A Hancock County man charged with murder in the “birthday party killing” of a family member in 2015 was acquitted of all charges Thursday after a trial that lasted three days.
After several hours of deliberation, a jury found 33-year-old Clinten Michael Dryer not guilty in the fatal stabbing of 29-year-old Kenneth Fanning. Fanning’s then-fiancee is Dryer’s sister-in-law.
Dryer admitted to killing Fanning but claimed he did so in self-defense. His attorneys, Donald Rafferty and Damian Holcomb, argued a justifiable homicide defense.
Dryer stabbed Fanning 12 times just after midnight on April 12, 2015, in the front yard of Dryer’s house on U.S. 90. Family members had gathered at the home to celebrate the birthday of Dryer’s 7-year-old daughter. Both men had been drinking that day and got into an argument that turned physical, law enforcement officials have said.
He fell to the ground and said, ‘Call an ambulance. I’ve been stabbed.’
Shelby Stierwald, prosecution witness
The argument began after someone removed a fuse from Fanning’s vehicle to prevent him from driving while intoxicated. Witnesses testified the two men exchanged punches until Fanning managed to subdue Dryer with a chokehold.
After the fight, Dryer retrieved a hunting knife from inside the house and then went back outside. The men resumed fighting and Dryer fatally stabbed Fanning.
The jury had the option of considering a murder conviction, the lesser offense of manslaughter or acquittal.
“We’re bittersweet over it,” Rafferty said. “We’re ecstatic we won but (Dryer) is also sad because of the death of somebody that he was close to, and he’ll have to deal with it for the rest of his life.”
Different versions of events
The prosecution’s case largely hinged on Dryer’s intent when he walked outside of his home after retrieving the knife. Assistant district attorneys Ian Baker and Chris Daniel argued that Dryer decided to kill Fanning because he was embarrassed after losing the fistfight.
The defense, on the other hand, argued that Fanning nearly killed Dryer with the chokehold, causing him to fear for his life and place the knife in his pocket for protection before walking outside his house again.
The state’s first witness was Dryer’s 14-year-old stepdaughter, Shelby Stierwald, who testified that Dryer came outside the house, punched Fanning and then began stabbing him.
“He fell to the ground and said, ‘Call an ambulance. I’ve been stabbed,’ ” Stierwald said.
Under cross-examination, however, Stierwald said it was Fanning who started the second fight. She also said she did not see a knife in Dryer’s hand when he came outside the home and threw the fuse at Fanning.
“I didn’t see him come out with it, but I saw him stab him with it,” she said.
Her admission appeared to substantiate the defense’s theory that Dryer placed the knife in his pocket for protection and used it once Fanning attacked him the second time.
She also said several family members began yelling at Fanning to stop choking Dryer, afraid that Fanning was killing him.
‘Objection, your honor’
State Medical Examiner Dr. Mark LeVaughn testified that Fanning had 12 stab wounds, mostly on the back side of his body. LeVaughn described the location of each stab wound as jurors watched graphic close-ups of the knife-shaped holes riddled throughout Fanning’s body.
The defense countered by asking LeVaughn about the defendant’s strangulation injuries, shifting the jury’s attention away from the victim and onto Dryer’s self-defense claim. Rafferty asked LeVaughn to read part of a medical journal study on strangulation injuries and give an opinion on the severity of Dryer’s injury.
“Objection, your honor,” Baker said, asking Circuit Judge Chris Schmidt to halt Rafferty’s line of questioning.
Prosecutors moved to strike all of LeVaughn’s testimony regarding the strangulation. Since LeVaughn did not perform a medical examination on the defendant, asking him to testify about the strangulation study would be the same as asking him to opine on another doctor’s opinion.
The judge gave Rafferty some leeway but eventually called for a 20-minute recess after repeated objections by the state. Schmidt said Rafferty’s cross-examination was “irregular” and eventually granted the state’s motion, instructing the jury to ignore all of LeVaughn’s testimony regarding the strangulation injuries.
The judge’s ruling appeared in stark contrast to one he made earlier that day, Rafferty said in a later interview.
Schmidt had denied an earlier motion by the defense in which Rafferty used a similar legal argument against the state when it was revealed that LeVaughn did not actually perform the autopsy yet was allowed to testify about the autopsy by reading another pathologist’s records.
Beyond a reasonable doubt
Rafferty credits part of the victory to Dryer taking the witness stand in his own defense.
“His ability to convey to the jury what happened that night saved him from life in prison,” he said.
A juror who asked to remain anonymous told the Sun Herald that Dryer performed well as a witness and was able to “give straight answers.”
Though not every aspect of the the defense’s theory was completely clear, the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the juror said.
Significant stab wounds
- 3 to left side of the back
- 2 to the back of the head
- 3 to the back of the neck
- 1 to the left torso, puncturing the lung
- 1 to the center chest, puncturing the heart