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Knox County Jury Acquits Memphis Man on Trial for Stabbing His Neighbor

(This story was printed in the April 3, 2019 edition of The Edina Sentinel.) By Echo Menges Edina, Missouri – A Knox County Jury was seated to decide the fate of a Memphis man after he was arrested and held in jail for over a year to await his trial. The jury was chosen on Thursday, March 21, 2019, to decide the Class A felony assault case from Scotland County. The case, State vs. Curtis Cousins, 35, of Memphis, MO, began nearly one year ago after Cousins was arrested following the stabbing of his neighbor. According to the probable cause statement filed in the case, Cousins stood accused of stabbing Jason Kerkmann multiple times on March 20, 2018, during an altercation in a garage across the street from the Kerkmann residence after Kerkmann went to the garage to confront Cousins about an alleged altercation between Cousins and Kerkmann’s sister, Kim Kerkmann. The probable cause statement filed in Scotland County, which was written by Memphis Police Department Sgt. Zac Campbell, reads as follows: At approximately 7:00 (a.m.) I was dispatched to the Scotland County Hospital about a victim with multiple stab wounds. I arrived and spoke to the victim (Jason Kerkmann), who was being treated for multiple stab wounds including a sucking chest wound and collapsed lung. (Kerkmann) stated he noticed Cousins across the street from his residence, and he went over to confront him about an assault that he believed Cousins had done to his sister recently. He stated that Cousins encouraged him to come fight him. (Kerkmann) stated that they got into a scuffle in the garage and he thought Cousins was just hitting him until he felt burning pain in his thigh and a gurgling wound to his chest and noticed he was bleeding a lot. (Kerkmann’s sister arrived from across the street and observed the end of the altercation and yelled at Cousins asking him what he was doing. Deputy Whitney went to the residence looking for Cousins but his vehicle was gone and he had apparently fled the area. Cousins did not make any contact with the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office about the incident, and I found out Cousins has two warrants from counties in Iowa. A change of venue and change of judge brought the case from the First Judicial Circuit to the Knox County Courtroom with Knox County Associate Circuit Judge Tom Redington presiding on July 13, 2018. The case was originally filed by former Scotland County Prosecutor and current Judge Kimberly Nicoli, and inherited by newly elected Prosecutor April Wilson when Wilson took office on January 1, 2019. Simultaneously, Nicoli moved into the Scotland County Associate Circuit Judge seat. Cousins was represented by Brian Kelley who was assigned to the case by the Missouri Public Defender’s Office in Kirksville. The trial, originally scheduled to be held in December, was plagued by delays, scheduling conflicts and paperwork hang-ups including the refusal of the alleged victim to release his medical records to court council charged with defending and prosecuting the case. In the year leading up to the trial, Cousins was held at the Scotland County Jail in lieu of a $100,000 cash only bond at a cost to Scotland County taxpayers of $35 per day, according to court documents. After 367 days in jail, the cost of incarcerating Cousins totaled $12,845. The trial began with jury selection one year and one day after the stabbing occurred. Over 50 prospective jurors were brought in on Thursday morning, March 21. Twelve jurors and one alternate were chosen the same morning by Wilson, Kelley and Sherry Nelson, another attorney assigned to assist with the defense by the public defender’s office in Kirksville. Opening arguments by Wilson and Kelley lasted only minutes and were to-the-point by both attorneys. Wilson argued that despite Kerkmann’s use of methamphetamine and other mind-altering drugs, which were found to be in his system at the hospital during the treatment of multiple stab wounds, Cousins purposefully assaulted Kerkmann with the knife with intent to cause harm. Kelley argued Cousins was being attacked by Kerkmann and his actions during the altercation were purely self-defense. The prosecution called a number of witnesses to testify during the trial including the lead investigator Memphis Police Officer Sgt. Zac Campbell, sister of the alleged victim and former lover of Cousins Kim Kerkmann, owner of the home Cousins was living at Bruce Dempsey, two doctors from the Scotland County Hospital, Dr. Chris Gifford and Dr. Celeste Miller-Parrish, and the alleged victim Jason Kerkmann. Campbell testified it took him 12 to 13 hours to find Cousins in a Memphis