Closing arguments are all that’s left for a South Carolina jury to hear before rendering a verdict in the murder trial of restauranteur and accused murderer Gregorio M. Leon.
On Valentine’s Day seven years ago, Leon shot and killed 28-year-old Arturo Bravo after finding him nude in the back of a pickup truck with his wife, Rachel Leon. Differing theories as to why Leon went to the scene of the shooting that night – and what he saw when he got there – will dominate the arguments of prosecutors and defense attorneys as they make their final appeals to jurors.
Nearly a week of testimony by state’s witnesses detailed the night of the shooting – implicating Leon in premeditation as well as an attempt to elicit false testimony following the murder. After a lengthy delay – which included a motion for a mistrial – the defense made and rested its case after just three witnesses.
The defense’s most important witness, Leon himself, testified he didn’t suspect his wife was having an affair, that he acted in self-defense because he thought Bravo was reaching for a weapon at the time of the shooting – and that he didn’t pay Bravo’s former roommate to provide a false affidavit to his defense attorneys.
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(Via: Dylan Nolan-FITSNews )
The credibility jurors assign to Leon’s testimony will make or break the defense’s case – as the rest of its witnesses only addressed details of the shooting itself. No witnesses were called to address Leon’s state of mind in the weeks leading up to the shooting – nor did any witnesses seek to explain his role in the alleged witness tampering.
Last week, the defense called veteran Cobb County, Georgia homicide investigator Robert Tressel to provide an independent analysis of the investigation into the shooting. Tressel agreed with most of the conclusions reached by investigators – but argued they lacked sufficient forensic evidence to conclude exactly what was happening inside of the truck.
That bolstered the plausibility of the defense’s claim that Leon thought Bravo was reaching for a firearm.
The defense also called its own forensic pathologist, Dr. James Fulcher – a Florida-based physician who formerly practiced in the South Carolina Upstate. Fulcher was a late addition to the defense’s witness list – having been retained after the state called forensic pathologist Dr. Janice Ross to the stand as its final witness two weeks ago.
Ross surprised attorneys by revising her opinion of where Bravo’s arm was at the time of the shooting. Her initial assessment was consistent with the defense’s contention that Bravo’s arm was raised. However, after belatedly identifying a “slap wound” pattern while reviewing photographs prior to trial, she concluded Bravo’s arm was likely at his side after the shooting.
Ross’ revised assessment of the situation cast serious doubts about Leon’s “self-defense” claims.
This new interpretation of the evidence was not communicated to prosecutors or defense attorneys until Ross appeared in court to testify on June 23, 2023 – which is what caused the defense to move for a mistrial. The motion was denied, however, in part because the defense was able to find Fulcher – who agreed to review Ross’ autopsy on short notice so the defense might make its case.
According to Fulcher, Ross – who discovered the “slap wound” seven years after the fact – hadn’t adequately documented the contusion she initially overlooked. Defense attorney Jack Swerling asked if Fulcher would have taken a closeup of the bruise in question.
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(Dr. James Fulcher Via: Dylan Nolan-FITSNews )
“If I’m going to imply it was caused by the gunshot wound, yes,” he responded.
Fulcher testified that the bruise – located just above Bravo’s right armpit – wasn’t necessarily a result of the gunshot.
“It’s just a contusion, it could have come from a bullet, but there is nothing unique about it,” he told jurors.
Bravo’s face and shoulder were seriously bruised when he fell onto the asphalt after having been shot, and the purported “slap wound” could have resulted from his lifeless descent from the cab of his truck.
Fulcher said he would be more confident testifying the wound was definitely tied to the gunshot if it were a laceration or abrasion – a graze wound – but that it would be impossible for any forensic pathologist to definitely link the minor contusion to the gunshot given the available information.
With these stipulations laid out, Fulcher analyzed the bruise with the presupposition it was caused by the gunshot. The bruise on Bravo’s tricep only tells the story of where Bravo’s upper arm was at the time of the shooting.
“The arm must be close to the torso, but it could be advanced forward,” he said.
Also diminishing the wound’s predictive value is the fact the bruise could have been inflicted at multiple points along the path the bullet took inside Bravo’s body so long as the round’s impact caused a “concussive wave” that made Bravo’s flesh “bubble up” and slap the skin, “hence the name, slap contusion.”
Swerling also elicited testimony to ensure the jury knew his client didn’t shoot Bravo in the back.
“I would describe this as more the axilla or flank,” Fulcher said, using more anatomically descriptive verbiage to describe the wounds.
Fulcher and Tressel were both hesitant to suggest what Bravo’s body said about the crime with any level of certainty – but left open the possibility his positioning indicated he was reaching for what Leon says he thought was a weapon.
With Fulcher’s testimony the defense rested their case.
Eleventh circuit solicitor Rick Hubbard called only one rebuttal witness – former S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) forensic investigator Jamie Johnson. Johnson was recalled to the stand after previously testifying – providing additional information about investigators’ reconstruction of the crime scene in response to testimony from the defense.
Johnson explained to jurors that investigators brought Bravo’s truck back to the crime scene two years after the shooting – but struggled to assess what Leon might have seen as he looked through the truck’s windshield because the parking lot’s overhead lighting system wasn’t turned on when investigators conduced their re-creation.
Investigators determined the vehicle’s dome light and instruments would have provided light inside the vehicle.
Investigators also brought their gunshot modeling mannequin to the scene to trace the bullet’s trajectory. Johnson told jurors that this isn’t an exact process, but that investigators could get a good idea by lining up where Leon can be seen firing on surveillance video with the dowel rods protruding from the mannequin.
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(Via: Dylan Nolan-FITSNews )
Johnson also asked jurors to focus on the small portion of the driver’s side of the truck visible in the surveillance video, pausing to show that the drivers side rear door opened after Leon pulled open the vehicle’s rear passenger door – but before the shot was fired – indicating he may have been attempting to flee the vehicle when Leon shot him.
After addressing questions about the trajectory analysis raised by the defense’s expert, Hubbard turned the witness over to the defense.
Johnson was the perfect cross-examination candidate for Swerling, who took advantage of her extensive knowledge of the forensic details of the case to reiterate many of the questions he’s raised throughout the trial – and to attempt to introduce some final reasonable doubt before the case goes to the jury.
Swerling argued investigators could not determine whether Leon could see into the vehicle’s windshield – questioning Johnson for not recording wether she could see through the truck’s windshield.
“If I couldn’t see through the windshield I would have noted that, it would be an anomaly,” Johnson replied.
Swerling also criticized investigators for not taking Rachel Leon’s body position into consideration.
“You never asked where Rachel Leon was sitting?” he asked.
Johnson explained investigators only knew where she wasn’t, considering she wasn’t struck by any of the bullets that hit Bravo.
“You can’t speak to his hand movements,” Swerling said.
Johnson, whose task specifically was to recreate the shot trajectory, didn’t try to predict the victim’s limb positioning.
The last day of testimony didn’t revisit Leon’s actions in the weeks leading up to the shooting – nor did it raise his role in allegedly falsifying testimony about Bravo. Both of those things will certainly factor heavily into the state’s closing arguments. Instead, the defense kept its focus on the two-minute window during which Leon was at the crime scene as the jurors reflect overnight on the totality of the witness testimony.
Stay tuned to this news outlet for further coverage as this trial reaches its conclusion …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dylan Nolan is a journalist and video producer for FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore School of Business with a bachelors in Accounting in 2021, and has spent his professional career attempting to shine light on corruption and institutional failure in South Carolina through his journalism. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.
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