By JOSH ALLEN
A long day of jury selection and tense, emotional first day of witness testimony was followed by day two and three of state’s witnesses who continue to put bricks in the wall of circumstantial evidence being built around Michael Magness in his first-degree murder trial where he sits accused of shooting his wife, Elizabeth, to death in March 2015.
Circumstantial evidence is not typically considered the most compelling, compared to the likes of physical, forensic evidence or eye-witness testimony. This case, however, considering what has been heard thus far, has seen the prosecution present witness after witness that testify to instances with Magness or statements he has made that they say — circumstantially — point to his involvement in the murder.
The state’s theory, in a nutshell: During the late-night hours of March 14-15, 2015, Beth Magness was shot and killed at her home on 4th Street in Okemah. She was shot one time on the left side of the face, near her eye. She was alone in the house prior to the shooting. Earlier that day (March 14), Magness had left Beth at the house, while he and their two young children went to the home of longtime friend, Dustin Crouch, near the Welty area, to stay over that night.
The reason for staying there that night was because Magness said Beth needed to “clean the house,” according to testimony Tuesday by Crouch, and his wife, April.
Their testimony also suggested it not to be out of the ordinary for Magness and his two sons to spend time at the Crouch’s without Beth.
The prosecution then claims Magness, at some point after 1 a.m. and before around 4 a.m., sneaked out of the Crouch’s home, made the approximately 20-minute drive to his home in Okemah, entered the house armed with a 9mm handgun and shot and killed Beth before driving back to the Crouch’s house and re-entering undetected.
Dustin and April Crouch both testified early in the trial that they went to sleep sometime around or before 1 a.m. They both said Magness was at their home at that time. April Crouch testified that the next time she saw Magness was about 3:30 or 4 a.m. when she awoke to his youngest son crying. She said they spoke in the kitchen at that time, and she didn’t notice anything odd.
The Crouches both originally told investigators in the days after the murder and testified at the preliminary hearing that it would not be possible for Magness to have left their home while they were sleeping without them knowing. Now, both of them have changed that, and from the stand in this trial said it would have been possible for Magness to leave and return in the middle of the night and them not know.
As for motive, the prosecution continues to bring forward witness testimony that reveal financial strife and Magness as dissatisfied in the marriage. Both Dustin and April Crouch testified to Magness telling them that he and Beth rarely had sex and that she was depressed, “emotionally shut down,” and often locked herself in her room.
State witness, Kelli Crouch, daughter of Dustin and April Crouch and who lived in the Magness home in Okemah for several months, testified to Beth showing “typical signs of depression.” Magness’ defense countered that by reminding her that she had told the lead investigator on the case that the Magnesses had a “loving marriage” and that Magness “had to love Beth or he would have probably left her a long time ago.”
In the year or so before Beth’s murder, Magness had leased and was running the K-Bar Restaurant in Okemah. Kelli Crouch, who was 16 at the time, was an employee there. She said Thursday that she looked at Magness “like an uncle.”
But a couple witnesses from the stand said their relationship was odd, testifying to seeing Magness giving Kelli Crouch “back rubs” in the office of the restaurant on several different occasions.
Farris asked the young girl Thursday if Michael had ever indicated that he would pursue a sexual relationship with her if she would, to which she said, “Yes.”
Notwithstanding, Magness’ defense team, attorneys Jarrod Stevenson and Curt Allen, have consistently challenged the state’s witnesses, attempting to cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case — most often trying to find contradictions in statements made before the court in this trial and transcripts from prior court hearings or interviews with law enforcement.
Back and forth the prosecution and defense go, while the jury sits in silence as they evaluate the evidence presented, and the family members of the victim watch the details displayed with heavy emotion as they are forced to re-live what were probably some of the darkest hours they’ve faced, losing a loved-one in such a brutal way.
As for the defendant, sitting accused of premeditating and carrying out the murder of his wife, Magness can be seen frequently smiling and even laughing in the courtroom, occasionally joking with the deputies on his watch when the court recesses.
On the second day of witness testimony, the state continued laying out its case, calling witnesses to the stand that presented — albeit rather circumstantial — testimony surrounding the night of Beth’s murder and the relationship between her and Magness.
Kaye Coale, a resident of the same neighborhood in which the Magnesses lived at that time, testified to hearing what she said “sounded like a gunshot” around 2 a.m. the night Beth was killed.
Another neighbor, Rhonda Hill, who said she had returned home from the casino around 1:30 a.m. March 15, testified to seeing an odd vehicle with its lights off backing into the driveway of an abandoned house next door to her shortly after she got home. She said the vehicle was a “dark blue or black, four-door car” that she had not seen before.
Hill said when the car parked, the dome light came on and allowed her to make out a white male in the driver’s seat and no one else in the car.
Farris asked Hill what the man looked like, to which she responded, “All I could tell is that he was kind of bald here (pointing to the front side of the top of her head, above the forehead), and he was kind of pudgy … not skinny and not fat, but, you know, kind of just pudgy.”
Farris then asked about the height and weight of the man. Hill guessed around 5’6” or 5’7”. The ADA reminded her that she originally reported around 5’10”. The witness put his weight at 240 to 250 lbs.
The man left the parked car and began walking down the “middle of the road,” Hill said, before he disappeared in the darkness of an alley between two houses.
“Did you ever see him again (that night),” Farris asked?
“No,” Hill said.
“Did you check to see if the car was still there,” Farris asked?
“About 15 or 20 minutes later, I looked out, and it was gone,” the witness responded.
