The taser that was first deployed on 18-year-old Keith Vidal before he was shot and killed by a Southport police officer was the center of a defense witness’ testimony Thursday in Brunswick County Superior Court.
The bench trial on a voluntary manslaughter charge against Bryon Vassey resumed Thursday, after Judge Richard Brown adjourned court on Wednesday for all parties to investigate “legal issues.” When trial began Thursday morning, the judge made no mention in open court about what legal issues needed review.
The defense continued to present witnesses in Vassey’s case. Vassey, then a Southport officer who is now on unpaid administrative leave, is accused of firing a single shot that killed Vidal on Jan. 5, 2014, when Vidal’s stepfather called police to their Boiling Spring Lakes home for help.
Bryan Chiles – a tech compliance manager at TASER International, the company who makes the stun guns – was the only defense witness to testify on Thursday. Chiles testified he was contacted by Vassey’s defense team to conduct a full review of the taser used by Brunswick County Sheriff’s Deputy Samantha Lewis-Chavis to subdue Vidal during the incident. Chiles said he has testified for seven other court cases in the country.
His analysis of the stun gun at TASER headquarters in Arizona indicated the weapon in the case was “operating to specifications.” The particular taser – now an obsolete model of the stun gun, he noted – can be used in two ways.
Chiles said the taser can be used by shooting the weapon’s two probes at a subject in a maximum range of 15-25 feet, depending on the length of the probe wires. The stun gun can also be used to “drive stun” a person by touching the taser directly to the subject.
In her testimony, Chavis said she used her taser both ways in an attempt to subdue Vidal. Chavis testified the weapon functioned properly when it was first deployed on Vidal’s body, but issues with the taser caused her to touch the stun gun to Vidal’s chest as the teen struggled with Boiling Spring Lakes Officer John Thomas in the hallway of the home.
Records from the taser’s memory chip indicated Chavis pulled the taser’s trigger six times – two times before Vassey fired his weapon and four times after, with the last trigger pull lasting between six and seven seconds, Chiles said.
The probes of the taser have “barbs” much like a “straight fishing hook” that stick into a subject when the weapon is fired, Chiles testified. But upon reviewing the autopsy of Vidal, Chiles said he found only one mark of probe impact on Vidal’s cheek. The second, Chiles testified, would have hit his clothing. If the second probe was close enough to his body, Chiles said it would have completed the electrical circuit needed for the stun gun’s full “lock up” effect on Vidal’s body.
Thomas testified the taser did have the normal five-second effect on Vidal, which caused the teen to “lock up.” But the weapon ceased to have an effect on Vidal during their struggle in the hallway.
Chiles said that once the weapon is used to stun a subject the person could function normally after being stunned. When asked by the defense if a person could move after the stun, he testified a person could still fight.
The defense played Officer Thomas’ body microphone recording for Chiles to testify to the taser sounds captured in the audio. The defense used the audio and Chiles’ expertise to show how the weapon was functioning, before and after the sound of Vassey’s gun.
As the audio was played, the defense concluded with their witness that a “low noise” was the stun gun deployed seconds before the loud “bang” of Vassey’s gun. Chiles also testified to a loud “crackle” sound on the audio after the gunshot, which indicated the stun gun was not affecting Vidal.
Chiles testified his report indicated the second stun on Vidal did not appear be effective. He testified it was likely that the second probe hit Vida’s clothing and had moved far way enough from his body to break the electrical circuit needed for the full effect of the weapon.
Testimony in the case will continue Friday with more defense witnesses.