trailer court after visiting the same trailer court three times in search of the suspect. Campbell also testified that Cousins told him he did not report the altercation to law enforcement because “with his criminal past” he would not be believed, which brought a stern reprimand from Judge Redington who instructed the jury to disregard the statement. “It was improper for the police officer to make that statement,” Judge Redington told the jury. Campbell was questioned on the stand by Kelley when asked about a crime victim’s compensation fund form in which Campbell wrote “yes” to a question asking if the victim contributed to his own injuries. Kim Kerkmann was taken into custody when she arrived at the courthouse ahead of her testimony. It was revealed in court she left before being deposed for the case twice before. Kim Kerkmann testified she went to see cousins in the early morning hours before the stabbing for approximately 45 minutes before going to her car to wait for her brother to wake up several hours later. She told the court she fell asleep waiting and awoke to her brother wanting to know why she was there and testified he noticed Cousins was in the garage across the street and went there to confront him. When asked why her brother went to confront Cousins by Wilson, Kim Kerkmann said, “I was beaten pretty severely by Mr. Cousins.” That piece of the testimony drew a reprimand from Judge Redington who reminded the witness, the rest of the court and the jury, the unsubstantiated claim of an altercation between Kim Kerkmann and Cousins was not allowed to be considered by the jury as there was no documentation such an event occurred. Kim Kerkmann testified she entered the garage at the end of the altercation between Kerkmann and Cousins, Kerkmann pushed past her to exit the garage and she met him outside the garage to find him severely injured with multiple stab wounds. “I could see blood coming from everywhere,” said Kim Kerkmann. “I could hear gurgling.” Kim Kerkmann testified about the horror of rushing her brother to the nearby Scotland County Hospital while telling him to “Hang on!” Kim Kirkman testified she left the hospital at the request of her brother to go be with her brother’s nine-year-old child who was left alone at the home. Before going back to check on the child, she stopped back by the scene of the fight and confronted Cousins about the stabbing telling the jury Cousins told her, “I hope I killed the (expletive).” Kim Kerkmann was questioned on the stand by Kelley during his cross-examination. Kelley pointed out that the witness never told investigators about going back to the garage after leaving the hospital. She left the interaction out of her original statement. Kelley also questioned Kim Kerkmann about her testimony of what was said in the garage. Kim Kerkmann told the court she heard her brother say, “I better never see my sister look like that again.” Kelley pointed out in her original statement, she wrote she couldn’t understand what was being said in the garage. “My memory cleared up a few months later,” said Kim Kerkmann. Bruce Dempsey, owner of the home where Cousins was living and occupant of the neighboring garage where the altercation took place, testified both Cousins and Kerkmann had permission to be inside the garage. Jason Kerkmann, the alleged victim, testified he went to the garage to confront Cousins. “I said, I didn’t appreciate him putting his hands on my sister,” Kerkmann told the court. “He said, it was none of my (expletive) business. I said, we’ll see about that.” Kerkmann explained the fight to a degree but didn’t remember who started fighting first. “I lunged at him. He lunged at me,” said Kerkmann. “I don’t know who hit or stabbed first.” Kerkmann also told the court at one point, Cousins was on the ground during the fight. “He was down but not out,” said Kerkmann. “He was using my body to get back up.” Kerkmann told the court about his wounds, pointed to several places on his body where he was stabbed in his torso and upper leg. There were six wounds altogether. Kerkmann also drew a diagram of the area showing where his house was in relation to the garage. Wilson also called Dr. Chris Gifford and Dr. Celeste Miller-Parrish to the stand. The doctors testified to the seriousness of Kerkmann’s stab wounds and the length of time it took to work on him. During Kelley’s cross-examination, methamphetamine, THC (a chemical found in marijuana) and alcohol in Kerkmann’s system at the time was highlighted. Kim Kerkmann took the stand one more time to talk about a digital message she got from Cousins asking her to tell police he was defending himself against the alleged victim. Following Kim Kerkmann’s second appearance on the stand, which was brief, Wilson