Not guilty: Murder suspect beats assault charge
Andrew Alston, the UVA student charged with murder in the stabbing death of Free Union volunteer fireman Walker Sisk, was in court last week facing charges that he'd punched his girlfriend September 7 in what the prosecution called a classic case of domestic violence.
The defense claimed the girlfriend, reluctant witness Karen Graham, did the hitting– including punching herself in the face. And in the middle of the November 21 hearing, a man was arrested and charged with contempt of court.
Most cases heard in General District Court, domain of traffic tickets and other misdemeanors, barely go five minutes. That morning, 54 cases were heard between 9 and 11am.
Among them was the case of Robert Haskins, the man who attacked a woman walking in Greenleaf Park with her toddler last winter. He was back in court on obstruction of justice charges. For allegedly grabbing a woman jogging on Locust Avenue October 9, he was sentenced to 30-days, all suspended.
The 55th case tried that day took a bit longer, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours. Andrew Alston stood in his black-and-white striped prison garb at the bench for most of that time.
At 10:50am, eight witnesses filed into Charlottesville Circuit Court and to the bench to face Judge Robert Downer. Karen Graham, along with two roommates, a police officer, and her mother with her arm around her waist, lined up in front of the bench.
On the other side of assistant commonwealth's attorney Ron Huber and defense attorney Fred Wood stood the shackled, slight Alston, encircled by his mother's arm and patted by his father. They, along with Alston's roommate, were sworn in by the judge.
Graham, the first witness to be called, immediately told the judge she didn't want to be there, and Huber confirmed that his witness did not want the case to move forward.
Then the striking pony-tailed blonde in a pale pink sweater, who appeared taller than Alston in her one-inch heels, detailed what happened that Saturday night with the man she'd been dating for eighteen months.
Alston was hosting a birthday party in his apartment for one of his roommates. Graham said she had "two or three" glasses of wine, and by 12:30am, she was ready to "go to the bars."
She said Alston didn't want her to go, and that she pushed him in the family room "and maybe he pushed me" before she stormed off to his bedroom to get her purse.
"I believe I said stuff like he was ignoring me and that he liked some other girl," Graham testified. In the bedroom, she said, Alston pushed her into the closet where she hit her head.
"I was still yelling," Graham testified. "I was in Andrew's face yelling ...He backhanded me out of his face." Then Alston hit the light on the overhead ceiling fan with his hand. "There was blood everywhere, glass everywhere. I was very upset," she continued.
Alston's roommate drove Graham home before taking Alston to the emergency room. When she got to her apartment, Graham testified, "My roommate Anna asked if he had hit me."
The roommate and a neighbor called the police, and the prosecution submitted Polaroids of Graham taken at the magistrate's office showing injuries to the left side of her face and on her lip.
Under cross examination, Graham admitted she was intoxicated at the time of the argument and then clarified her condition: "I was at the point I would not drive. I could stand, walk, and talk. I can recall conversations."
She also acknowledged that she was jealous that her beau was talking to "an Asian girl."
At that point in the proceedings, a voice from the door at the back of the courtroom called out, "Dismiss." Judge Downer snapped, "I want him held in contempt of court," and a handful of police officers took off after the shouter.
Under Wood's questioning, Graham denied that she'd hit herself in the face, and said she wanted to drop the charges against Alston.
She recalled how later that same day she met with Alston's parents– who had driven from Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, to Charlottesville. She testified that they sat on the Lawn for a couple of hours while Bob Alston wrote out a statement that she initialed and signed.
"I'm really nervous, could I take a break?" Graham asked the judge at that point.
Just then, police brought in a handcuffed man identified as Jeffrey Williams. It was unclear whether Williams had any connection to the case, or if he had been shouting "Dismiss" about cases heard in the court in general.
Saying, "I don't allow anyone to make outbursts like that in my court," Downer sentenced Williams to five days in jail.
The defense continued to question Graham about her signed statement written by Bob Alston that said, "Andrew never hit me."
"Are you denying it now?" asked Wood.
"Yes," replies Graham.
And why did she sign a statement that she now claimed to be false? Wood asked. "I wanted everything to be over and Andrew and I to be together, whatever the cost," Graham replied.
Wood produced emails from Graham to Alston; his roommate, Simon Wagner; and his parents, in which she wrote, "I fully accept the injuries were of my own volition."
"I would do anything to be with Andrew," Graham testified as her lover stood before the judge. "His dad was promising he'd do damage control to keep it out of court."
Graham explained the signed statement and emails by saying, "I felt like crap, the lowest of the low because someone I loved had been in jail."
