In the end, after listening to hours of testimony in the case of the State of Tennessee versus Jamie Brandon Lawrence, who had been indicted by a grand jury for turning his truck towards a protester at the Columbia horse show held on May 30th, 2015, it took the jury an hour to separate the factual testimony from the fictional testimony and return a verdict of guilty to a lesser charge than aggravated assault, a felony, to a misdemeanor charge of assault. Mr. Lawrence had pled not guilty.
Two jurors did, however, in returning a verdict, comment that they believed that there were extenuating circumstances in the case, apparently buying into at least part of the defense attorney’s contention that statements made by the protesters may have provoked Mr. Lawrence and his actions were not premeditated.
Lawrence’s attorney, Mr. Colley, who appeared to be back- benched by“Sister” Milligan, a big lick exhibitor from Florida who is also an attorney and was involved in the early days of the Larry Wheelon case, played the “not from here” card in his final statement. He was assisted through the day by multiple notes passed back and forth by Milligan and by conferences in and out of the courtroom during recesses. He portrayed Mr. Lawrence as the victim rather than the aggressor.
He told the jury, “ This is a case of people (the protesters) who wanted to come here and cause problems, getting a chance to do something that would help their case (calling attention to the issue of soring). That’s why they came to Maury County; this was going to be their cause celebre because getting a conviction of a horse trainer was going to help them. … “
Saying he didn’t know what passed for peaceful protest in Hillsboro, Missouri, the hometown of Ms. Bippen, or of Mulberry, Tennessee, the location of prosecution witness and fellow protester Tara Taylor, Colley tried to create the impression that the protesters were unruly and offensive throughout the entire protest, something which was not supported by the evidence or by testimony from local law enforcement.
“ They were screaming things like ‘rednecks’ and ‘we see how you are’…. Don’t fall for it, “ Colley told the jury, adding, “ If Ms. Bippen was afraid, which we question, it wasn’t a reasonable fear.”
Witnesses for the prosecution included two protesters and two members of local law enforcement, a Lieutenant Andy Jackson from the sheriff’s department who actually ran after Lawrence’s truck and trailer after it swerved towards Ms. Bippen and brought the rig to a halt, and a member of the Columbia City Police, Sgt. Orlando Cox, who had been sitting behind the protesters in his capacity of keeping the peace.
When the incident occurred Cox testified that he jumped out of his patrol car and headed in the direction of Lawrence’s rig, following close behind Lt. Jackson, who also ran towards the truck and beat on the rig until Lawrence stopped. Testimony from the law enforcement personnel was key to the prosecution's case.
Lt. Jackson testified that he asked Lawrence directly, “ What in the world did you do that for?”, immediately after Lawrence swerved his truck towards Bippen and that Lawrence responded to him that “ I shouldn’t have. “
Lt. Jackson further testified that he came back, later, to Ms. Bippen, requested her information, and told her that it was necessary because she might have to return to testify before a grand jury in this case.
Mr. Colley was insistent that Jackson had not followed correct police procedure by handcuffing and arresting Mr. Lawrence after the incident, if, he in fact believed, that Mr. Lawrence had done something wrong.
During cross examination, Lt. Jackson said he allowed Mr. Lawrence to continue to the horse show staging area after this initial contact, testified that he told Lawrence he would come and find him, which he did within 6 to 8 minutes or so of having him move out of the area. By that time Lawrence had changed his story, as described by attorney Colley, saying that he was only following Jackson’s directions, as Jackson had been directing horse show traffic just before the incident took place, and that he never intended to hit anyone.
On cross examination,Jackson told Mr. Colley that he did not remember having to get protesters either to disperse or to back off and, although he did remember hearing some of them scream after the incident “ that was attempted murder”, he declined to confirm Mr. Colley’s contention that the protesters had been using inappropriate language earlier. He did say that a few of them had been told to calm down and to get off the road. Lt. Jackson also testified that he asked Lawrence for a written statement which he never received.
Sgt. Cox described the scene as “protesters standing on the grassy area, about four feet away from the road, holding up signs and chanting slogans as traffic was coming in. “
Cox said that until the moment of the incident, “there was nothing to cause alarm in the interaction between the protesters and the horse people, but that at one point there was a verbal altercation between a protester (Tara Taylor) and Mr. Lawrence, who either slowed down or stopped in the middle of the road.”
Cox thus corroborated Ms. Taylor’s earlier testimony that Mr. Lawrence and she had exchanged words, which she described in her testimony as ‘what right she had to be there and how did she know what he was doing in his horse barn’. She described Lawrence during this exchange as angry and getting angrier, grabbing the steering wheel with both hands and then gunning his engine before cutting his wheels sharply in Ms. Bippen’s direction.
In his opening statement Mr. Colley insisted that this exchange never happened. “ The idea that Ms. Taylor had a conversation with Mr. Lawrence will be proved to be either false, either exaggerated or falsely made up, “ he told the jury.
