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ER nurse, doctor testify in Denton triple-murder trial

J. H. Osborne • Jan 16, 2019 at 10:38 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — An emergency room RN testified Wednesday that one of two young sisters, both injured by “debris” when their mother and grandmother were shot to death in the family’s kitchen, said, “ ‘My brother Seth Denton came in the kitchen and started shooting. He shot my Nana right in the face and me and Sissy got under the table and started screaming for Daddy.’ ”

The jury will never hear that part of Sharon Nunley’s testimony in the trial of Robert Seth Denton. Denton’s attorney, Ricky Curtis, objected to it, saying it didn’t meet the legal threshold of an “excited utterance,” which can sometimes permit what would otherwise be prohibited as hearsay. Although in this case the girls, roughly ages 6 and 8, were still covered in blood, brain matter, body tissue and bone fragments from their slain family members — and the nurse testified the girl who made the statement appeared to be in shock and scared and her eyes were red — Curtis argued the amount of time that had passed, the change in location from the murder scene to a hospital and the child’s ability to answer the nurse’s questions ruled out “excited utterance.”

Prosecutors had attempted to get Nunley, now a nurse practitioner, to share the statement as a part of her testimony about treating the children, who had arrived at the hospital without an adult family member.

The grandmother and mother were dead in the family kitchen, their grandfather was at the home talking to police, and their father had been airlifted to a different hospital — where he ultimately died.

Nunley had explained the two girls arrived at the emergency room on the same gurney and were placed in a family room to keep them together. The older girl, Nunley said, was very talkative, while the other was not. A part of starting treatment for any patient is asking what happened, Nunley said, and the quote above is what she got as an answer from the older girl.

Judge James Goodwin ruled against allowing the jury to hear that portion of Nunley’s testimony. What they did hear was that the older girl had a puncture on her upper thigh and an X-ray revealed it was due to a bone fragment embedded in the soft tissue of her leg. A first attempt to remove the fragment, with topical anesthetic, was not successful, so the girl was sedated and a process which uses continuous X-ray of the area was used. That allowed the physician attempting to remove the object to see both it and and its position to the instrument being used to retrieve the fragment. The younger girl also had a piece of debris removed from her back, with the physician able to just use tweezers, Nunley said. Both girls had multiple abrasions, Nunley and others have testified.

The jury also heard Nunley testify that eventually she and another member of the ER staff were allowed to shower the girls and wash their hair.

“They both were wanting their hair washed,” Nunley said, later saying it probably took an hour just getting the matter out of their hair. “When I was done, there was chunks of stuff in the bottom of the shower.”

Dr. Miranda Moretz, the ER physician who treated the girls — and Denton — that night, was declared an expert in the field of emergency medicine by the court prior to her testimony. Moretz said the bone fragment in the older girl’s leg was consistent with being hit by debris when close to a shooting victim. The fragment removed from the girl’s 2 centimeter puncture wound was about 10 millimeters in size, Moretz said.

“It would require a great deal of force” for such a fragment to be embedded, Moretz said.

Sullivan County Sheriff’s Detective Steve Williams later testified that ammunition collected from Denton’s apartment, car, and the pockets of a coat found outside at the murder scene included a type of bullets considered “ballistic” rounds. “It explodes on impact,” Williams said of the bullet type. “It’s for deer hunting.”

The recovered bone fragment was among evidence introduced Wednesday, the third day of Denton’s trial. Denton, 19 at the time of the killings on Aug. 29, 2015, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of aggravated assault, assault and reckless endangerment. Denton entered a plea of not guilty in February 2016, and the next month prosecutors announced they would not seek the death penalty.

Denton is charged in the deaths of Lena Marie Rose, 57; Toshya Milhorn, 39; and James Milhorn, 36. Six children were in the home at the time of the shootings, five of which are Denton’s siblings. The sixth was a visiting friend.

Curtis Rose, Marie’s husband and Denton’s grandfather, had testified he shot Denton after he found his daughter and wife dead and his son-in-law mortally wounded.

Moretz said Denton was withdrawn and stoic as she treated him that night at the ER for a shooting wound in the upper arm. The bullet had traveled through his arm, she said.

Most of the trial’s third day focused on law enforcement procedure: three Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office detectives described how the murder scene was processed, how evidence was gathered and some sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for analysis, and dozens of pieces of evidence were officially submitted and shared with the jury. Items included a semi-automatic rifle found just outside the backdoor of the Rose home when police arrived at the scene.

The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday at 9 a.m.

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