Sitting in her wheelchair, Martha Childress told a jury Tuesday she had no idea what was happening the night she was shot in Five Points while waiting for a cab.
“All of a sudden, I heard this really loud noise, and I’m not really sure what it was, and I just fell to the ground,” Childress said, testifying in the trial of Michael Juan Smith.
Smith is charged with attempted murder and five weapons violations in the early morning Oct. 13, 2013, shooting that left Childress, then a freshman at the University of South Carolina, paralyzed from the waist down.
The third witness called to testify, Childress grew tearful recalling holding out her hand to a lifelong friend who was with her and saying, “ ‘Ellison, I can’t move my legs.’ ”
In their opening statements, state prosecutors said a bullet from the gun that Smith fired hit Childress.
Smith is guilty of “intentionally shooting into a crowd, trying to kill someone, leaving Martha to struggle for her life,” said Assistant Solicitor Dolly Garfield.
But Smith’s defense attorney, Aimee Zmroczek, attempted to cast doubt about whether Smith shot Childress.
In dispute in the case is “whose bullet is lodged in this poor, poor girl’s spine,” Zmroczek said, adding Smith fired a shot in self-defense against gang members, “one of whom was carrying a gun” and “targeted Michael Smith.”
Police testifying Tuesday said they had no evidence that another gun was present at the scene of the crime.
In her testimony, Childress said she and friends had gone to a concert and had been drinking the night she was shot. The group just had finished dinner when they headed to the fountain at the corner of Harden and Greene streets, crowded with Five Points revelers trying to catch a taxi.
Childress described the confusion of the moment after she fell to the ground – how she did not learn she had been shot until a paramedic told her.
Zmroczek did not question Childress, now a 20-year-old USC sophomore.
The Richland County paramedic who responded to the emergency call testified Childress’ injuries were severe and life-threatening. Childress, who suffered damage to her lung, kidney and liver, was having trouble breathing and her legs were twitching when the paramedic found her.
The jury also heard testimony from two Columbia police officers, the owner of a security company that has cameras installed in Five Points and Childress’ friend, who said she heard four or five gunshots.
Police testified they heard shots fired but what they heard could have been the echo from a single shot.
Columbia Police Capt. Derrick Thornton, who oversees criminal investigations, described a surveillance video to the jury, noting Smith appeared to be carrying a gun in his pocket, and switched it from one pocket to another after passing two other men on the street and exchanging words.
Later in the evening, Smith crossed paths with the same men near the fountain, where Childress was waiting for a cab and was shot.
Thornton pointed out where Childress was standing when shot, and where Smith and the other men were standing during the gunfire. But he said the video does not show a gun being fired.
The 22-year-old Smith could face up to 51 years in state prison if convicted of the attempted murder and weapons charges. Smith already faces a 10-year federal prison sentence after his conviction last year on weapons charges tied to the incident.
State prosecutors offered Smith a plea deal – a 25-year sentence if he would plead guilty to all six state charges – but the defendant rejected that deal, his attorney said Monday.
If the judge allows, prosecutors plan to share with the jury recordings of calls Smith made from jail to friends.
The jury also will hear from a state firearms expert, expected to testify that a spent bullet casing found at the scene matched Smith’s gun.
Before the trial began Tuesday, the judge and attorneys heard from Smith’s arresting officer, Theodore MacLaughlin, in a pre-trial session where lawyers had a chance to raise concerns about whether some testimony should be allowed in the trial.
MacLaughlin, who will be allowed to testify if called to the stand, said Smith was running away from the Five Points area where Childress was shot and toward him after the gunfire. Smith said he “didn’t mean to shoot,” MacLaughlin said.
Smith looked like he had something in his pocket, MacLaughlin said, adding he recovered a gun. “It was still warm to the touch.”
The trial will continue 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658