The man originally charged with first degree murder in a brutal beating of another man on Center Hill Lake last year which resulted in his death, stood trial Tuesday in DeKalb County Criminal Court for second degree murder.
But when the jury, made of up six men and six women, returned from it’s deliberations Tuesday night, the verdict was something much less, reckless homicide. A blow to state prosecutors.
As a result, 39 year old James P. Vernon of Green Hill Road, Rock Island, who has been in jail for 509 days, could soon be released. He will be sentenced on January 26th . The range of punishment for reckless homicide is reportedly from two to four years. Judge Leon Burns, Jr. has set a $5,000 bond for Vernon, pending the sentencing hearing.
State prosecutors said Vernon was responsible for the death of 24 year old David Joseph Clark, who was severely beaten during an attack on a houseboat at Center Hill Lake July 7th, 2009. Clark died a week later from his injuries at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga.
The incident occurred in DeKalb County, only a short distance from Horsehoe Bend Marina, which is in White County.
Vernon, who testified in his own defense, said that he met Clark on the fourth of July, 2009 during an outing on the lake. Two days later, July 6th Vernon said Clark showed up at his boat, just to hang out, after going to see his friends on their boat and finding them asleep. Vernon, who was cooking some fish for himself and a friend, claims he invited Clark inside to join them. But a short time later, Vernon said Clark suddenly left, saying he had to go. Vernon looked around and noticed that his wallet, which he kept on the bar near the dining table, was missing. Thinking that Clark took it, Vernon followed after Clark and confronted him about the wallet, which he said contained $50 in denominations of two- twenty dollar bills and a ten dollar bill. Clark apparently denied taking the wallet, but Vernon had him to produce his (Clark’s) wallet, which revealed that Clark had two- twenty dollar bills on him. Vernon did not find his own wallet.
The next day, July 7th, Vernon testified that he and a friend, Steve Killion, who had a small houseboat next to his, went looking for his wallet and found a ten dollar bill in the parking lot (near the marina).
That night, July 7th, Vernon said he showed up at Killion’s houseboat, and that Clark later arrived. Witnesses testified that Clark was already at Killion’s boat when Vernon got there. Vernon apparently confronted Clark again about the wallet, but Clark told him that “we need to get past this wallet. I want you to be my friend.” Vernon said he told Clark that he couldn’t be friends with someone who stole from him. While Clark denied taking the wallet, Vernon said Clark admitted to stealing from others in the area, and added that they got what they deserved. Vernon said he took the comment personally, became angry and began punching him after Clark grabbed him. But witnesses, Steve Killion and Tanner Muncey, testified that Clark did nothing to provoke Vernon and that Vernon began hitting Clark, after the two men had shook hands. According to the witnesses, Vernon inflicted three or four blows to Clark, and then continued beating him after he fell to the floor unconscious, even though witnesses tried to restrain Vernon and called for him to stop.
After the attack, Vernon said he left Killion’s boat to go get some beer to calm himself. Killion testified that he confronted Vernon about getting some help for Clark. Vernon then returned to Killion’s houseboat, picked up Clark, apparently in a fireman’s carry, and took him to Clark’s car, where he placed him in the passenger seat. Others apparently called for help.
White County EMS came to the scene and transported Clark to the White County Hospital where he was later airlifted to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. Clark’s mother testified that her son never regained consciousness.
Dr. Thomas Deering of Nashville, who conducted the autopsy, testified that Clark died from intra-cranial hemorrhaging due to blunt force injury. Clark also had a fractured jaw.
Vernon said he deeply regretted what he had done. When asked by District Attorney General Randy York if he had said “I’m sorry’ to anyone. Vernon replied, “Yes, the Lord.”
York, in his closing remarks to the jury, said Vernon committed second degree murder, acting intentionally and knowing that Clark could die, especially when he continued the beating even after Clark had lost consciousness. Assistant D.A. Greg Strong assisted D.A. York in the trial.
District Public Defender David Brady and assistant Allison Rasbury, in their closing remarks, said they while Vernon was wrong in the attack, he did not commit second degree murder in that he could not have known with reasonable certainty that the injuries from the fight would lead to Clark’s death.