Mr. Colley during cross examination used his I-phone timer feature to show that this exchange would have taken about 7.5 seconds to complete, but his theatrics did not change Ms. Taylor’s testimony.
Meanwhile, on the bench behind the counsel’s table, Sister Milligan stretched over next to a woman supportive of Mr. Lawrence who was sitting next to her on the bench and said, sotto voce, regarding the I-phone timing demonstration, “ That (challenging the time the exchange took) was my idea!”
Sgt. Cox also corroborated through his own testimony both Ms. Bippen’s and Ms. Taylor’ s earlier description of the incident regarding the driver swerving his rig in the direction of Ms. Bippen.
Cox said, “ He (Lawrence) made a swift move to the left, a quick jerking of the wheel and I thought, that’s awful close, and jumped out of my patrol car. “
Asked by the prosecutor if Mr. Lawrence made any comment, Sgt. Cox responded that he heard the driver say, “ You all don’t know the problems these people cause us. “ He also indicated that he hadn’t heard Mr. Lawrence say, “ He shouldn’t have done it.”, when Lt. Jackson first questioned him, but that he might have gotten that information from someone else.
The defense called five witnesses, a retired basketball coach who had been taking gate money for the horse show and was a member of the Maury County Horseman’s Association; David Sisk, the show chairman and a local farmer; another member of the Sheriff’s Department, Officer Diehl, Connie Lawrence, Jamie Lawrence’s wife; and, Mr. Lawrence himself.
Coach Brewer testified that he heard a “commotion” and walked down to see what was going on, as there weren’t that many cars coming through the gate and that he was “just being nosy”. Although he testified that he heard Mr. Lawrence tell Lt. Jackson that “ I wasn’t trying to run over anyone, I was just doing what you told me to do. “, he also said that Officer Diehl was present during this conversation, which was later proven to be incorrect.
According to Officer Diehl, he never left his post and was not able to identify Mr. Lawrence, although he did see the wheels on the rig turn in the direction of a lady, but, when he saw that city officers as well as Lt. Jackson had already responded, he stayed directing traffic. He confirmed he did not make an arrest in the case nor did he hear any conversation.
The conversation that Mr. Brewer might have heard was clearly not the same conversation as the one referenced earlier by both Sheriff Jackson and Officer Cox.
Brewer further testified he called David Sisk, the show chairman, to let him know that there was a problem.
When Sisk came to the stand, he testified that when he arrived he walked into a conversation with Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Jackson and that there was no one else who participated. He testified that he heard Mr. Lawrence say, “ I didn’t try to hit anybody.” , and that Lt. Jackson responded to Mr. Lawrence’s question of ‘what do I need to do’, by saying “nothing.” Sisk testified that Lt. Jackson then said, “ I know you didn’t do anything. I’ll be back later to write a report. “
Sisk added that Lt. Jackson later told him when the two were in a car together, that, “probably nothing was going to happen (to Lawrence) because he really didn’t do anything. I just have to write a report.”
Mr. Colley’s contention throughout these witnesses’ testimony was that if a crime had been committed, Lt. Jackson should have handcuffed and arrested Mr. Lawrence on the spot but that didn’t happen, because, Mr. Colley said, nothing had happened.
Earlier Lt. Jackson took exception to this characterization, telling Mr. Colley that according to police protocol he was not required to make an immediate arrest; that an investigation followed by a grand jury proceeding was also an appropriate way to handle a situation like this one.
Mr. Colley called Connie Lawrence to the stand, determined that she drove a school bus in Alabama, that she and her entire family was involved in showing horses and that they had been to the horse show in Columbia many times. She was asked what she was doing on May 30th and she responded she was riding in the truck driven by her husband, Jamie Lawrence, along with her father-in-law and her young daughter.
“ I had brought a book to read, “ she testified, saying that she didn’t really notice the protesters, didn’t hear her husband yell at anyone, didn’t remember him stopping, didn’t remember the engine revving, although she did say, “ I heard someone hollering, I glanced up, I didn’t see anything happen, although I did feel the truck slow down, I didn’t know anything was going on. I went back to reading my book. ”
Asked by the prosecutor what book she was reading (that so clearly captivated all of her attention), Ms. Lawrence said she was reading Outlander and added that it was a good book and a movie had been made out of it.
The prosecutor would later show that Mr. Lawrence’s father, who was sitting directly behind Mrs. Lawrence, had rolled down the window twice on his side of truck and had engaged with protesters, none of which, if Mrs. Lawrence’s testimony is to be believed, she heard, she was so engrossed in her reading material.
Mr. Lawrence was then called to the stand and described his occupation as training walking and racking horses and driving a school bus in Alabama. He said he had been coming to the Columbia show for 7-8 or 8-10 years, “ A long time, “ he added.
Under oath, Mr. Lawrence then set forth his version of events, saying that all the other years he had come to Columbia the traffic pattern was different, that it always went straight, but that this year Lt. Jackson was giving directions and “ I follered suit.” He told the jury that this year he was driving his small rig, that he had a tractor trailer but this was a truck with a trailer behind.
