Jonathan Fisher told jurors Tuesday that he rushed to the aid of his longtime friend, Bennie Heslip, as the young man staggered back, gasping for air, moments after he was shot in the chest during a fight last year in downtown Austin.
Fisher, a Lake Travis firefighter, said he tried to perform CPR until the medics arrived. “I knew the path that he was on,” he said, wiping away tears, his voice trailing.
“Were you trying to do everything you could to keep him alive?” Travis County prosecutor Marc Chavez asked.
"Everything I could,” Fisher responded.
His statements, given on the first day of testimony in a murder trial for Derrick Kuykendall, stirred tears from an audience of more than two dozen of Heslip’s friends and relatives. But the case could prove a difficult one for jurors as defense lawyers contend the shooting was the result of self-defense, and it will fall on them to weigh the credibility of witnesses with close ties to either of the men involved.
Kuykendall, 23, of Killeen, faces up to life in prison if convicted in the March 2013 death of Heslip, 23, of Pflugerville. He has been incarcerated since his arrest in Bell County in April 2013.
Austin police have said Kuykendall and Heslip, who didn’t know each other, had been leaving Sixth Street after bar hopping during Texas Relays weekend when a dispute erupted between their separate groups of friends at a parking lot on East 11th and Trinity streets.
In court Tuesday, friends of Heslip said the argument started when a woman in a Chrysler Sebring, in which Kuykendall had been seated in the back, got out of the car and started arguing with women in the vehicle Heslip was in, yelling that they were blocking them from leaving. The fight escalated as more friends got out of their cars, some shouting back, others trying to defuse the situation, until Kuykendall fired twice at Heslip, witnesses said.
Fisher said he heard a gunshot followed by a pause and turned in time to see the orange glow from a second bullet discharge from a weapon Kuykendall had been holding.
In opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Anna McNelis said Heslip might have uttered something to anger Kuykendall, but she called the shooting senseless and coldblooded, not an act of sudden passion. Standing before Kuykendall, who sat in a black suit with his lawyers, she stared at him as she recounted for jurors how Heslip had been shot in the chest and killed.
Kuykendall fled the scene, and his friends will testify he had been calm, McNelis said.
“Bennie Heslip was loved by his family,” she said. “He was loved by his friends, and he was loved by his community. He was a good man.”
But defense lawyers Jackie Wood and Karen Gross said Kuykendall reacted in the heat of the moment when three of Heslip’s male friends approached him and one of them put his hands on the defendant’s shoulders. They probed witnesses on how much they had to drink and on what they described as a chaotic scene unfamiliar to Kuykendall, who had been in town for the Relays.
During the fight, his lawyers said, he had spoken only to his girlfriend, the woman who the prosecution said started the dispute, seeking only to pull her away from the situation. He had a tough upbringing and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since he was injured in a drive-by shooting, they said.
“You will hear about his harrowing experiences growing up, experiences that I believe triggered his reaction from a place of raw survival mode,” Gross said in her opening statement. “This is a story of good intentions, deadly fear and self-defense.”