Petruzielo on Thursday was one of several witnesses to take the stand on Day 4 of the criminal trial for the embattled school board member, her political adviser, Robert Trim, and Cherokee GOP Secretary Barbara Knowles. The trial is expected to continue through today and possibly into the weekend or Monday.
The superintendent of 15 years told the court he was floored by the false accusations that he tried to run over the defendants, who are charged with making false statements about the incident captured on the tavern’s surveillance camera.
“It was a big surprise,” the superintendent said. “It was not a situation that lent itself to anything that would have been problematic.”
Petruzielo gave the court his account of the events outside the Painted Pig Tavern around 11 p.m. June 13, 2013, and painted a vastly different version than the suspects.
The superintendent was firm in stating he had not driven aggressively toward the defendants as they crossed the street from the Canton Theatre. Noting that Marlow, Trim and Knowles were clearly jaywalking, Petruzielo said he slowed down when he saw them and, “I didn’t give it a thought at all” afterward.
Petruzielo said he never saw Knowles, but Trim and Marlow were “arm-and-arm,” near a parking spot on the edge of the road. “Mr. Trim looked at me, and I looked at him,” the superintendent said.
The suspects, regular critics of the superintendent, had just come from a heated school board meeting a few blocks away when they were crossing Main Street, and Petruzielo drove by. They told police he changed lanes and seemed to accelerate toward them.
In statements to detectives, the defendants spoke of how contentious the meeting had been. Knowles pointed out to police that the superintendent has “a lot of issues” with Marlow, who has often disagreed with his policies, and he knew Knowles and Trim.
The meeting was also shaken up by a power outage, caused by heavy storms. Across town, a tornado touched down that night.
Despite the issues of the evening and the trouble at the meeting, Petruzielo testified that he wasn’t upset after he left.
“There was no reason for me to be unhappy,” he said, adding that his mood was actually “good.”
The superintendent said he was pleased at the time because the school board had made a positive move toward approving his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
Still, the weather changed the night, causing a power outage in the school board meeting and leaving fallen trees on roads throughout the county. The road closures led Petruzielo to drive through downtown that night, instead of taking his usual route south toward his home off Sixes Road.
Bill Sebring, an assistant superintendent in the Cherokee School District, testified earlier Thursday that he spoke to Petruzielo just after the meeting and told him about a road closure on his normal route, advising Petruzielo he’d have to drive another way. Sebring told the court during that conversation, Petruzielo didn’t seem out of sorts at all.
“He was fine … same as any other time,” Sebring said.
Petruzielo’s assistant, Melissa Whatley, told the court she, like her boss, had to take Main Street through downtown that night. She was driving behind him from the school board auditorium until after they passed the Painted Pig, she said.
She said Petruzielo was in her line of sight the entire time, and she saw nothing unusual.
“There was no indication there was any emergency,” Whatley said.
Marlow’s attorney, Brian Steel, however, questioned Whatley’s testimony, highlighting holes in her memory about details of the incident, as he and the other defense attorneys have with witnesses throughout the trial.
They also questioned the memory of Greg Glover, a regular at the Painted Pig, who was standing in front of the tavern, talking on his cell phone when Petruzielo drove by. Glover told the court he had seen nothing out of the ordinary, though he candidly told the defense he was on the phone and not paying attention.
Petruzielo also failed to remember certain details of what happened, details which the attorneys for the defense questioned him on heavily.
Since the trial began Monday, lapses in memory have been a recurring theme within the defense attorneys’ questioning. They have consistently brought up what could have been inadvertent misstatements to police, because Marlow, Trim and Knowles were possibly remembering wrong or perceived the incident incorrectly.
The lead detective in the case, Drew Henson of Canton Police, returned to the stand Thursday, after several hours of testimony Wednesday, and spoke of how he saw nothing unusual in the video of the incident, other than people walking into a tavern.
In the video, which was played in court multiple times, Marlow, Trim and Knowles are seen walking onto the sidewalk in front of the Painted Pig and quickly disappearing into the doorway. They do not linger or watch as the car drives away. Trim lets Knowles and Marlow enter the doorway as he briefly pauses, looking across the street toward the Canton Theatre for about a second before walking in.
Henson testified Wednesday that the trio looked to be walking “casually,” and not in a state of alarm and dismay, as they suggested to police. The detective has also noted what he said were multiple other incorrect statements made by the defendants, which the defense continued to question him about on Thursday.
Marlow’s attorney pressed Henson on exactly where in the road Petruzielo’s car could have been, as it can’t totally be seen in the video. While Steel peppered the detective with questions, Trim sat a few feet back showing a smirk on his face.
The attorneys also continued to bring up the possibility the trio could have been right when they told police there were multiple witnesses to the incident, instead of just Glover. The defense suggested witnesses could have been out of the camera’s view.
Henson conceded it was possible that several witnesses could have been somewhere the camera couldn’t record them, though they aren’t seen slipping into the frame around the time of the incident at all. But when questioned by Rachelle Carnesale, the prosecutor in the case, Henson said the defendants never told him that the witnesses were anywhere that would have been out of the frame.
Marlow’s attorney also brought up that Henson’s wife is a part-time paraprofessional in the Cherokee County School District, though the attorney said he was not suggesting the detective favored Petruzielo for that reason. At the time of the incident, Henson’s wife was a substitute teacher.
Henson laughed later when Carnesale asked him to clarify if he had gone after Petruzielo’s critics to help his wife’s career.
“No,” he said.
As the defense attorneys continued highlighting the possibility that the suspects didn’t remember correctly, Henson conceded such mental slips were possible. The prosecutor, though, asked if the incorrect statements given by each of the defendants on big details in the case were incorrect in the same way.
Yes, each suspect’s errors matched, he said.
Defense expert testifies
Thursday ended with the first witness called by the defense, Sean Alexander, an accident reconstruction expert. Alexander testified that he makes $150 an hour and is being paid about $6,200 by the defense for his 37 hours of work on the case.
Using 3-D computer software, Alexander told the jury he estimated Petruzielo’s car to be going between about 21 and 23 mph at the time of the incident.
That speed range differs from an estimate of a Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office investigator, who is expected to testify today and has estimated that Petruzielo’s car was going 11 mph. Alexander said he had issues with the methodology of the officer’s report, adding that 11 mph could actually have been more dangerous under the circumstances.
“It’s not accurate; it’s not 11 mph,” Alexander said.
Given Alexander’s calculations, he said the car could have come close to Marlow, and she could have perceived it dangerously close. Exactly how close the car was depends on factors difficult to know from the angle of the video, such as how fast she was walking, he added.
Assuming she was walking 4 mph, about average for most people, Alexander said the car would have been approaching Marlow from about 30 feet away, at one point as the school board member, who was trailing Trim and Knowles, was near the edge of the road.
The car would have been about 102 feet away from Knowles, who lead the three, by the time she stepped on the curb, he added.
Alexander, a former police officer, also touched on the defense attorneys’ questions about memory lapses.
“Witness recollection is usually based on life experience,” he said. “If witnesses were absolutely right all the time, I probably wouldn’t have a job.”
The prosecutor questioned Alexander about the possibility of flaws in his estimates due to the unknown factors of how and where the suspects were moving before they entered the camera’s view.