On the witness stand, hoping to save his own life in the face of claims he murdered a woman he dated three years ago, John Eugene Chapman on Wednesday showed little emotion even as he described the moment he said she pulled a knife on him.
“I said, don’t do that,” Chapman told a Palm Beach County jury, who prosecutors hope to convince to give Chapman a death sentence if they convict him of first-degree murder in the April 18, 2015 stabbing death of Vanessa Williams.
Chapman’s defense team, led personally by Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout, has told jurors since the start of Chapman’s trial last week that the case isn’t a murder at all but a case of self-defense.
Chapman himself echoed the sentiments Wednesday when he took the rare step of testifying on his own behalf in the trial that is expected to end early next week.
After Haughwout questioned him about the days leading up to his final deadly confrontation with Williams inside a pickup truck parked near the entrance to the Palma Vista apartment complex in west Boca Raton, the 28-year-old former soldier who worked as personal security for an Army lieutenant colonel in Iraq kept a measured, controlled tone as he explained for jurors how he wrestled a knife away from Williams.
“It’s like she was so intent on pushing that knife in my chest and I … and my, my training kicked in,” Chapman said. “And then I’m defending myself. I don’t think. I don’t feel.”
Chapman said he didn’t know how many times he ended up stabbing Williams. He told investigators who arrested him a week later it was five times. Medical examiners counted 20 wounds to her chest and body.
Chapman and Williams, who had dated on and off for two years, reconnected for the last time several days before Williams’ death, after Chapman’s girlfriend in Cape Coral confronted him about his communication with Williams and Chapman decided to leave the house and move in with Williams.
That situation quickly devolved when the new living arrangements fell through, and at some point Chapman said the two got high on flakka. On Williams’ last night alive, Chapman said, they met one of Chapman’s friends in Fort Lauderdale for a night of partying, and Chapman eventually told the two that he knew someone who could sell them drugs in Cape Coral.
That sparked an ill-fated trip that eventually went awry and ended with Williams and a friend leaving Chapman after he took off his clothes and waded into a pond in what he called a “childish” attempt to curry sympathy from Williams, who he said had been berating him earlier that night.
Williams eventually picked him up again, but the two fought again after Chapman said Williams discovered text messages he traded with his estranged girlfriend in Cape Coral asking to return home. Chapman said he then began to search for his belongings inside the truck, only for Williams to tell him that she threw everything he had out on State Road 441 somewhere.
“I snapped. I lost my composure,” Chapman said, adding that he pulled her hair because “It was the most childish response I could think of.”
That was the start of the fight that would end Williams’ 28 years of life. Chapman said he later gathered her body and a few other items from the car and dumped them in a ditch on 14930 Smith Sundy Road in unincorporated Palm Beach County, where her body was discovered a day later.
Even during the toughest parts of Assistant State Attorney John Parnofiello’s cross-examination, Chapman never raised his voice and never expressed any emotion deeper than mild bemusement.
Once he wrestled the knife away from Williams, Parnofiello asked Chapman, wasn’t she no longer a threat?
“We’re already in the moment. We’re in a fight,” Chapman says, later adding when Parnofiello pressed him: “This is a lot of thinking that I didn’t do. I didn’t think about that kind of stuff.”
Testimony in Chapman’s case will resume next week.