By Rhonda Smyth, CV&T News Editor
Larry Alan Riddell pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and tampering with physical evidence in connection with the shooting death of Eric Murphy in Estill Circuit Court last Friday. He will be sentenced to five years on each charge to run concurrently.
Commonwealth Attorney Heather Combs said the decision to accept a plea bargain with Riddell hadn’ t come easily.
“Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Jeff Stiles poured his heart and soul into this case and neither of us are happy with the outcome,” Combs said. “We thought it was the best we could do in this case.”
Stiles discussed the case at some length in a press release Friday. He said reaching the plea agreement with Riddell was a very difficult decision for the commonwealth as well as for Murphy’s family.
“At the outset, this seemed to be a pretty straightforward case. The factual circumstances were eerily similar to those in the case of the Commonwealth versus Bruce Hartley that was tried by a jury in August,” Stiles wrote.
“We thought we had three eye witnesses to the shooting. Unfortunately, Penny Goosey, Earl Willis and Paula Voils decided to assert their fifth amendment privilege (against self-incrimination) and refused to testify for the commonwealth. We offered those individuals immunity from prosecution in exchange for their truthful testimony. They refused.”
He went on to write that the commonwealth then had no witnesses willing to say that Riddell shot Murphy.
“We only knew that he was killed by a shot fired at his residence. In light of the new circumstances we presented the case to the Estill County Grand Jury again and they indicted all the individuals for complicity to murder. We were then faced with trying to prove there was a conspiracy among the four individuals to kill Murphy. We can’t get a conviction based upon speculation. The fact that the three eyewitnesses asserted their fifth amendment privilege not to testify would not be admissible at trial. We have to prove every element of our case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is a very steep hill to climb.”
Stiles stated the case was further complicated by the results of a gunshot residue test on Murphy’s hand by the Kentucky State Police. This test is to determine whether an individual has handled a firearm recently and gunshot residue was found on Murphy’s hands.
“While this test was not conclusive that Murphy had fired a handgun, it supported a claim of self-defense by the defendants. That is, they could argue that Eric Murphy had come to their residence without an invitation and was killed in self-defense when he pulled a gun and began firing at the occupants of the Riddell residence,” Stiles wrote.
He stated he and Combs were in constant contact with Murphy’s mother and sister throughout the case and that they were aware of the evidentiary problems with which the commonwealth was faced.
“To accept this plea was difficult and emotional for Eric’s mother and sisters. They are not pleased but they do not feel that justice was done. However, they had to weigh the very real possibility that a trial could result in Riddell being acquitted by a jury,” Stiles wrote. “After mch soul searching, they agreed to accept this plea offer. If they had not agreed, this case would have gone on as scheduled.
Conpiracy charges were also dismissed against Voils, Willis and Goosey.
Murphy was killed March 19 and Riddell was arrested a few days later by park rangers at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
Forma sentencing for Riddell is set for Jan. 8.