He said, “ I just happened to see Ms. Bippen and I had to over correct. I seen her to my left. I never made eye contact with her because she had a sign in front of her face.”
Earlier in Ms. Bippen’s testimony, Mr. Colley had tried to prove that Ms. Bippen could not, as she testified, have seen Mr. Lawrence look directly at her as he cut his wheels, because her sign obscured her face; however, a still photo from the incident showed her face to be visible at the bottom of the sign, which was held at an angle to her body.
Mr. Lawrence continued his testimony saying he never said to Lt. Jackson, “ I shouldn’t have done that” nor did he ever make the statement Sgt. Cox reported, “ That you all have no idea the problems these people cause us. “ His assertions were in direct contradiction to the sworn testimony of both law enforcement officers.
Mr. Lawrence, under sworn oath, said, “ I did not do that. I have never thought about running over a person. He testified that when Lt. Jackson did catch up with him “ about 30 minutes” after the incident, that he gave the officer his license and “ I felt like it ended good. I felt he would have to do a report because they (the protesters) were putting so much pressure on them (law enforcement).”
Mr. Lawrence also alluded to the fact that Clant Seay, the protestorganizer who was not called to testify, was causing a “ big ruckus”, saying he didn’t know what his credentials were but it was “his organization that was against us”.
“ He was the one who shot the video, “ Lawrence added, referring to the video that was used repeatedly throughout the trial by both prosecution and defense.
Mr. Lawrence was asked if anyone in his truck had been engaged with the protesters and he testified that his dad had but that he “didn’t think he was yelling”. Lawrence’s father was in the court house but was not called to testify.
As Mr. Lawrence testified, pointing frequently at the map of the roads surrounding the park, he seemed to grow more forceful in his denials and assertions. He capped off his performance by saying that he didn’t believe that Teresa Bippen ever moved when the truck was coming her way. ( It's possible that Mr. Lawrence didn't comprehend the irony of the slogan Big Lick, Big Lie, chanted by protesters in May as it appeared to apply to his own testimony.)
“ No sir, “ she didn’t, “ he told Colley, adding that the video proved that the sign was up over her face.
The prosecutor then returned to the video showing that the sign was clearly moving as the truck swerved left, indicating that Ms. Bippen must have been moving with it.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor conceded that Mr. Lawrence might not have intended to hit Ms. Bippen, that his intention might merely to have been to frighten her and then take evasive action; but, whether he came a foot away from her or six feet away from her how close did a substantial sized truck have to come to scare this “little lady”, he asked rhetorically, referring to Ms. Bippen’s very slight stature.
He then advised the jury that they would have to ignore what was going on in the park, and ignore that there was a group of people there who planned to come down and peacefully protest. He said that the issue was whether or not Ms. Bippen had reason to fear for her life or for injury and whether or not Mr. Lawrence had cut his wheels in her direction, not whether he had left the road, or made tracks in the mud, or made it to the grass.
Mr. Colley then followed with his summation, choosing to attack the protest itself as being the cause of the incident.
“ They got together at O’Charley’s,” he said, referring to the organization meeting that Ms. Taylor had described in her testimony outlining the rules for the protest and the requirements for staying within the legal definition of 1st amendment protest.
“ Then they came out to the park and they give everyone who comes there a hard time. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for Mr. Lawrence, for the first time in years, the sheriff was going to reroute traffic, supposedly for security reasons…. This gave Seay, Ms. Taylor and Ms. Bippen the opportunity to shriek, holler, and call names and to use what happened here to bring attention to their cause. That’s the motivation here… The most important thing is what happened after the cops ran over to the truck and that’s nothing. They didn’t even ask Mr. Lawrence for ID, insurance, his tag # and they certainly didn’t arrest him. …They were aware that nothing was going to come out of this.”
“ The reasonable people,” Mr. Colley continued, “ were the police who did absolutely nothing about this so-called felony that they witnessed. “
Colley then continued to excoriate both Bippen and Taylor essentially calling their testimony falsehoods intended to promote a cause against the big lick horse.
It was left to Mr. Howell to wrap up the case, which he did brilliantly, saying with some sarcasm, that it was very clear to him that all of the law enforcement officers and Ms. Bippen and Ms. Taylor must have been involved in a conspiracy to catch someone up. “ They must have decided that when the protesters began to holler that law enforcement would run out and catch someone, “ he said.
Although Mr. Howell did not directly address the clear contradictions between the sworn testimony of Mr. Lawrence and his wife with the sworn testimony of law enforcement officers as well as the two protesters, one of whom testified that she did “fear for her life” and jumped out of the way when she saw the truck come towards her, Mr. Howell made it clear that he believed that the case that an assault had taken place was made beyond a reasonable doubt and that Ms. Bippen was clearly a victim.
The jury must have believed it, too, and returned a guilty verdict.
Sentencing will take place in March. As Mr. Lawrence has no previous criminal record, it is possible that he will receive judicial diversion and that his record could be expunged after a year.