When the murder trial of Delbert "Butch" Conger, 50, of Guy began Wednesday at the Faulkner County Courthouse, his defense attorneys had made one thing clear: the man on trial admitted to the fatal shooting of his brother-in-law.
Conger is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Keller Heffington, 39, also of Guy.
The jury of seven men and five women along with two male alternates began the trial
knowing Conger had shot Heffington. Defense attorney Frank Shaw made that clear in the jury selection process.
"Butch Conger shot Keller Heffington," he said.
Thus, the issue before the court, according to Shaw, is whether Conger was justified.
The jury sat and heard opening statements before breaking for lunch. Circuit-Chancery Judge
David L. Reynolds presided.
Deputy prosecuting attorney Marcus Vaden began by giving the jury a "road map" of the incident. He familiarized the jury with the room in which Conger shot Heffington at 24 Pinnacle Springs Road, where Conger lived with his wife and Heffington's mother, as well as Heffington's brother.
Vaden told the jury Conger walked into that back room through the hallway with a gun and looked at Heffington. "He looks and says, 'Hi Keller,' and then pulls up a gun and shoots him six times," Vaden said, stating Conger continued pulling the trigger even after the ammunition had run out.
Vaden mentioned Heffington had filed some deeds the day before the shooting that showed that most of Heffington's mother's land was given to Heffington and not to Conger.
He concluded by informing the jury it would inevitably have to decide if this was "a case of greed," a case of "age-old jealousy," or "was he (Conger) in such fear" to justify the shooting.
"You decide just how scared he was of Keller Heffington," he said.
Defense opening statement
Shaw began his opening statement by reminding the jury that they were not here to decide if Conger had shot Heffington.
"It's true that Butch shot Keller," he said.
Shaw prepared the jury for his line of defense by saying Conger would testify before the court regarding Heffington's character and his fear of Heffington.
"But you are going to hear more than Butch Conger's testimony," he said.
"All of these witnesses cumulatively could go back years and years ... to tell you about the violent reputation not of (Conger) ... but of (Heffington)," he said.
Shaw asked the jury if they had ever heard of a "town bully."
"You're going to learn about one," he said, calling Heffington a "citywide terrorizer."
He warned the jury the story it would hear from defense witnesses was an "ugly, nasty cesspool of a story" and "at the center of it is Keller Heffington."
Vaden began the day by bringing a teary-eyed Crystal Heffington, an eighth-grader, and then her sister Diamond, a fifth-grader, to the stand. Crystal Heffington told the jury she and her sister were in town that weekend visiting her father. Saturday afternoon, Keller Heffington and his fiancee, Jennifer Hurst, went out of town for a little while and his two daughters went to their grandmother's house, which was within walking distance of their
father's house. Once at the home of Bronnie Heffington, the two girls began to play with their three cousins, who were also at the residence.
Both girls and the cousins stated they saw Conger only briefly during their time at the house that Saturday. The older daughter and the younger daughter had both spent much of the day Saturday and Friday evening with their father and didn't recall any contact made between their father and Conger before the shooting during those two days.
The children, including the cousins, concurred they had been playing in the back of the residence during the time before the shooting. Most of the activity centered around the room next to the "back room" as Vaden called it and the "back room" in which the shooting occurred.
Crystal Heffington said Conger told her earlier in the evening that she and her sister "couldn't stay there ... that he wasn't getting paid to be a baby sitter ... (and) he would call social services if he had to." According to the older sister, she and her sister were ordered by Conger to stay in the back of the house until her father arrived.
The children and their cousins went to the room next to their uncle's "back room." They
recalled going to the "back room" when Keller Heffington came in through the back door and sat on a couch along the southern wall.
The cousins returned to the other bedroom, and Crystal Heffington and the other children in the house recalled seeing Conger walk down the hall toward the back room with a gun or with something he was "trying to hide." Crystal said she heard Conger say, "You're not going to take over this world any more." The next thing that was heard was rapid gunfire and her father saying, "Hey man, stop shooting."
Heffington's two daughters ran out the front of the house toward their father's residence down the road. The oldest daughter said she saw her father's truck drive past them and swerve into the ditch. The two daughters reportedly ran to get the help of Ms. Hurst who was inside.
In cross-examination, Shaw pointed out none of the children were in the room at the time of the shooting and did not see exactly what transpired.
and the fiancee
Henry Heffington, Keller Heffington's brotjer. was present at the time of the shooting and called it an "executed murder," stating his brother did nothing to provoke the shooting. In cross-examination, Shaw questioned the witness about any knowledge he had of deed transfers from his mother to Keller
Shaw implied the deeds were obtained by Heffington in a fraudulent manner and a lawsuit filed by the mother was filed to get the property back. Henry Heffington had no knowledge of the nature of the lawsuit other than it was to "get property back."
Henry Heffington said his brother was a good man and to his knowledge Keller Heffington had no illegal sources of income.
Ms. Hurst gave an emotionally charged account of the incident, beginning with the children running to the house and the subsequent waiting for the ambulance. She told the jury Keller Heffington was unable to speak after driving into the ditch in front of his residence.
"He was moaning over and over again until the ambulance arrived," she said.
She explained Conger and the deceased had no contact that day prior to the shooting.
"He had no conversation with him," she said. "We (she and Keller Heffington) were together the whole time."
Law enforcement and medical
Toward the end of the day Wednesday, the prosecution began calling law enforcement authorities and the medical examiner in order to describe the logistics of the shooting and the scene.
Arkansas State Trooper Tim Carter told the jury he assisted on the scene and with the esuing search for Conger.
In cross-examination, Shaw found out that Carter knew Heffington through contact in the past.
"I had stopped (Heffington) ... issued citations and warnings in the past," Carter said, stating also there was intelligence regarding criminal activity and Heffington but nothing had been proven.
Max Young of the Arkansas State Police told the jury he tried to get Heffington to tell him
who shot him but he only "continued to groan." Young also helped search for Conger that night. He also stated he had known Heffington.
"He had a reputation," he said. "I knew him a lot by his reputation."
The final witness of the day was Dr. Stephen Erickson, a forensic pathologist from the Arkansas State Crime lab. Erickson explained the victim's body had six gunshot wounds.
Two of these were located on the victim's back, one in his right side, and the remaining three in his right arm. He clarified that the wound in the victim's side could have been a "re-entry" wound after one of the bullets traveled through the arm into Heffington's side.
According to Erickson, at least three of the wounds were of a "very serious nature" and could have been fatal.
After Shaw and defense attorney Steve Harper acted out a proposed scenario, Erickson said he could not rule out a situation in which Heffington could have been reaching for a gun.
However, Erickson also stated he could not say that such a situation did occur.
Vaden's final witness was Chuck Williams of the Faulkner County Sheriff's Office, who brought forth the confession he and another law enforcement officer obtained from Conger the day after the shooting.
After the state concluded, the defense began with Conger taking the stand.