Drinking, rowdy fans focus of Columbia road death trial

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 1, 2013 

— Football, high-spirited fans and excessive drinking became themes Thursday in the involuntary manslaughter trial involving a Gamecocks football fan who was killed in a bizarre traffic incident after the team’s historic 2010 win over Alabama.

Martin Gasque, 20, fell to the ground after being punched in the face near Williams-Brice Stadium and then was run over by a friend’s pickup truck and killed.

Prosecution witness Clay Nichols, former chief medical examiner for Richland County, testified that his autopsy showed that Gasque had a blood alcohol content of .23 – almost three times what is considered evidence of being legally impaired had he been driving.

Curtis Simms, 27, originally from Alabama but now a Columbia resident, is being tried for involuntary manslaughter and breach of the peace in Gasque’s death. Simms got out of the truck in which he was riding and struck Gasque several times before Gasque fell into the roadway, according to numerous prosecution witnesses.

Simms had consumed at least 10 to 15 beers and three Jell-O shots over the course of the day, but police detectives who interviewed him after Gasque’s death – which happened around 8:30 p.m. Oct. 9, 2010, about 100 yards from the State Fairgrounds – said Simms showed no signs of being affected by his alcohol intake. Simms told detectives after the incident he hit Gasque but was shocked when the GMC Sierra offroad pickup in which Gasque was riding began to move and ran him over, according to testimony Thursday.

Earlier Thursday, while the jury was out of the courtroom, Simms’s attorney, Johnny Gasser, told Judge Diane Goodstein he plans to present a witness during the upcoming defense part of the trial who will testify that he saw Gasque – a USC fan – loudly taunting Alabama fans after the game as he rode along Shop Road as a passenger in the pickup truck.

His upcoming witness will testify, “They were nice to Gamecock fans, but not to the Alabama fans,” Gasser said.

Simms was wearing an Alabama hat and a red Alabama polo shirt during his confrontation with Gasque.

Prosecution witness Adam Paxton, a 23-year-old Myrtle Beach resident who was driving the pickup truck Gasque was riding in that night, testified Thursday morning the two men were in a celebratory mood because USC had just upset favored then-No. 1 Alabama in a nationally televised game.

As they drove along Shop Road, Paxton testified, Gasque was telling passersby, “Go Gamecocks, congratulations, hoo-hoo!”

Paxton also testified that Gasque had been drinking beer all afternoon at a tailgating party outside the stadium, but he didn’t know exactly how many beers Gasque had while they watched the game on satellite television with some 15 or 20 friends.

Paxton, who said he only had two beers that day because he would be driving, also testified that Gasque didn’t harass any Alabama fans.

In his cross-examination of Paxton, Simms’ attorney Gasser made it clear that he intends to make the exuberance created by the football game central to his defense.

“This was a huge game, wasn’t it?” Gasser asked, noting the CBS TV network had made it their national game of the week and telling Paxton – and the jury – he’s a USC fan too. “One of the biggest wins in South Carolina history?”

“Yes, sir,” Paxton said.

In his testimony, Paxton told the jury that after Gasque got out of his pickup to meet Simms, who had come over to their pickup truck, he heard “a very loud punch.” At that point, Paxton said, he wanted to get out of the road so as not to block traffic and slowly drove his pickup to the right side, not realizing Gasque had been punched by Simms and fallen under the pickup.

The statement by Paxton, a prosecution witness, that Gasque exited the pickup before being hit by Simms, is key to the defense, which is trying to show that Gasque can be seen as the aggressor. Earlier in the week, five prosecution witnesses testified that Simms advanced on Gasque’s pickup, reached in the passenger window and punched Gasque at least once. Gasque then tried to get out, fell and was run over, those witnesses testified.

In his cross-examination of Nichols, Gasser had Nichols acknowledge that excessive drinking can give a person “beer muscles” – a false sense of strength and confidence that might lead to someone getting in a fight.

Nichols ruled out any possibility that Gasque had been killed by being struck by Simms, saying Gasque “died as a result of his having been run over by a truck.”

The defense’s case, described by attorney Gasser in an opening statement to the jury, is that Gasque provoked the fight and that Paxton is the one who actually killed Gasque by his careless driving.

Richland County Sheriff’s Department detective Travis Holdorf testified Thursday that the five witnesses, who saw the incident from various vantage points and portrayed Simms as the aggressor, were all independent and had no reason to favor one side or the other.

“We didn’t feel he (Paxton) did anything wrong,” Holdorf testified.

According to testimony, Gasque was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 168 pounds, and Simms was about 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighing 285 pounds. “Simms was a very stout person – he was a very big boy,” Holdorf testified.

Simms could get a maximum of five years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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