Testimony begins in Tolson second degree murder trial

Published 12:31 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2023

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Following Tuesday morning’s open arguments in Dare County Superior Court, the majority of day two in the John Curtis “Jay” Tolson trial was taken up with testimony from emergency responders.

Tolson, who watched quietly while seated with Assistant Public Defense Attorneys Christan C. Routten and Jennifer Wells, is charged with one count of second degree murder for the July 2020 death of 38-year-old Kitty Hawk resident Amanda LeeAnn Fletcher Hartleben. Tolson’s not guilty plea places the burden on state prosecutors to connect all the dots that prove he is responsible for that death.

At the start of the day’s activities, Pitt County Superior Court Judge Jeffery B. Foster, who is overseeing the case, urged jurors to focus on the trial and not be concerned with any storms brewing off the coast. He assured everyone that officials are keeping a close watch on current storm activities and, if needed, they would be allowed to go home to take care of any necessary preparations.

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With witnesses sequestered – a legal term for keeping them isolated from each other during trial proceedings in an attempt to preserve fairness throughout the trial – a sparse crowd of less than a dozen people were on hand to hear Assistant District Attorney Amber Younce address the jury.

During her opening comments to jurors, Younce said Tolson gave a different story every time he was asked about the events of July 22, 2020. She went on to say that the key to this case is whether Hartleben died from an accident or the actions of Tolson.

“We will present the evidence for you to reach a decision beyond all reasonable doubt,” said Younce. “When you consider all the evidence, you should render a logical conclusion that Tolson is guilty.”

Providing comments for Tolson’s defense, Wells said the case against Tolson was unsecured, undetermined and unproven.

She pointed out that Tolson called 9-1-1 when he found Hartleben that morning and directed EMS to the correct address just as anyone would. She said the police investigation did not begin until 53 hours later at an unsecured crime scene, and when first responders arrived there was no evidence collected and no signs of excess blood.

Wells concluded her comments, saying that there was no investigation until family and social media muddied the water for two months and that there is no proof a crime occurred.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bland joined Younce in questioning the first seven of an estimated 19 prosecution witnesses on their actions and observations July 22, 2020.

Among them were former dispatcher Raven Brown, Kitty Hawk Fire Captain Bradley Antons, Kitty Hawk Police Officer Kyle M. Hubbs, former Emergency Medical Services responder Valery Hayes, advanced EMT Holly Dennis, EMS Captain Corey Scott and EMT Lieutenant Nicholas Ryan Brady.

Most of the day’s testimony painted a picture of an undressed Hartleben being found in the tub in the bathroom of a small home cluttered with bags of bottles and cans and other trash.

The initial call was to an unresponsive female by responders with time on the job ranging from a few months to almost two dozen years.

On that morning in July 2020, emergency responders arrived about five minutes after the 9-1-1 call. There was no evidence of showering or any water in the tub and Hartleben was moved from the tub to the bathroom floor. No one recalled any blood on her head. She appeared to have a jaundiced skin appearance with some yellowish in the whites of the eyes. According to testimony, no significant blood was observed in the bathroom or bedroom, but nobody was looking for any blood.

The call was treated as an accident scene and Hartleben was unconscious and breathing lightly – some said not breathing well. No open wounds observed but her head was swollen and jaw clenched, both are signs of trauma. There was no reaction to a sternum rub, a technique used to test an unconscious person’s responsiveness. Some said her eyes reacted to light, others said not.

Some reported seeing yellow and black bruising on torso, arms and legs, others saw bruises only on the chest and none on arms or ankles, others saw only the wrist and ankle bruises.

One witness said she was moved to the kitchen, another said Hartleben was never in the kitchen.

Responders were at the house about 30 minutes and there was no opinion on how she was injured.

While in the ambulance preparing her for helicopter transport there was an eruption of blood from her nose and mouth, bleeding that blocked her airway and breathing. EMS techs performed a tracheostomy, making a surgical opening into the trachea through the neck and inserting a tube, to help her breathe.

She was transported to the Regional Medical landing pad site for a helicopter trip to a Norfolk hospital. An IV drill, pushing a needle into the bone so fluid and medications can be given to the patient, brought tears to Hartleben’s eyes.

The helicopter flight to Norfolk took about 30 minutes.

A few questions and cross examination about Tolson indicated there was no sign of alcohol on Tolson.

One witness advised Tolson acted as if he did not know Hartleben, but then gave her name and date of birth. There were also different descriptions of what Tolson was wearing.

During cross-examination of witnesses, defense attorneys more than once asked about differences between statements made in court and those made during a 2020 interview with Kitty Hawk Police Detective Brian Strickland. Most answered that they did not recall the 2020 statements.

Shortly after 3 p.m., with a caution not to discuss or comment about the case, Judge Foster excused jurors for the day and in their absence ruled on additional motions related to potential evidence.

After careful examination and comments from both defense and prosecution, Judge Foster advised that photos and other items gathered July 24 to July 29 would be allowed. He explained that he was not in favor of admitting some items, but case law indicates that he cannot deny it. He went on to say that those items could be challenged on validity, weight and credibility.

He then added that other items collected in September and evidence gathered by a private investigator are more troubling in that those items were gathered by an investigator paid by the family that waged a media campaign to influence police.

“That calls into question validity,” he added.

Judge Foster then ruled that evidence collected in September is not admissible.

After a brief warning tthat comment outbursts would not be tolerated, court was adjourned at 3:45 p.m. until Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m.


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