Jury to decide murder or self-defense in Boca Raton death penalty case

10:19 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 Local
John Chapman was in the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey Colbath for closing arguments in his death penalty case in West Palm Beach Tuesday, February 6, 2018. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

With a grisly autopsy photo of her daughter looming on a screen in front of a Palm Beach County jury Tuesday, Ninett Martinez turned her head to look directly at John Chapman as a prosecutor described how Chapman sliced Vanessa Williams’ chin open in just one of more than 20 stab wounds he inflicted on her.

“What does it take to do this to a human being?” Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott asked jurors just then.

These were among the last questions attorneys in Chapman’s first-degree murder trial posed to jurors, who will return to court Wednesday to begin deliberations in the case for which prosecutors will seek to put Chapman to death if convicted as charged in Williams’ April 18, 2015 stabbing death.

Testimony in Chapman’s trial wrapped up Tuesday, several days after Chapman himself took the witness stand and told jurors he killed Williams in self-defense when she pulled a knife on him in the cab of a borrowed pick-up as they parked outside a west Boca Raton housing development after a night of drinking and possible drug abuse.

In his last words to jurors, Assistant Public Defender Scott Pribble reminded them of his client’s words on the witness stand, where he said his military training kicked in at the sight of the weapon. Chapman told investigators at the time of his arrest that he “went into robotic mode,” killed the 28-year-old mother of one of his children, then dumped her body in a ditch near 14930 Smith Sundy Road west of Delray Beach.

Like Scott, and Assistant State Attorney John Parnofiello before him, Pribble had a few questions he asked jurors to consider in their deliberations. Among them: If Chapman was lying about Williams prompting the attack by pulling out the knife, then why did the owner of the truck Williams was driving corroborate his story by testifying he kept the knife near the driver’s seat — a place where only Williams would have had access?

And, Pribble asked, if Chapman was lying, wouldn’t he have left out in his statement to investigators how he essentially started the fight when he pulled Williams’ hair in anger after she told him she’d thrown his personal belongings out on the road? And who would ever know how the final confrontation would have unfolded without the flakka medical examiners found in Williams’ system, Pribble wondered aloud.

Chapman’s actions were ugly, Pribble said, but at best they were justifiable and at worst a manslaughter or “heat of passion” killing. Pribble, representing Chapman with Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout and Assistant Public Defender Tatiana Bertsch, countered prosecutors questions of why Chapman didn’t stop after he wrestled the knife from Williams by saying there was no time for the reflection required for a first-degree murder conviction.

“How was he supposed to cool off? There was no time for that. What would anyone else have done?” Pribble said, later adding: “This is inside a pickup truck. In a flash. In an instant. Where is he going to go?”

Parnofiello and Scott told jurors that an instant was all it would take to form premeditation. Scott urged jurors not to give Chapman a “pass” because of his military training.

And, Parnofiello told jurors, even if there had been a fight, it certainly wasn’t a fair one. Williams, of Margate, weighed 110 pounds and was about a foot shorter than Chapman, who literally weighed twice as much, Parnofiello said.

Why would an innocent man tell detectives, as Chapman had, that he “felt like a murderer” after Williams’ death, both Parnofiello and Scott asked.

Pribble responded by saying that Chapman was ignorant about the law of justifiable homicide and in that moment was speaking for the first time about a person he’d killed days earlier.

Attorneys on both sides of the case acknowledged that Chapman, now 28 himself, expressed anger over what happened that night. But while Pribble described the emotion as a reaction to Williams’ death, Parnofiello said anger was the motive.

“You heard him say ‘I wanted her to feel what I felt,’ ” Parnofiello said.

Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath sent jurors home for the day after the final arguments, and will deliver a few final instructions Wednesday before they begin deliberations.