A jury of eight men and four women returned guilty verdict for Christopher Tahah Sept. 11, 2012.
A jury of eight men and four women returned guilty verdict for Christopher Tahah Sept. 11, 2012. After just four and half hours, Tahah was found guilty of first-degree murder and criminal discharge of a firearm at an occupied dwelling resulting in great bodily harm. Tahah, a former police officer for the Dodge City Police Department, had already been found guilty of felony murder for the death of his ex-girlfriend Erin Jones in 2008, but the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Tahah’s conviction in 2011 and ordered a new trial. Tahah offered no reaction as his prison sentence was delivered the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2012. Ford County District Judge Leigh Hood sentenced Tahah to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 20. Hood also sentenced Tahah to a consecutive 8 1/2-year sentence for criminal discharge of a firearm in an occupied dwelling for the May 4, 2007 murder. The confession During a May 11, 2007 interview, Tahah told investigators that he saw Erin Jones dancing with another man at a bar called Central Station in Dodge City. Bothered by the sight, Tahah and his friends left and preceded to another bar a few minutes away, the Dodge House. Tahah said he left the Dodge House a short time later, still upset by the incident, and went to his apartment where he changed into dark clothes and loaded three cartridges into his .270 Winchester short mag rifle. He left his apartment and parked his car at the Sterling House, just a short walk from Jones’ residence. From there he went to the alley behind her house and waited for Jones to come home. She arrived a few minutes later, according to Tahah, with a friend named Vanessa Weber. Tahah said he planned to wait until Weber left, and fell asleep while waiting. When he woke up, Weber’s car was gone and Tahah continued into Jones’ backyard. Tahah said his initial plan was to break a window and scare Jones but he realized his plan was no good and moved to exit through a gate in the fence. During the interview, Tahah said he had only brought the rifle with him for his own security, but as he was about to leave he got the idea to point the rifle at a window in Jones’ bedroom door. “I was telling myself that this is no good and when I was lowering the gun, a round went off,” Tahah said in a videotape of the interview. He then left the scene, got in his car and drove home. Tahah’s testimony Upon taking the stand during the trial, Tahah told the court he intended to testify he was not responsible for the murder of Erin Jones. Prosecutor and Ford County Attorney Terry Malone later criticized Tahah for his use of the word “murder” in his statement and said the only person who could really know if Erin was murdered was the one who pulled the trigger. Tahah said he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit in order to give Jones’ family closure. He also added that he feared for his life if put in jail based on his being a police officer. Tahah testified that after leaving the Dodge House May 4, he went back to his apartment and then drove to Jones’ house. He said he saw Jones entering the house through the open garage along with her friend Vanessa Weber. He told the court he chose to drive by her house to check if she had brought the man she was dancing with at the bar home with her. After he drove by her house, Tahah said he went to Burger King and then to a scenic overlook where he watched a lightening storm. He fell asleep in his car and woke up just after 3:30. Tahah said he left the overlook, drove past Jones’ home again to see if she had any visitors, and then went home and went to bed. Tahah said he fled to Colorado two days later because, after meeting with KBI agents, he could tell they didn’t believe him when he said he wasn’t involved in Jones’ death. “I was afraid I would go to jail for something I didn’t do,” he said. Tahah also said he decided to make a false confession because he was afraid his family would be too ashamed of him. The pursuit and arrest Colorado State Patrol Sergeant Timothy Hilfrety testified during the trial about his role in Tahah’s May 11, 2007 arrest. Tahah fled Dodge City May 7, only to attempt to return in a stolen Hummer five days later. Hilfrety said he received a call about the stolen vehicle around 9 a.m. at the Colorado State Patrol office in Limon, Colo. Hilfrety left the office and was headed westbound on I-70 when he located the eastbound Hummer. Along with other officers, Hilfrety executed a felony stop and directed the driver, whom he identified as Tahah, to exit the vehicle. Hilfrety said Tahah did not comply with the multiple commands given by officers and preceded to accelerate away in the vehicle. He explained that officers set up road fangs ahead of the speeding vehicle in an effort to stop the pursuit. The Hummer swerved across the I-70 median in order to avoid the spikes, according to Hilfrety, and continued to drive eastbound in the westbound lanes. The vehicle came to a stop for the second time in the pursuit and officers made a second attempt at a felony arrest. Hilfrety said he could see the suspect moving around inside the vehicle, possibly searching for something. Officers once again commanded Tahah to exit the vehicle but for a second time he failed comply and fled, Hilferty said. The vehicle left the interstate and continued on a frontage road. Hilferty said that after hitting a set of spike strips, the Hummer drove another five miles before coming to a stop. At that point, Hilferty said he had fallen behind in the pursuit and arrived on the scene several minutes after officers arrested Tahah. Another witness, Lincoln County Deputy Sheriff Gary Gale, who worked for the Colorado State Patrol at the time of the arrest, said he was close enough to the Hummer that he could see the door open and the suspect begin to run. Gale said Tahah ran about 300 ft before he was tackled by officers and handcuffed. He described Tahah as totally unresponsive to the officers, so much so that he questioned whether or not the suspect spoke English. Tahah’s defense attorney Stephen Ariagno repetitively questioned Gale on Tahah’s physical condition, specifically the fact that he was showing visible signs of dehydration, a question Ariagno asked every law enforcement officer called to testify. Gale said Tahah didn’t appear to be in need of any medical treatment, to be dehydrated or weak. Gale told the court he gave Tahah his Miranda Rights to which the suspect responded with nods to show he understood, further evidence, according to Gale that Tahah was in good condition health wise. After his arrest Tahah was taken to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office where he informed