Adams, Hardy said Iwanicki had shot it earlier in the day, and that the guns weren’t on the bed when his argument with Holder broke out.

Tin didn’t buy that explanation.

Neither did Adams. She said Hardy lied during his 911 call and in his testimony.

“One thing is certain,” she said in her closing. “The truth will stay the same, but the lies will change.”

Holder’s attorney, Daniel Zamora of Charlotte, thanked the judge for her verdict and spoke openly of the possibility of a lawsuit in the case.

“The silver lining is, this sent a strong message to people of Mecklenburg County that it doesn’t matter if you’re an Average Joe on the streets or if you’re a professional athlete that plays for the Carolina Panthers,” Zamora said.

“If you assault a woman and you communicate to that woman that you will kill them, you will be arrested. You will be prosecuted. And you will be convicted.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer