Renee Allison Jones told jurors Thursday that Preston Joe Sharpnack was defending her when he punched and killed architect Matt Casey in a dispute on Labor Day last year in downtown Austin.
In testimony that at times was impassioned and combative, she described the incident as a harrowing experience, saying Casey became enraged when Sharpnack asked him for a dollar and later grabbed her, threatening to beat them both. They managed to walk away, but at another corner moments later they saw Casey again, she testified, and he charged at them, with his fists up and hunched over “like an angry gorilla.”
“It was an extreme level of anger and aggression that he had over nothing,” she said before the case went to the jury Thursday.
Jones, the only defense witness, was the first person to give a full version of the events that occurred that night. But prosecutors questioned the truthfulness of her story, saying she never came forward to authorities and has changed her version of events since she first spoke with a police detective.
As jurors resume deliberations Friday, they will have to evaluate how much weight to give her recollection, which has differed from other witnesses who said Sharpnack and Jones instigated the dispute that led to Casey’s death. Sharpnack, 23, who has been in custody since his arrest in September, is on trial on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
In closing arguments Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Allison Wetzel said jurors will have to determine whether Sharpnack had intended to hurt Casey or whether his use of force was immediately necessary to protect himself or his friend. Even if Casey had provoked a verbal argument, she said, Sharpnack had broken the law by striking him.
“You can call Renee and Preston Sharpnack everything in the book, but that doesn’t justify self-defense,” the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Malcolm S. Nettles argued that Austin police were biased against Sharpnack and Jones because they are homeless. He told jurors to focus on Jones’ testimony and on security camera video of the first encounter, which he said proved Casey came at Jones and Sharpnack spewing hateful words and threatening them.
“Just because they are homeless does not mean they do not have a voice. Just because they are homeless does not mean they don’t have values,” the attorney told jurors. Jones and Sharpnack left the scene because “they are disposable people. They get up as targets every day.”
The tragic incident wasn’t caused by Sharpnack’s actions, he said, but by alcohol and rage.
Prosecutors have said that Sharpnack and Jones had been aggressively panhandling downtown when they first encountered Casey and Michael Campbell, who had been drinking at several bars. A dispute first broke out at Sixth and Neches streets, but the two sides separated, and the deadly confrontation happened later at Seventh and Neches.
Authorities were called to the scene after 12:30 a.m., where they found Casey lying unresponsive near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. He died from his injuries a week later.
In court Thursday, Jones said she and Sharpnack had walked away after the first argument and had been hanging out by the homeless shelter when she saw Casey advancing at them rapidly and fuming. “He was saying, like, ‘No, I am going to get these guys. I am going to get these guys,’” she testified.
In heated rounds of cross-examination, Wetzel asked Jones if she had been prepped by her attorney before she took the stand. Jones responded that she had not. At times, the two squared off, as Wetzel pressed Jones about living on the streets and what Sharpnack did to earn money. Jones said they hadn’t gone to Sixth Street to ask for money from strangers.
“Most of us don’t live on a lot of money,” she said, exasperated. “We don’t live like you guys.”
In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Erika Sipiora displayed screen shots of security camera footage that she said showed Sharpnack had been 23 feet away and had time to amble up, put his water bottle down and his shirt on before hitting Casey.
“No matter how bad the defendant feels about that death, that is not what you have agreed to decide,” Sipiora told jurors.