Trial begins in death of W.Va. college student

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WHEELING, W.Va. — The attorney for a man charged with the 2013 murder of a Wheeling Jesuit University student called the encounter a “garden-variety Friday night street brawl” involving too much alcohol and too much testosterone and maintained in court Tuesday that his client did not cause the student’s death.

“This case is anything but the story of a murder,” attorney Robert McCoid said.

Jurors on Tuesday afternoon sat through the first of several days of testimony in the trial of Craig Peacock, 22, of Clewiston, Fla., who is charged in the fatal beating of Kevin Figaniak, 21, of Perkasie, Pa., during a brief confrontation on a Wheeling, W.Va., street.

Prosecutors called five of about a dozen witnesses to testify after they and defense attorneys seated a 12-person jury plus one alternate.

In the early-morning hours of Aug. 31, Figaniak and a friend, Tyler Johnson, were walking back to campus from a bar when they encountered Mr. Peacock, Jarrett Chandler and Tyler Witty.

At first pleasant, the interaction turned into an argument when one of the students made a comment about oil and gas industry workers and offended Mr. Peacock, said Shawn Turak, Ohio County assistant prosecuting attorney, and Mr. McCoid.

Mr. McCoid, who used a PowerPoint presentation to detail his opening remarks, said the students asked where the three men went to school, and when Mr. Peacock said they worked on a pipeline, Mr. Johnson said, “Oh, I guess you don't need to go to school to do that.”

“It was that comment, that perceived slight, that perceived insult, that sent that man into a rage — a rage that he wouldn't let go,” Ms. Turak said.

Mr. McCoid said “in a fog of alcohol” his client approached Mr. Johnson and “trash talking” started with the students baiting Mr. Peacock. The argument turned physical when Figaniak pushed Chandler, Mr. McCoid said.

Moments later, Chandler punched Figaniak once on the chin, Mr. McCoid said. Figaniak then fell to the ground and hit his head, leaving him unconscious.

Mr. Witty said he then saw Mr. Peacock kick Figaniak in the head with a flat-toe boot, Ms. Turak said.

According to a forensic pathologist, that blow contributed to his death, Ms. Turak said.

Mr. McCoid told jurors his client's boot came into contact with the left side of Figaniak's head as Mr. Witty whipped Mr. Peacock around and away from Mr. Johnson, who also was in the fight.

“This is all one fluid moment, and it occurred when he's hurled from a distance of about 10 feet. Just two or three steps,” Mr. McCoid said.

Both Chandler and Mr. Witty are expected to testify during the trial.

Also key in the case is a third blow to Figaniak's head. Both the prosecution and the defense said Mr. Johnson tried to help his friend up off the ground after the incident, and in doing so dropped him.

“In a state of intoxication, in a state of panic … T.J. tried to move his friend and in the process caused his head to hit the ground,” Ms. Turak said.

Mr. McCoid contended that the fall worsened Figaniak's injury. He later died at UPMC Presbyterian.

Prosecutors on Tuesday also showed jurors surveillance video from that night, including the initial encounter in the street. Figaniak's family wept and his parents tightly held hands as the video was played three times, each time showing the dark figure of Figaniak and the others meet then move off camera.

In January, Chandler, 24, of Winnfield, La., pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to one year in jail plus fines. Mr. Witty was not charged.

The trial is expected to last five days.


Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published June 10, 2014 10:56 AM


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