Asked if the man looked as if he was just wondering around or if he knew where he was going, Hill answered that it “looked like he knew where he was going.”
Hill said she was not able to identify anyone in the courtroom as the man she saw that night.
The defense’s cross-examination of Hill attempted to cast doubt on what she thought she saw. Defense attorney Allen first brought up contradictions between the details she’d just testified to and what she had originally told investigators, such as initially reporting the unknown man’s weight to be 230 lbs and that she may have gotten home as late as 2 a.m.
The state then called Steve Dominy to the stand. Dominy was the Magnesses pastor when they were regular members of University Baptist Church in Shawnee. He recalled how dedicated Beth was to the church and said she often attended with the children but without Magness.
He testified to getting a phone call from the defendant about 3:30 p.m. on March 15, 2015, shortly after Beth’s body was discovered, and after hearing of her death, made the trip to visit Magness.
According to Dominy, Magness made a comment to him at that time that seemed peculiar. The comment was something to the effect of, “My biggest fear is to get accused of something I didn’t do.” Dominy said he thought it was odd because it didn’t seem like a comment a grieving husband would make on the day he found his wife shot to death.
Throughout this trial, many comments like that have been brought up, such as Magness telling Beth’s father, Sam Wilson, according to his testimony Tuesday, that he thought they may could do an open-casket funeral because “a 9mm leaves a small entry wound.”
Wilson said he made this comment to him before it had been revealed what kind of weapon had been used. He also said Magness backtracked some and said he didn’t “actually know if it was a 9mm or not.”
Magness also told Wilson that “they always suspect the husband” when his car was confiscated by authorities as part of their investigation. And another “red flag” for Beth’s father was the “shrug” he said Magness greeted him with when he got to Okemah from their home in Richardson, Tex., which he said seemed “insensitive.”
Stevenson questioned whether or not he knew that Magness hadn’t been approached by authorities at the time he made these comments, implying it was possible that it had been revealed to Magness that a 9mm had been used and that he was being looked at as a suspect.
A later witness, Kim Simmons, who it was revealed Magness had an affair with shortly before he and Beth moved back to Okemah from Wisconsin in 2011, said Magness told her he had “premeditated several ways to murder his wife and son (prior to the birth of his second son) and get away with it.”
She said Magness told her that he could “get away with anything he wanted in Okemah because people in this town are stupid.”
She also testified to Beth being depressed and said that she lived with Beth and Magness in a duplex in Wisconsin for some months before they moved back to Okemah. While living with them, she said she developed a “crush” on Magness, which she revealed to him.
Simmons said she and Magness discussed being in a relationship together with Beth, but that she had never talked to her about it – only Magness had, telling her not to mention it to Beth. Simmons said she developed what was a “good friendship with Michael and a decent friendship with Beth.”
On the stand at trial, Simmons talked differently of that “friendship” with Magness, saying she realized now that he “had full control of her emotions” and had “emotionally groomed her to be jealous of Beth.” This she called “gaslighting.”
Simmons told investigators early on that Magness, referring to his comment about murdering his wife and son, was the type of person that “absolutely would” do something like that.
Defense attorney Allen pushed Simmons hard on the fact that, given she had said Magness was the type of person that could hurt his wife and son, she didn’t tell authorities or Beth that there could be danger.
Allen also brought it to the attention of the jury that Simmons had not told investigators nor testified in the preliminary hearing anything about the “get away with anything … because people in this town are stupid” comment. The first time she had said that on the record was Thursday at the trial.
Thus far, no physical evidence has been connected to Magness from the scene of the crime or otherwise. Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Crime Scene Investigator Janell Dagett took the stand to explain to the jury her process and findings on March 15, 2015 when she arrived at the Magness home.
She said she worked the outside of the house first, taking pictures of the perimeter and cars parked in the driveway before going inside the home. She said the house didn’t show signs of a struggle, nor did she find any signs of forced-entry.
ADA Farris went through each of the almost two dozen photos Daggett had taken with her on the stand. When the investigator got to the area of Beth’s body she found and photographed one spent 9mm shell casing a few feet from the feet of the victim, identifying the caliber of the murder weapon used.
It should be noted here that two witnesses, Brittany Burden and Kaylee Robertson, both who had worked at the K-Bar Restaurant, testified to Magness showing them a 9mm handgun that he said was a gift to him.
At the scene, Daggett was able to identify the path of the bullet, which she said exited the victim and lodged itself in the wall in a high cabinet. This led her to her reporting that “it appeared the bullet was traveling in an upward trajectory,” which seems to indicate the shooter was below the victim when she was shot.
During Allen’s cross-examination of the witness, he asked Daggett about the “upward trajectory,” prompting her to re-explain the finding, and then pointed out that Beth was only 5’6”, according to her driver’s license.
During her investigation of the crime scene, Daggett photographed what looked like shoe prints in the muddy grass outside the home, but said she did not measure or cast the prints because there was not enough detail.
Dagget’s supervisor, OSBI Special Agent Ryan Woolley, took the stand next, explaining why those prints were not cast or measured, while also saying the prints were made by what looked like a boot of some sort.
Stevenson pushed back hard on this, saying if there was not enough detail to even measure the size of the prints, how could it be known that a boot left them or that they were left there the night before.
The defense attorney also questioned why no fingerprints were taken from the scene.
More on the trial to follow. This covers testimony through early Friday. The state will continue presenting its case against Magness tomorrow. He is also charged with arson and collecting on a fraudulent insurance claim, which will soon be discussed in an upcoming article, along with more testimony and evidence presented by the prosecution.