ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — When Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney finally took the stand Tuesday (May 22), the last day of testimony in their criminal trial, McGraw charged that sheriff’s deputies aggressively assaulted him, rather than vice versa.
McGraw conceded that he did push Detective Arthur Litzinger of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department while the deputy was attempting to pull Chesney off a police horse at Ralph Wilson Stadium near Buffalo in June. But McGraw denied grabbing Litzinger’s neck and attempting to snap it, as the deputy testified. McGraw also denied coming after Litzinger’s partner, Sgt. Mark Rokitka.
Rokitka, who served McGraw with a personal injury civil suit as the star entered court Monday, had testified that he struck McGraw’s leg with his nightstick because the singer was coming at him with a clenched fist.
McGraw told the jury that Rokitka was the aggressor and kept yelling, "I’ll kill you, you touched my partner."
"I said, ‘Please don’t hit me with the stick in front of my kids,’" McGraw said. "And he did, twice, with full force."
Litzinger, McGraw said, urged Rokitka to back off, saying, "Mark, calm down. We made a mistake." McGraw said he realized he was approaching sheriff’s deputies and used restraint.
"My only concern was to stop Kenny from falling" onto the concrete headfirst, he said. McGraw also said he was concerned about the safety of his and other children who were playing nearby and wanted to ask the officers why they had driven their police car into the area.
Chesney testified that once the deputies began scuffling with McGraw, "Everyone left me, so I just got off the horse myself." A key point in the defense’s case had been that Chesney was "violently" ripped down from the horse.
Chesney admitted that he did not follow Rokitka’s orders to get off the horse, and he instead tried putting his arms in the air and said he had permission to be on the horse.
When asked if his help was needed at all if Chesney got down safely off the horse, McGraw responded "yes, exactly," implying that his intervention prevented Chesney from falling onto the concrete.
McGraw, who is charged with misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest, obstruction of governmental
administration and menacing, along with violation charges of harassment, also contradicted the testimony of Chief Thomas Steabell. The ranking officer that night, the chief boarded the McGraw tour bus to negotiate with McGraw to come out.
McGraw testified that he went on the bus only to find his children and wife. In a "civil, calm" discussion with Steabell, whom McGraw referred to as a "gentleman," McGraw asked for an apology from the deputies and wanted to know if he was under arrest. According to McGraw, Steabell said repeatedly that he was not under arrest, that "there was no need for that," and that the deputies would "talk things over" with McGraw and his camp at a "neutral place, a fire hall," to determine what happened.
Sheriff’s deputies on stadium duty routinely do their business at the fire hall. As they were leaving, McGraw said, he asked Steabell, "One more time, for the record, am I under arrest? He said, ‘No, there’s no need for that.’" Steabell had testified that he told McGraw, "Since you’re not going free, you’re under arrest."
An employee drove McGraw in his own vehicle to the fire hall, in what Steabell described as "a
concession," but what McGraw implied added to the confusion.
At the fire hall, McGraw said he heard Captain James Coyle, owner of the horse Chesney rode, tell his daughter, Sharlene Turner, who had allowed Chesney on the horse, to lie.
"He said, ‘You better not tell them you gave him permission to ride that horse. You’d better lie, or they’ll sue our asses off,’" McGraw said. I knew then what this was about. I couldn’t believe it, that he said that right in front of me and then stared me down."
McGraw also denied telling Deputy Vincent Pupo, who accompanied him to the restroom, that he apologized for the incident, as the deputy testified.
A paramedic came to examine McGraw’s knee, which had been operated on before, and McGraw declined any treatment.
At the end of McGraw’s testimony, Erie County Assistant District Attorney Lou Hremski asked McGraw why another lawyer was sitting in the courtroom. "It’s not because I’m going to sue anyone, if that’s what you’re getting at," McGraw said.
Hremski then revealed that a notice of claim had been filed on McGraw’s behalf against Erie County, keeping the possibility of a lawsuit open. McGraw denied any knowledge of the notice and testified that he had not signed any papers.
After testimony ended, defense rested and Hremski expressed confidence for the prosecution. "You heard a very different set of facts today," he said. "We feel comfortable with the witnesses that we put on, we feel comfortable with the rendition they provided to the jury, and we’re going to stand behind it."
Closing arguments will be made Wednesday morning (May 23), the judge will instruct the six-person jury and deliberations will begin. If convicted, McGraw could face up to a year in prison. Chesney, charged with violation disorderly conduct, could face 15 days in prison.
Thomas Eoannou, McGraw’s attorney, said he will explain in his closing argument why McGraw was justified in making physical contact with a police officer.
"New York State law says that when a police officer is using excessive force, physical force can be used to repel that," Eoannou said. "A police officer cannot randomly use force against a citizen."
Chesney maintains that Turner gave him permission not only to mount the horse but also to ride it. McGraw testified that she earlier offered him a ride on the horse. The prosecution tried to depict McGraw as tough and imposing and Chesney as a wild man. McGraw conceded he may have had a couple beers before the show, but he was "absolutely not" intoxicated.
Chesney said his riding the horse into the artists’ area was an attempt to be amusing and have fun. He lightheartedly agreed with what he had said on a CMT: Country Music Television profile, that during his early tours "the devil had a bunk on the bus."
It wasn’t the only time Chesney or McGraw elicited laughter from the courtroom. McGraw referred to his wife, Faith Hill , as "Faith McGraw," and poked fun at Chesney’s diminutive stature. When asked about his height, Chesney replied, "Five-eight. Did I just commit perjury?"