Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gun? What gun?

Dennis Knibbs was “King of the New Wings”. He “ran” the New Wings Hotel, according to testimony heard Monday at Knibbs’ murder trial. He was a drug trafficker, one who extended credit. On the night the prosecution alleges Knibbs’ shot the man who had just shot his cousin at the New Wings Hotel, he wore black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black hat, “a railway style hat, a Jamaican-style hat”. And he wore a pouch, “like a Gucci bag”, on his chest in which he kept his dope, his money, a police-style baton, and his 38 caliber handgun. And he drove a BMW 325.

Or did he?

Testimony by witness, Michael Vandenaneele, that Knibbs drove “a BMW; I think it was a 325”, was challenged by defense lawyer, Horace.

Horace drew Vandenaneele’s attention to the statement he had made to police in April 2005. The police had asked him if Knibbs had “a set of wheels.” Vandenaneele replied, “A Honda. I don’t know what kind of Honda. It’s a teal coloured car.”

Horace was bent on making Vandenaneele, a short man in his late thirties, balding with neck length red hair, wearing a medium blue shirt and dark diagonally striped tie -- look like a liar. Horace reminded Vandenaneele of the answer he had given in his police interview in 2005 when asked what Knibbs had been wearing on the night of the murder: “a black shirt, black pants, and a black hat; it was a railway style hat, a Jamaican style hat…it was a funny hat.”

“So it wasn’t a t-shirt and blue jeans?”, Horace said, implying that that was the answer Vandenaneele had given in trial testimony. “Black jeans”, Vandenaneele insisted. Horace backed off.

As for the pouch on Knibbs’ chest in which, Vandenaneele testified, he had seen him carry his dope, his money, and his 38 caliber handgun, defence lawyer Horace accused Vandenaneele of having made no mention of this pouch in his police statement. Vandenaneele retorted, “I mentioned he carried a pouch.” Horace let it go.

Then Horace didn’t venture far from the pouch. He turned to Vandenaneele’s claim that he had seen Knibbs whip a police-style baton out of his pouch immediately after seeing his cousin, Ian Liscombe, shot. Horace accused Vandenaneele of having made “no mention of a baton being in a pouch to police or at the preliminary inquiry.” Horace knew better: Vandenaneele had been clear in his trial testimony last Thursday that the night of the shooting was the only time he had seen Knibbs with a baton in his pouch; it was “the first time I seen it in the pouch”.

On the topic of the baton, Horace challenged Vandenaneele’s trial testimony that Knibbs had hit somebody in room 15 “on the head” with his baton. “You couldn’t possibly have seen that”, he told Vandenaneele who had claimed to have been headed down the hall towards Room 11 at this time. Horace also challenged Vandenaneele’s testimony that when the baton struck, “Then somebody screamed.” Horace read the transcript from the preliminary inquiry in which Vandenaneele had made no reference to any screams, testifying only that he had heard a table smashing, glass smashing, “bang, bang, bang, and then it was silent.” Vandenaneele, he pointed, had been specifically asked if he had heard any human sounds at this point. “No”, had been his response. And it would continue to be his response, according to the transcript of the preliminary inquiry:

Vandenaneele: “No it was just a big crack, that’s all I heard.”
Question: No other sounds after that?
Vandenaneele: No, no.

Horace knocked out Vandenaneele on the issue of the 38 hand gun. He reminded Vandenaneele that in his trial testimony last week, he had given a “fairly enthusiastic” response to a question about what Knibbs carried in his pouch; he had listed “dope”, money, and a “38 hand gun.” Horace then pointed out that Vandenaneele had “never made reference to a 38 to police or in the preliminary inquiry.” Vandenaneele retorted, “It never was asked.” Horace proved him wrong, reading from the transcript of the preliminary hearing in April 2006. He read a section just after Vandenaneele had been asked about seeing a woman in the New Wings taking a gun from Knibbs after shots had rung out.

Preliminary Inquiry
Question: “Have you ever seen that particular gun before to your knowledge?”
Vandenaneele: “No.”
Question: “Had you ever seen Rocka with a gun before?”
Vandenaneele: “No.”

After reading this section of the transcript, Horace reminded Vandenaneele that when he had given this testimony during the preliminary inquiry, “You were under oath, so you were telling the truth.” Vandenaneele responded, “Yes.”

Horace never got the chance to challenge Vandenaneele on his claim that Knibbs was the “King of the New Wings”. There was no need to. Judge Silverman nixed this testimony before the jury could hear it. Silverman had said earlier that he was going to limit testimony about Knibbs’ life as a drug trafficker; he didn’t want the jury exposed to generalizations that relied on hearsay. In fact, Judge Silverman screened some of Vandenaneele’s explosive testimony with the jury out of the courtroom. He listened to Vandenaneele testify that Knibbs “had marked his territory as a drug dealer in a certain spot. If you’re an outsider and you try to come in there’s always consequences.” One drug dealer can’t “interfere” with another drug dealer, Vandenaneele, a former cocaine addict, explained. Vandenaneele also testified that Knibbs had extended credit for drugs and that he had been a good customer, “certainly” always paying back. Judge Silverman announced that when it came to evidence of drug dealing, he did not intend to allow the prosecution to “just pile it on”.

One of Horace’s attempts to make Vandenaneele appear to be a liar got prosecutor Michael Luchenko’s back up. Horace challenged Vandenaneele on trial testimony he had given on Thursday about the moments inside the New Wings prior to the outbreak of gun shots. Vandenaneele had testified that Knibbs and Liscombe had come down the stairs from the second floor escorting a “friend of Echo’s” out of the building. Vandenaneele assumed the third man was a friend of Echo’s since there was verbal pressure being placed on him to disclose Echo’s whereabouts. Horace attempted to show, by reading transcripts, that Vandenaneele had changed his version of this incident as time passed:

Trial transcript, Apr. 2007
Question: Who was hollering and screaming?
Vandenaneele: I recognized Ian’s voice and Rocka.

Preliminary Inquiry, Apr. 2006
Question: Who was doing the screaming and hollering?:
Answer: Ian was.
Question: Was Rocka saying anything at that point?
Vandenaneele: Not to my awareness

Luchenko countered Horace by reading the jury a Q & A from the preliminary transcript that revealed that Vandenaneele had not changed his story as much as Horace was leading them to believe:

Preliminary Inquiry 2006
Question: Who was screaming and hollering?
Answer: I recognized Ian’s voice and Rocka.

Luchenko asked the judge to allow further follow-up questioning of this witness. Horace argued that Luchenko simply wanted to “muddy the waters” after defense successes. Luchenko cited a cross-examination precedent from 1951 but Judge Silverman gave it short shrift, deferring to a lawyer and left-wing City councilor who for years had practiced law just two blocks from the New Wings Hotel: “As our late friend Mr. Rankin used to say, ‘That case and a whole bunch of others!’