rested her case. The defense’s star witness was the defendant himself, Curtis Cousins. Cousins testified he was using his pocket knife to scrape paint off a bicycle frame situated inside the cluttered dimly lit garage before Kerkmann entered. Cousins drew a diagram of the inside of the garage for the jury and reenacted the fight on the ground directly in front of the jury box with his defense attorney, Kelley. The two men acted out a scene of Kerkmann first knocking Cousins to the ground, banging his head hard on the ground and standing over him while punching Cousins with his fists. Curtis Cousins told the jury twice, “He told me he was going to (expletive) kill me.” Cousins also told the court he didn’t realize he stabbed Kerkmann during the fight. “I didn’t even think about going to the police at the time. I just wanted to get out of there,” Cousins said. Cousins told the court he went from the garage to the home of Michelle Khroulev, who he met the day before, and he went to her home and slept in her bed. He said he was unaware police had been to the area of Khroulev’s home looking for him. Cousins talked about his criminal history stating, “I have been convicted of a couple of assaults, two DUI’s as well.” Kelley wove in Cousins’ previous convictions pointing out Cousins pleaded guilty to past charges. “Why not now?” Kelley asked Cousins. “Because I’m not guilty,” said Cousins. During cross-examination, Wilson drove it home that Cousins did not seek out law enforcement after the fight, which was not rebutted by the defense. With that, the defense rested. Closing arguments ensued and Wilson delivered an animated display thrusting the knife into the air before the jury saying, “These are deliberate stabs.” Kelley held fast to the self-defense defense attacking the credibility of the alleged victim and told the jury, “In America, we have the right to defend ourselves.” The jury was shown several pieces of evidence throughout the trial including the knife, photos of Kerkmann’s wounds, various documents and heard hours of testimony before retiring to the jury room. The alternate juror was excused before the deliberations began. Sherif Gudehus waited outside the door throughout occasionally passing notes to Judge Redington during the process. The jury deliberated for about three hours in the jury room before coming back with “not guilty” verdicts on both charges against Cousins, assault in the first degree and armed criminal action. The trial was held over the course of two days during which the jury was under strict instructions not to look for information about the case or discuss it out loud or online. Each day the jury ate lunch together in the back room at Lucky’s Cafe, which is located across the street from the courthouse, with Knox County Sheriff Allen Gudehus, who was ordered to accompany the group. Each day of the trial, the jury was in the courthouse from about 9:00 a.m. until the end of the business day. The verdict was read by Judge Redington a little after 4:00 p.m. on Friday, March 22. The jury was excused with permission to discuss or not discuss whatever they wanted about the case. Judge Redington thanked them for their service to the process and excused them from the courtroom before anyone else could leave. Judge Redington told Cousins, “You’re free to go.” Cousins spent time thanking his defense attorneys and had a long embrace with his aunt, Stacy Bryant. “It’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” Cousins told The Edina Sentinel. “I was confident it would go the right way.” Scotland County Prosecutor April Wilson told The Edina Sentinel “As Prosecutor, there are some things I cannot endorse as safe in our community. In this case, I could not endorse that stabbing a person six times is not a safety risk to my community. The defendant in this argued self-defense. That is when we call upon our community to be involved in the decision. That is what makes our justice system so great, because if 12 jurors come to a unanimous decision, then the community has spoken.” Cousins’ defense attorneys, Brian Kelley and Sherry Nelson, declined to comment for this story. Following the trial, Cousins remained in the custody of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office on an arrest warrant from Washington County, Iowa, for failure to appear in court. He has since been transported to an out-of-state jail, according to the Scotland County Jail Administrator Bob Moseley. Kerkmann has not been charged with any crime in relation to the fight.

Curtis Cousins is shown leaving the Knox County Courthouse after being acquitted of Class A felony assault in the first degree and armed criminal action by a Knox County Jury on Friday afternoon, March 22, 2019. Photo by Echo Menges.