After three years of being identified as a co- conspirator in the death of Jonathan Pierce, Sammy Miracle was acquitted on Friday.
The 12-person jury returned not guilty verdicts on the charges of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery just after lunch.
It was an outcome that brought gasps from the side of the room seated behind Miracle. Among those pleased with the jury’s work was Doris Tucker, Miracle’s grandmother, who adopted him when he was 3-years-old.
“I am terribly happy,” Tucker said her face still wet from tears. “This has boosted up my belief in the judicial system.” During the last three years, as her grandson sat behind bars, Tucker said many people told her not to get her hopes up for an exoneration. But instead of giving up hope, she chose to take comfort in her faith. Outside the courtroom just moments after Miracle had been set free, Tucker said the outcome “was what we had been praying for.”
The trial lasted nearly three days with witnesses ranging from forensic experts in various fields to classic jailhouse snitches.
One by one the informers took the stand saying they had shared jail space with Miracle and heard him brag about his involvement in Pierce’s death.
The first inmate to offer his story was a federal prisoner who Miracle had spent three months with in the Claiborne County jail.
“He (Miracle) said it was a drug deal gone bad,” Dustin Gibson said of Pierce’s death. “They thought he was a snitch.” Gibson then went on to say Miracle implicated another male and a female in Pierce’s death but he did not provide their names.
Donald Dukes, another federal inmate being housed in Claiborne County, backed up Gibson. He said Miracle had told him a similar story about the night Pierce died. He also shared with the jury an incident where he and Miracle argued over the television.
“I done killed one dude, I can kill another,” Dukes said Miracle told him in the course of the argument.
And while most of the inmates recounted stories similar to the theories of the crime, Benjamin Harness, didn’t.
“Him (Miracle), Travis (Gaylor), and Miranda (Kirby) were going to rob a dude, you know pretend they were broke down,” Harness testified. He then said the trio went to a house and killed someone.
Each time Kit Rodgers, one of Miracle’s attorneys cross-examined a snitch, they agreed they had not been made any promises in exchange for their testimony. But each also agreed they hoped their cooperation in the case would weigh favorably in their futures.
As testimony from forensic experts began, some jury members started to take notes.
However, as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation experts shared what their respective tests of evidence gathered at the believed crime scene had yielded, there was little to write down.
With specialists from the fields of DNA, fingerprints, and microanalysis addressing the jury, each one said their tests had not concluded anything concrete. There was no DNA, fingerprints or any other physical confirmation of who had killed Pierce they testified.
Attempting to drive home the point that investigators had not found anything to connect his client to the homicide Tom Slaughter questioned sheriff’s department Capt. Don Farmer.
Farmer had been the lead investigator in Pierce’s death.
“You guys really left no stone unturned, didn’t you,” Slaughter asked.
Farmer agreed the investigation had been thoroughly conducted.
Slaughter also quizzed Farmer as to whether investigators had developed multiple theories, with possible multiple locations along with numerous suspects in this crime.
Each time Farmer said yes.
Just before lunch on Tuesday, Dr. Darinka Bolchan, of the UT Medical Center, testified as to her findings when she autopsied Pierce.
Blunt force head trauma was what had ended the father of two’s life, she said when Assistant District Attorney General Scarlet Ellis asked her for a cause of death.
She also said Pierce appeared to have “excess trauma to his neck.”
In describing the wound Pierce incurred when he was struck with metal object on the head, Bolchan used a visual reference.
The jury was shown a very large, up close picture of the injury that had killed Pierce.
“It (the head wound) was so deep you can see the fractured bone or skull and even some brain cells,” Bolchan testified. She then told the jury that while Pierce’s injury was serious, it didn’t have to be fatal.
“Survival time could be minutes to even hours but the help has to be immediate,” Bolchan said of that type of head injury.
Donning rubber gloves, jury members were given the opportunity to examine some of the nearly 40 pieces of evidence for themselves once Bolchan stepped down from the stand.
These pieces included the bloodied denim shorts Pierce had been wearing the night he died.
The next witness proved to be a surprise but one the jury was not let in on.
Jake Moore took the stand swearing Miracle had been with him when Pierce was killed.
Slaughter asked Moore why he was so late in offering help for his friend. Moore contended he came forward before but no one wanted to listen to him.
Asking him where he had been since Miracle was implicated nearly three years ago, Senior Assistant District Attorney General Mike Ripley pushed Moore for more information as to why he was so late coming forward.
Moore’s answer was he didn’t know whom to tell.
“Even though he was my best friend I wouldn’t be here if I knew he was guilty,” Moore said after the verdict. “I’ve got too much to loose.”
While prosecutors had used prisoners in an attempt to convict Miracle, the defense team tried it in hopes of clearing Miracle.
Adam Gross testified he and Miracle had also been in jail together.
“I’ve spent most of my time listening to Miracle,” Gross said of how he passed the days.
Rodgers then asked him if in the almost two years the men had been housed together had Miracle told him anything about Pierce’s death.
Leaning in closer to the microphone, Gross whose face was tattooed, gave the jury a glimpse into his world.
“There is a code we live by on the streets,” Gross said. “I didn’t ask him anything, it was none of my business.”
Anthony Craig Winnie then testified he too had shared a cell with Miracle and had tried to get him open up; but Miracle refused to talk.
Throughout the trial Miracle had sat very still at the end of a table only moving to confer with his lawyers.
But after Winnie’s testimony, Miracle addressed the courtroom.
From the stand the 26 –year- old, who had decided to wear a tie on Thursday, denied knowing Pierce or his wife Linda.
“My only crime is cookin’ dope,” Miracle said gesturing with his hands.
As to why Gaylor and Kirby told police he was involved in the murder and had landed the fatal blow, Miracle tried to explain why he thought the duo named him in the murder.
His explanation was Kirby was a meth addict and when he found she planned to steal some of his meth components, he had her “cut off” in the meth community. Incriminating him in Pierce’s death was revenge, Miracle testified.
Closing arguments brought the attention back to Pierce.
“I want to draw your attention as to why we are here today,” Ellis began holding up a picture of Pierce. She told the jury that while Miracle denied any involvement in the crime to them, his story in jail was quite different. In fact, six times Miracle had put himself on the mountain as he told fellow prisoners of his crime.
If Miracle was not there then why were the stories the inmates recounted that Miracle allegedly told them so close to what Gaylor had testified to as the events, Ellis asked the jury to consider.
Attempting to dispute the “drug deal gone bad” idea Ellis said tests had shown Pierce had no drugs of any kind in his system when he died. “There was nothing in Jonathan Pierce’s history that says he was on meth,” the prosecutor said.
Just after Ellis sat down Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton told those in attendance the “emotional” and “heartfelt” case was nearing the end. Sexton also reminded everyone that while the case was nearly complete, it was not over.
“I will not permit distractions from anyone in this court that might affect justice,” the judge said. “This is not a ballgame; it is a very serious matter.”
“These men would sell out their own mothers to get out of jail,” Slaughter said of the snitches as he began his closing argument.
He deemed Kirby as “the brains” of the crime and said Gaylor could have told the snitches what happened because he was in the same jails.
“You heard the experts,” Slaughter went on reminding those in the jury box no physical evidence had linked Miracle to Pierce.
And while he could have attempted to paint Miracle as a victim of Kirby and Gaylor, he didn’t. Instead, Slaughter used words such as “punk” and “druggie” to describe his client.
“Nothing personal but these punks are 21 years old in a beat up crappy car,” Slaughter said to the jury. He then asked why Pierce would have even approached them. “What would get any of you to follow them up the mountain- nothing.”
Putting the icing on the defense’s case, Ripley offered a final argument.
He said Miracle’s “disdain for the system” was obvious.
“There is a man who loved to talk,” Ripley continued. He requested the jury to recall the answers Miracle gave when he was on the witness stand. They could have been simple but instead of answers, Miracle gave “tirades,” Ripley said.
‘They are all dope takin’, dope makin’, murdering, robbing, punks,” Ripley went on to say.
Then he paused.
“I didn’t bring up that word,” Ripley said casting his eyes in Slaughter’s direction.
Moving just inches from Miracle, Ripley asked the jury not to buy the “Bart Simpson defense” Miracle was trying to sell them.
“I didn’t do it, you didn’t see me do it, you can’t prove I did it,” Ripley said. “You must find him guilty.”
After the jury returned the not guilty verdicts, Miracle was immediately removed from the courtroom by law enforcement as muffled tears were heard throughout the room.
Sexton then had each side of the courtroom separately removed.
“I’ll help him,” Tucker said referring to assisting Miracle in rebuilding his life. “He’s got a son, somewhere.”
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