After almost an hour of testimony, Downer allowed Alston to sit down while he read a four-page email written by Graham, prompting Alston's first words that day: "I thank you, sir."
Wood again asked Graham why she had written emails suggesting she hit herself in the face.
"I was willing to do anything," Graham replied. "I got the impression I was a wild woman the night before and ruined [Alston's] life. If they wanted to give the impression I hit myself, I was willing to go along with that."
Graham testified that Alston's mother, Karen, told her that her son had never done anything violent. "She said she'd already lost one son," Graham testified.
The Daily Progress reported the day after the trial that Alston's brother had committed suicide a little more than a year ago.
A tearful Graham again told the court, "I wanted us to be together."
The first defense witness, Alston's roommate, Simon Wagner, testified that Graham was "cussing" at Alston at the party in the living room, and when Alston got up, "Karen hit him a couple of times in the shoulder and stomach."
Wagner said he followed the couple to the bedroom, where he stood in the hallway listening to their argument and heard glass break when Alston hit the fan.
On the drive to take Graham home, Wagner testified, she turned and took a couple of swings at Alston in the back seat. And when Alston told her to stop, Wagner told the court, "She hit herself with both fists."
Karen Alston, a school counselor, testified that Graham told her she "was hitting herself in the face and her roommate got carried away and called the police."
Her husband took photos of her son and his bedroom, she testified. Even 10 feet back in the courtroom, a bruise was visible on the photograph of Andrew Alston's face.
Robert Alston, who's on the board of supervisors in Lower Gwynedd, told the court he saw bite marks on his son's arm when he and his wife arrived in Charlottesville around 2:30pm September 7.
And he produced a picture he'd taken of his wife and Graham, with an enlargement of Graham's face. "I saw the injury on the side of her head," the elder Alston said. "There was nothing on her lip."
When prosecutor Huber asked about a court case currently under advisement involving Andrew Alston in Pennsylvania, Robert Alston responded, "That was a juvenile case resolved five or six years ago."
In that 1998 case, Alston pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy, and spent six months in a juvenile rehabilitation facility, according to the Progress report. In that case, the victim, a minor, was attacked by three assailants and suffered a fractured skull and broken nose, and had to have reconstructive surgery, according to Montgomery County probation officer Frank Snow.
At 1:40pm, Andrew Alston took the stand as his own final defense witness. He explained that he was talking to his guests as host of the party, and that Graham came up to him saying, "You haven't said one f-word word to me all night," and punched him in the chest.
"She was upset and yelling, 'Why don't you go f-word one of your Asian whores?'" Alston testified. In the bedroom, "She slapped me in the face on the left side, she bit my right bicep... and she punched me in the face."
He continued, "I never would lay a hand on her, ever. I would never hurt or punch her. I treated her so well."
Alston told the judge that he had never seen Graham so drunk. And on the ride to take her home, he testified, her ring hit his tooth when she hit him, and then "she started to hit herself in the face repeatedly."
Under Huber's questioning, Alston admitted that during a previous argument, he had hit the windshield of Graham's car "after she hit my face."
Huber called Graham's request to drop the charges and her signing the statement denying Alston hit her "a classic domestic violence response."
He added, "Mr. Alston's dad was already trying to put the squeeze on her... He knows exactly what to do, that you get to the witness as soon as possible."
As for Graham's truthfulness, he said, "She didn't want to be here. She had no motive to fabricate the story."
In his summation, Wood countered that the case was based on Graham's credibility, and he called her contention she never read the statement she signed "incredulous. If she's willing to say that, she'll say anything."
Judge Downer ruled quickly. "I've listened very carefully, and one thing I'm certain of: This is classic domestic violence."
He noted Graham's admission that she was very jealous, and the difficulty of believing anyone would punch herself in the face. He characterized Graham's willingness to do anything to keep the relationship alive: "That's typically what happens."
Downer continued, "I'm not able to tell beyond a reasonable doubt that's what he did... I am not going to find him guilty of assault and battery on these facts."
As the bailiff led Alston out of the courtroom, Attorney Wood followed them, but then returned to report to Alston's parents, "You can't see him."
Alston was returned to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail where he's being held without bond. The Cavalier Daily reported November 21 that he'd been in a fight in the jail and was being kept in isolation.
Alston will return to court on January 15 to face second-degree murder charges in the November 8 death of 22-year-old Walker Sisk.
"I would do anything to be with Andrew," Alston's girlfriend testified. Here, he arrives for his November 21 assault and battery trial.
PHOTO COURTESY CHARLOTTESVILLE POLICE
Walker Sisk, the firefighter killed November 8 on 14th Street.
COURTESY OF THE SISK FAMILY