Hilferty that he was a murder suspect out of Dodge City. According to Hilferty’s testimony yesterday, Tahah told him he killed his ex-girlfriend with a .270 Winchester rifle. Upon Hilferty’s request, Tahah produced a written statement to that effect. The defense “The time has finally come for you to do your job,” Tahah’s defense attorney Stephen Ariagno told the jury during his closing argument. He began by reminding the jury that Tahah is presumed innocent until proven guilty, despite being convicted of felony murder in 2008. Ariagno told the jury that Tahah suffered through a series of extraordinary events that led to the unusual act, not of killing Jones, but of confessing to a crime that he did not commit. “On Saturday, May 5, 2007, Chris Tahah received a knock on his door. That’s exactly when a series of extraordinary events began to happen to this ordinary man,” Ariagno said motioning to Tahah, who sat simply dressed and somber in the courtroom. Ariagno argued that Tahah had reacted as any normal person would, following a break up. Tahah testified that after seeing Jones dancing with another man at a bar called Central Station, he became emotional and cried while driving to another bar, the Dodge House. Witnesses in the car with him at the time confirmed his statement. “This is normal. Typical. He was crying. There were no words of anger, no suggestion of animosity,” Ariagno said. “In fact, from day one he did nothing to suggest he had any animosity toward Erin.” Throughout the weeklong trial, Ariagno presented Tahah as a man with deep Christian roots who loved, not the thrill of making arrests as a police officer, but being a peacemaker for the community. Tahah testified on Friday that he was a bass player in a few praise and worship bands and received a Christian-based education. Friends and co-workers of Tahah who testified in court last week described him as a “nice guy” and a “good police officer.” It was this impression of Tahah, in fact, that led a friend to introduce him to Jones, a teller at the Bank of America in Dodge. But according to Ariagno, after becoming a suspect in Jones’ death, Tahah lost everything he knew in Dodge City- his friends, co-workers, his home, his car and his badge. The final break with reality for Tahah was his arrest after fleeing to Colorado and attempt to return to Dodge in a stolen Hummer. “He was hungry, he was alone, and Chris Tahah confessed to a crime he did not commit,” Ariagno said. “This was a desperate act of a man beyond reason and rationality because of everything that had happened to him since May 5.” The prosecution Ford County Attorney Terry Malone did not agree with Ariagno’s notions in his closing remarks to the jury. He urged the jury to use common sense, read their instruction and to use the evidence to arrive at the facts of Tahah’s case. “I want to you look at three words that we all use everyday in our lives,” Malone said. “Motive, opportunity, and means.” He argued that Tahah’s motive was revenge. Malone referenced an interview of Tahah done by KBI Special Agent Jason Larue where Tahah admitted he had considered seeking revenge on Jones but had never acted on it. When Larue question Tahah on why he had considered revenge, his response was simple. “Because she hurt me.” Malone went on to tell the jury that Tahah had ample opportunity to commit the crime. “He left the bar, went home and changed into dark clothes; and then he left his apartment with a loaded .270 Winchester rifle. He parked his car at the Sterling House and waited until Erin Jones was home alone,” Malone said. Malone identified the fact that Tahah owned the rifle he is accused of using to shoot Jones as his capacity to commit the crime. He told the jury that the state did not have to prove Tahah killed Jones, just that her death was malicious and intentional. He likened the murder to a basketball player or a hunter. “Sometimes they make a shot, and sometimes they miss, but the intent is still the same,” Malone said. Malone also asked the jury to consider whether Tahah’s actions were those of an innocent or guilty man referring to his flight to Colorado and extreme efforts to avoid the highway patrol during a high-speed chase. “When you watch the video of his confession, and he begins to cry, you will notice that he only cries when he talks about Erin hurting him,” Malone told the jury. He closed his argument with a paradigm from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. “Two contradictory statements cannot exist in the truth,” Malone said. “Christopher Tahah cannot claim he was not at Erin’s house the night of her murder and at the same time claim that, if he was there, her death was an accident.” The prison sentence As Judge Hood dictated Tahah’s sentence, an audible gasp came from the far side of the courtroom where Jones’ family and friends were seated. Tahah’s mother and father sat on the opposite side. His mother wept silently. But for the two families, the sentence was nothing new. Tahah received the same prison term for Jones' murder in May 2008, but the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the conviction in October 2011 and ordered a new trial. The ruling added instructions that allowed the new jury to consider lesser-included offenses of second-degree reckless murder or involuntary manslaughter, based on Tahah's testimony that his rifle accidentally went off while he was pointing it at Jones from her back yard. Jones’ father and sister spoke to the courtroom, each tearfully describing their anguish. “He ripped her from our lives,” Jones’s sister Theresa said in a video recording. “And he can’t even have the decency to admit guilt.” Jones’s father made a last-minute decision to address the court and spoke of how the death of his daughter left a void in his life as well as the lives of Jones’ two children. “I’m finding it hard to say what I’m thinking,” he said. “I wanted so much for my family to grow up as a whole family.” Tahah chose not to make a statement; his lawyer, Steve Ariagno of Wichita addressed the court on his behalf. Ariagno asked Judge Hood to consider the difference between a gang member on the street with a life of crime and an individual who commits an aberrant act. He asked the judge to consider a concurrent sentence for Tahah’s crimes. Ford County Attorney Terry Malone agreed with Ariagno’s assertion that Tahah’s life had not been that of a criminal but said his role in the community made his crimes even more heinous. Malone identified Tahah as a member of one of the finest fraternities, that of sworn officers of law enforcement. In his closing statement to Tahah, Judge Hood agreed. “When you join that the fraternity of people, your duty is to protect citizens from harm,” he said. “Mr. Tahah violated the public’s trust to the greatest extent possible.”