The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

January 24, 2013

Testimony begins in Pridgen murder trial

By MARY RAINWATER
Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — Jurors in the retrial of a 58-year-old Palestine man Wednesday heard opening statements from attorneys followed by a parade of testimony from state witnesses regarding the death of another Anderson County man almost four years ago.

Robert Lynn Pridgen of Palestine was tried for the January 2009 shooting death of 40-year-old Paul Rohne in March 2011.

Following approximately 10 hours of deliberations, however, Pridgen’s trial was declared a mistrial by 369th State District Judge Bascom W. Bentley III after the jury indicated it was hopelessly deadlocked at 8-4.

In opening statements Wednesday, First Assistant District Attorney Stanley Sokolowski gave an overview of the testimony and evidence to the jury of five men and seven women.

“You are going to hear how Mr. Pridgen was acting (in phone calls and when officers arrived on the scene),” Sokolowski said. “You will see video and photos of the scene and hear testimony regarding the weapons involved.”

Tyler attorney Jeff Haas, representing Pridgen, shared details of the friendship and overall background of the two men — both being intoxicated, Pridgen reacting out of fear, he said, and shooting Rohne.

“Mr. Pridgen shot Paul Rohne. We are not disputing that,” Haas said. “But with a blood alcohol level of .32, in his mind, Mr. Pridgen was being threatened.

“It is a tragedy — and nothing can be undone.”

Among the seven witnesses brought by the state were Anderson County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Kim Thrasher, Anderson County investigator Sgt. Ronnie Foster and retired forensic pathologist Dr. Delbert Van Dusen.

During Thrasher’s testimony, jurors heard tapes of the 9-1-1 call, which she said was one that “really stands out” in her mind.

“It was just the non-chalant way he said what he had done,” she said. “He asked how I was doing and said I was doing a great job.”

During the opening moments of the call, Pridgen tells the dispatcher that he had just shot and killed Rohne.

“And why did you shoot him?” Thrasher asked at one point.

“Because he was attacking me,” said Pridgen, whose voice appeared to demonstrate he was under the influence of alcohol. “...But I told you I got a dead man on my couch and I’d like an ambulance or something to come get him.”

The first on the scene was Foster, who served the ACSO as a shift sergeant at the time of the incident. Deputy Mike Mitchell arrived next at the scene. Foster served as the “lead” for the case until ACSO investigators arrived early that morning.

Foster was questioned at length about his investigation of the case, also discussing video and photos from the scene.

“I arrived and there was no one outside. All the doors were closed,” he testified. “I contacted dispatch to have them send Mr. Pridgen outside, and a few minutes later he came out.”

Pridgen was very cooperative, both Foster and Mitchell testified, and was handcuffed and placed in Foster’s vehicle. Mitchell guarded the suspect.

Foster then went inside the house to secure the scene for EMS personnel, who were waiting nearby. In the living room he found the deceased person (Rohne) “laying over on a loveseat, bleeding profusely.

“I had the impression that he was dead,” Foster said when asked to describe Rohne’s status. “That was due to the time frame, blood loss and position of the body.”

Foster testified that, during the investigation of the scene he and other officers noted a few oddities, including a knife laying loosely in the suspect’s right hand. The testimony implied that the knife could have been placed in Rohne’s hand after his death.

“I would expect the knife to be further back in his hand and to be gripped tighter,” Foster testified. “(Rohne’s) other hand had a tight grip on his glasses.”

Later in cross examination by Haas, Dr. Van Dusen testified that “there was nothing significant to interpret from a situation like that.”

In addition to the gunshot wound on the left of Rohne’s chest, Van Dusen also testified he had noted what appeared to be defensive wounds on Rohne’s arms and a severe bruise on his cheek.

“There was a firm indication that he received trauma to the head and arms,” the doctor testified. “The pattern suggested defensive wounds.”

Under cross examination, Haas asked Van Dusen if those type of wounds could be obtained from a fall.

“One of the first things that happens when a person is intoxicated is that their balance is altered,” the doctor said. “He may have fallen down and could have hit something. There is just no way to know for sure.”

Other witnesses for the state Wednesday included Anderson County Chief Deputy Troy Black, paramedic Matthew Corbin, Mitchell and Greg Hilbig, technical leader (DNA analyst) for the Department of Public Safety in Austin.

The state was to resume calling witnesses at 9 a.m. today in the district courtroom (second floor) at the Anderson County Courthouse with 87th State District Judge Debra Oakes Evans presiding.

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Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at mrainwater@palestineherald.com