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Testimony begins in Tallent trial
Jun 24, 2004 12:00 am
Against a backdrop of simmering emotions and extraordinary security, testimony began yesterday in the murder trial of a young Maryville woman charged in the highly publicized deaths of two local law officers last year.
Prosecutors opened their case by calling a string of witnesses who allegedly spotted a silver Mercedes speeding along Interstate 40 the morning Mt. Juliet Police Sgt. Jerry Mundy and Wilson County Sheriff's Department Officer John Musice were killed.
The state appeared to be attempting to lead jurors through each phase of a chase that allegedly began in Knoxville and ended with the officers' deaths near the Mt. Juliet exit of I-40 last July 9.
During the first day of testimony defendant Fallon Tallent, 22, who faces a potential maximum life sentence in prison without parole, sat quietly between her two attorneys, occasionally breaking into a slight smile as she conferred with them. Otherwise the defendant – clad in a blue and gray pants suit – seemed to display no emotion during the day's testimony.
Though prosecutors opened on an emotional note – calling Mundy's widow, Trish Mundy, to the witness stand – they quickly moved on to a parade of witnesses who all testified they saw the vehicle allegedly driven by Tallent traveling at dangerously high speeds on I-40.
Two of the witnesses, a long-haul trucker and an out-of-state software salesman, testified they made 911 telephone calls about the speeding vehicle.
"It blew by me like I was sitting still," trucker Jerry Cater told the court of his encounter with the vehicle in Knox County.
A later witness, Virginia salesman George Colwell, said the car "passed me on the right before I could get over" as he was driving through Cumberland County, estimating its speed at "at least 100 or faster."
Both men testified they contacted authorities through 911 calls about the speeding vehicle, which Cater later encountered a second time as he reached the Mt. Juliet area of I-40 to find traffic at a standstill.
"I seen the car on the right side of the road … I saw the white sheets in the middle of the road," he testified.
On cross-examination, defense attorneys immediately pounced on seeming inconsistencies between statements the witnesses gave authorities and their trial testimony, which they told jurors during opening arguments would become a key issue of the trial.
Defense attorney Craig Garrett questioned Cater extensively about one of his two 911 calls in which he told an operator there appeared to be "two infants" inside the speeding car.
"It looked like two infants in the back seat jumping back and forth," he testified on cross-examination.
Under questioning by Garrett, Cater admitted he "later on found out no infants were in the back seat" and told the defense attorney he may have misidentified the car as gold rather than silver in one of his calls.
Colwell's cross-examination was equally exhaustive with Garrett asking several questions about a statement he gave TBI agents in which he apparently incorrectly stated when he obtained the car's license plate number.
Colwell testified he obtained the license plate number after catching up to the speeding car several minutes after first seeing it. In the TBI summary of his interview, Garrett pointed out, the witness was quoted as saying he wrote down the license plate number when the vehicle initially passed him.
"That's not right, that's not when you got the license plate number. Is that what you told them?" the defense attorney asked.
"Evidently I did sir," he answered. "They wrote it down and evidently I did."
Also undergoing a lengthy and occasionally heated cross examination was Knoxville Police Officer Blake Barham, whose encounter with Tallent and passenger Dorothy Cash in a Knoxville public housing development apparently started the defendant's long run from the law.
Barham testified he had been alerted the Mercedes was stolen and had just stepped out of his patrol car to approach the driver when the car suddenly "backed up and slammed into my cruiser" before speeding away.
"How did you feel when that happened?" Assistant District Attorney Bobby Hibbett asked.
"I thought I was going to be struck. I was in fear for my life," the young officer replied.
With Barham narrating, the officer then played a video of the ensuing chase which was visible only to the jury. He testified the chase lasted for about 1.6 miles, routinely hitting 65 miles per hour in 30 mile per hour traffic zones, before it was called off by a supervisor.
But again the defense extensively questioned the witness about apparent changes in his story regarding the incident, primarily one report in which he claimed Tallent struck his cruiser twice before speeding away.
At one point co-counsel David Boyd twice asked Barham if he was attempting to make his reports "juicier" after learning Tallent was suspected in the two officers' deaths, which the witness strongly denied and drew an objection from the state that was upheld by Judge John Wootten Jr.
Barham testified on cross-examination that he added details to some later reports after viewing the video of the chase, which he said was not available when he submitted his initial reports.
"They're not inconsistent," the officer testified of his reports. "That is what I saw to be the truth to the best of my knowledge without viewing the videotape."
The state began its case by calling Mundy's widow to the stand to testify about the events of what would be her husband's last morning alive.
She described – in a voice only slightly above a whisper – watching TV with the victim before he left for work on the morning of his death and later receiving a telephone call asking her to come to Mt. Juliet's police headquarters because "something had happened."
Dabbing daintily at her eyes with a white handkerchief, the blond haired widow nodded and responded only "yes" when asked by District Attorney General Tommy Thompson to identify a photograph of her dead husband in his MJPD uniform.
In the hour's worth of opening arguments that began the trial, Thompson told the jury – selected in Sullivan County and sequestered until the proceeding is complete – they will "know a lot more" about Tallent "by the time this trial is over."
"You'll hear how she talks about all the press she's been getting, how she talks about the officers, saying they should have known better, that they were dumb, stupid, and she certainly wasn't going to stop for them," the DA told the jury. "You will never see any more selfish disregard for humanity than you're going to see here."
Thompson also spared no words when it came to the woman expected to be perhaps the key witness in the trial, Dorothy Cash, a passenger in the car who was not charged and is expected to testify that Tallent intentionally struck the two officers.
Thompson called the witness a "road whore" and told jurors "there won't ever be any Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval for Dorothy Cash, I'll grant you that."
But, the DA added, Cash and Tallent "have been more than friends, they've been lovers, and you should pay close attention to what she has to say about this."
The DA also hinted about the horrific nature of the two officers' deaths, saying Musice was found unclothed and "mangled" when his body was discovered and describing the impact as so strong it left Mundy's badge "embedded in the hood of the car."
In his opening argument Garrett warned jurors they would hear extensive questioning about inconsistencies in witness statements, saying some statements appear to be "made up."
"Are they wrong? We're anxious to find out," he told the jury.
Garrett also touched on Cash in his opening argument, describing her as a "career criminal" who "knows how to work the system."
He claimed Cash's initial statement to authorities did not implicate Tallent but said that since then "each time it gets a little more, a little worse."
"She knows the system – she's spicing her story up," the defense attorney claimed.
He described Tallent as the product of a broken home and a drug addict mother who was "in and out of her life" for years. The last time the two saw each other before the officers were killed, the attorney said, Tallent's mother "came to give her a present" to celebrate the defendant's release from jail.
"It was a rock of cocaine," Garrett said. "That was the gift from her mother. That's the kind of background we're dealing with here today."
The trial began under veil of security which may be unequaled locally with all spectators searched before the start of each session and courtroom doors remaining locked while testimony is underway. All spectators are confined to the second floor until Tallent and the jury have left the courthouse, and rules set forth by Wootten require the media as well as the families of the victims and the defendant to sit in specified areas of the courtroom.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.