Press-Republican

September 27, 2013

Woman testifies to witnessing beating

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Angela Rivers says she watched husband Michael Rivers, Scott Denno and Paul Taylor assault 118-pound Robert Rennie, who crouched on the ground with his hands covering his head.

She told the jury in Essex County Court that Taylor did not stop kicking the Keeseville man even after she screamed, “Stop!”

Taylor, she testified, delivered another round of blows with his feet, clad in size-14 Chippewa boots.

“‘I’m not f*****g done yet,’” Mrs. Rivers said Taylor told her.

Her appearance on the stand took up much of the second full day of testimony of Taylor’s trial for second-degree murder in connection with the beating death of Rennie on Aug. 25, 2012.

The incident began after Rennie, 45, and Mr. Rivers started to take swings at each other, Mrs. Rivers testified, recounting, “That’s when Mr. Taylor entered the picture. He was airborne, and he punched Mr. Rennie in the back of the head.”

Rennie fell to the ground, she said, “and that’s when the three started kicking.”

This is the third time Mrs. Rivers has told the gruesome account in court, recalling how the three men then attacked Rennie and kicked him repeatedly.

Her husband and Denno were both convicted of first-degree manslaughter and felony gang assault in those two other trials.

On Thursday, Mrs. Rivers laid out events that led up to the fight: her phone call to police reporting Rennie was visiting Samantha LaCroix in violation of an order of protection; the drive to get Taylor from LaCroix’s apartment, where he was drinking with Rennie and LaCroix; and the argument she heard between Rennie, Denno and Mr. Rivers as they walked toward Mill Hill before the physical altercation began.

In court on Thursday afternoon, Taylor watched Mrs. Rivers testify, his jaw flexing sometimes as though he was grinding his teeth.

He stared toward the witness box, sometimes turned toward his attorney, Public Defender Brandon Boutelle, and scratched pen marks, making small dots over and over on the same two lines of ink on a yellow pad.

VICTIM SAID ‘OK, OK’

“Mr. Taylor would step back, kind of jump up a little bit,” Mrs. Rivers recounted, “then come up to kick Mr. Rennie. Mr. Rennie’s body would come up off the ground.”

“Mr. Rennie said, ‘OK, OK, OK,’” Angela testified.

The jury watched the tense testimony, some crossing arms over their chests, others looking down.

Mrs. Rivers said she pleaded with Taylor, “You’re gonna kill him.”

The beating ended when she turned on the lights of the van, where she sat in the driver’s seat, she said. Rennie got up and ran down the hill, she testified.

BRAGGING

“I drove to my home,” she told Assistant District Attorney Michael Langey, who is working the prosecution’s case with Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague.

“The three men were bragging about the fight they had just had.” 

Taylor, she recalled “threw his foot on the table and said he had ‘gotten him good with these Chippewas.’”

Mrs. Rivers said she told them to stop talking about it.

And when her husband; their son, Brandon Rivers; and Denno left to take Taylor home, she said she told them they were going to be charged with “at least assault.”

That’s when Taylor told her to keep her “f*****g mouth shut,” she said.

Later in testimony, Mrs. Rivers said that the warning was a big reason she didn’t say anything about what she saw for a month after Rennie was found dead at the bottom of Mill Hill Road and why she gave police two false statements, afraid of what her husband and Taylor might do.

OUT OF THE PICTURE

On Sept. 24, 2012, she told police the truth about what happened that night, she said.

Langey asked how her husband reacted.

“He didn’t know about the last statement until after he was arrested,” Mrs. Rivers said.

Langey asked Mrs. Rivers why she called police to report Rennie’s visit with LaCroix before the assault happened on that summer night.

“Him and Samantha has a volatile relationship, and I didn’t want it around (LaCroix’s) kids,” said Mrs. Rivers, who was her day-care provider.

Taylor, she said, wanted to date Samantha, and “he wanted Robert out of the picture.”

PLANS

On cross-examination, Boutelle asked if Mrs. Rivers recalled that Mr. Rennie had threatened to burn down the Riverses’ house.

“Yes,” Mrs. Rivers said.

“You and your husband didn’t take too kindly to that?” Boutelle asked.

