Betsy Hester is on trial in Kenai for a charge of second-degree murder.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
An expert witness in the murder trial of a Kasilof woman charged with the shooting death of her boyfriend told jurors he would not be surprised to learn the defendant’s account of the shooting does not match up with some of the evidence, since memory lapses are common when people are exposed to life-threatening situations.
Betsy M. Hester, 53, of Kasilof, is charged with one count of second-degree murder for allegedly shooting John E. Clark, 49, of Kasilof, to death on Oct. 4, 2003, in the mobile home they lived in together.
On Thursday Gregg Mc-Crary, an expert in crime scene analysis and distortions in perception and memory lapses in people exposed to violent situations, said Hester probably experienced what is known as the fight or flight response at the time of the shooting, a physical state that can impair a person’s ability to accurately perceive what is happening around them, control their own actions and recall the event later.
When someone is exposed to a life-threatening situation, as the defense claims Hester was the night she allegedly shot Clark, adrenaline floods the body and the fight or flight response is triggered, resulting in increased blood flow to the amygdala, a part of the brain connected to more primitive functions such as basic emotions and automatic responses, and decreased blood flow to the cognitive part of the brain, McCrary said.
“The cognitive part of the brain ... that gets put out of play,” McCrary said. “The brain sort of takes on a mind of its own.”
In recorded interviews conducted within two days of the shooting and played to the jury earlier in the week, Hester struggled to remember how many shots she had fired and her retelling of the events did not account for how Clark received a bullet that entered through his back.
In addition, the prosecution has said comments Hester made in the interviews call into question whether or not Hester’s life was actually being threatened. Although Hester reported that Clark was holding a steak knife when he told her, “I’m going to come over and teach you a lesson,” for example, she also said he was in the kitchen preparing food and that she did not think he was going to stab her with it.
The defense has said that in looking back Hester may not think Clark was going to stab her with the knife, she may have thought he was going to stab her at the time, but not remember due to fight or flight-induced lapses in her memory.
During a 2003 bail hearing, former Kenai District Attorney Dwayne McConnell said that on Oct. 3, Clark and Hester had been drinking and arguing at the Decanter Inn in Kasilof. They went to the home they shared for seven years in the vicinity of Pollard Loop Road, where the argument continued.
Clark reportedly slapped Hester numerous times in the face and struck her with his fist.
He then went to the kitchen, and as he returned, continuing to threaten bodily harm, she allegedly shot him twice with a 9mm pistol.
According to former state medical examiner Dr. Susan Klingler, who testified Jan. 11, one bullet struck Clark in the arm and exited through his upper left back and a second entered his upper left back, struck the bottom half of his heart, went through his lung, exited the left side of his abdomen and probably continued from his abdomen to nick his left thigh where a third minor bullet wound was discovered.
On Thursday, McCrary also addressed how Clark may have been positioned when he received the bullet that entered through his back, a question that has received significant attention in the effort to determine whether or not the shooting was made in self defense.
McCrary’s testimony appeared to most strongly support the conclusion that Clark was probably on his feet, facing Hester and bent over or lunging when he received the fatal shot to his back.
“Keep in mind this is not a static situation, it’s dynamic,” McCrary said.
However, the defense has proposed, and a previous expert witness has suggested, that Clark was on his hands and knees when he received the fatal shot, a position that would undermine the defense’s claim that Clark was a threat to Hester’s life when he was fatally shot, according to the prosecution.
On Thursday, jurors also heard testimony from a long-time friend of Clark’s, Wanda Dornbusch. Clark visited her house two to three times a week, usually to hang out and play cards, Dornbusch said.
Clark suffered from serious health problems the last few years of his life and was disappointed by his inability to do many of the things he used to do, but complained little and did not appear to take his frustrations out on Hester, Dornbusch said.
Dornbusch also said that she had never witnessed any physical abuse between Clark and Hester, but that one day when the couple came over to play cards Hester appeared with a black eye.
Reading a transcript of an interview conducted days after the shooting, defense attorney Jim McComas quoted Dornbusch as having said that when her husband confronted Clark about the black eye, Clark didn’t deny responsibility.
McComas also quoted Dornbusch responding to questions about what might have lead Hester to shoot Clark.
“‘I think she was scared,’” McComas said, reading the transcript of what Dornbusch had said. “‘He could scare. He’s big, loud and intimidating.’”
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