“Correct,” Mrs. Rivers said.

“The whole plan was to get Robert Rennie arrested (on Aug. 25, 2012), correct?” Boutelle asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

“There was no plan to kill him?” Boutelle asked.

“No,” she said, “not to my knowledge.”

And he asked her, when her husband, son and Denno left to take Taylor home, “to this day, you don’t know what they were doing?”

Mrs. Rivers agreed.

SON TESTIFIES

Her description of events at home after the assault were corroborated by her son, Brandon, 18, who also took the stand on Thursday.

District Attorney Sprague asked him what he saw Taylor do after the fight.

“Paul put his boot up on the table,” Brandon said, “and he was bragging: ‘Look at this boot, Bud. It got him good.’”

Brandon said that after they dropped Taylor off at LaCroix’s apartment — he was living with her at the time — they stopped at the top of Mill Hill Road.

Brandon’s father was driving.

“My dad just said, ‘Do you think we should go down?’” Brandon recalled.

“I said, ‘No, let’s just go home.’”

DNA EVIDENCE

Court testimony early in the day brought DNA evidence to the jury.

Forensic scientist Brian Murphy of the State Police Forensic Laboratory in Albany was questioned at length by Langey. Much of the morning testimony centered on laying a foundation for DNA evidence, the testing process and scientific details involved in finding blood.

Presenting several oversized charts on an easel in the courtroom, Langey asked Murphy to explain the correlation between DNA tests and the control data that led police to arrest three suspects in the case.

Rennie’s death was ruled a homicide due to multiple internal injuries. He had several lacerations, including a five-inch slice to his liver. All of his ribs were broken, and both lungs were punctured.

Taylor’s charge of second-degree murder indicates that the prosecution wants to prove he acted with intent to kill.

BLOOD ON BOOT

DNA profiles of Taylor, Denno and Rivers came from discarded drink bottles and cans they had used while being questioned at the State Police barracks in Keeseville. 

Blood evidence was collected from boots worn by Taylor and Denno and from Rivers’s sneakers and Calvin Klein jeans.

Blood stains on Taylor’s left Chippewa boot were consistent with Rennie’s DNA, Murphy told the jury.

And a short-sleeved white shirt, size 3X, also had blood evidence that matched Rennie’s DNA, the scientist told the court. Stains under the armpit and from the inside neckline matched Taylor’s DNA, Murphy said.

CHALLENGED DNA

In defending Taylor, Boutelle challenged Murphy in cross-examination about the limitations of DNA testing.

“DNA test results can’t tell you the time it was deposited,” he told the forensic scientist.

“DNA test results can’t tell you the date it was deposited.

“DNA test results can’t tell you how it was deposited.”

Murphy agreed that the statements were true.

“Even a tiny amount of someone’s cells could be amplified (in DNA tests)?” Boutelle asked.

“Yes,” Murphy said.

“Is it true that DNA can be transferred from one object to another?” Boutelle asked.

“Yes,” Murphy said.

“And if someone stepped in blood on the ground, would you expect to find blood on their shoe?” Boutelle asked the scientist.

“Yes, it could transfer,” Murphy answered.

DRIED BLOOD

Boutelle also challenged that blood was found only on the left Chippewa boot, not on the right boot.

“Did you find any blood in the toe region of the left Chippewa boot?” Boutelle asked the witness.

“I’m not showing any analysis was done on the toe region,” Murphy answered.

Boutelle also questioned DNA evidence that showed multiple DNA types on the armpit of the white shirt allegedly worn by Taylor the night that Rennie died.

“Does the major (donor DNA) profile determine who wore that item last?” Boutelle asked Murphy.

“No,” the scientist said.

“Again,” Boutelle replied, “it doesn’t tell you how it got there.”

Langey redirected his witness, suggesting that blood on the shoes, shirt and pants was wet when it was transferred to the fabric.

Court testimony continues at 9 a.m. today. The prosecution is expected to wrap up its case, and the defense is seeking testimony from Denno in court on Monday.

With an appeal of his conviction pending, Denno could plead the fifth amendment via his attorney Joe Brennan and not be required to appear.

Email Kim Smith Dedam:kdedam@pressrepublican.com