McCollum guilty of murder and arson
By Karen Hall
After two solid weeks in the courtroom, the trial of Heather McCollum, 24, came to an end before 11 p.m. Friday, May 9, when the jury returned a verdict of guilty as charged, of the first-degree premeditated murder of John H. Poteete, and arson to cover up the crime.
Special Agent Russell Robinson of the State Fire Marshall's Bomb and Arson Squad was on the witness stand for three whole days. He arrived at 602 Franklin Avenue, the scene of the fire, in the morning of Aug. 14, 2012, before the victim's body was removed. Robinson stayed there until he had studied, photographed, and collected every scrap of evidence he could find to send to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Crime Lab.
Robinson then moved on to figuring out who killed Poteete and set the fire. He quickly developed McCollum as a suspect, and interviewed her a number of times between Aug. 16 and 20.
She started out by stating, "I don't know anything. I did not have anything to do with the death of John."
The next time law enforcement interviewed her, McCollum changed her story, and described stabbing Poteete to death with a serrated knife she got out of his kitchen sink. She also described setting the fire, though she did not mention all four "points of origin" that Robinson found during his examination of the house.
Most of the interviews were recorded, and the jury heard McCollum say, "I kept on stabbing him," and later, "I don't regret what I did -- I don't -- because that was my baby."
This refers to an incident on June 18, 2012, when Poteete allegedly touched McCollum's three-year-old daughter in an inappropriate way after taking her and her four-year-old brother to get ice cream.
This was immediately reported to the Lewisburg Police, and the child was examined in the emergency room at Marshall Medical Center, without the doctor finding any concrete evidence of sexual molestation. Later the little girl was interviewed at Junior's House, and while the Department of Children's Services investigator thought something had happened, the interview did not provide enough evidence for her to start a case against Poteete.
According to testimony heard in court, McCollum became impatient. From being on friendly terms with Poteete, and trusting him with her children, McCollum now viewed the 68-year-old man as an enemy.
At a final interview with Robinson and Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barnard, recorded on Aug. 20, McCollum changed her story again. She said, "I did murder John," but added, "Jason (her husband) was the one who set the house on fire."
"How did you know John was dead?" asked Barnard.
"Jason said he was," McCollum replied. "I checked him -- he was cold -- he died so quick!"
When the final prosecution witness, the medical examiner, testified, jury members learned why Poteete died quickly: the knife went right into the left ventricle of his heart.
"You will die rather rapidly" with this type of wound, said Dr. Thomas Dearing. Two more stabs penetrated the right lung and went into the liver, also causing severe bleeding. The doctor found over a quart of blood in Poteete's chest cavity.
The prosecution concluded its case Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning McCollum's appointed attorney, Sam Patterson of Columbia, presented the case for the defense.
He did not try to deny that his client killed Poteete, but he told the jury it was "voluntary manslaughter," legally defined as killing in the heat of passion, in circumstances that would cause a normal person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed.
The first defense witness was McCollum's brother, who brought the children back from Poteete's house the day of the alleged sexual incident, and described them as "weirded out" and eager to leave, which normally they were not.
Patterson then re-called Robinson to the witness stand. During Robinson's testimony, he was asked to read the statement by McCollum's husband Jason.
"My wife Heather came home and told me, 'I killed John' and said 'please help me,'" the statement read in part. "I told her the only way to cover up stab wounds was to set the house on fire." Jason McCollum went on to describe setting the house on fire.
Patterson asked Robinson for his expert opinion on which statement was more consistent with what he found at the scene.
"Both are equal, because each one has at least one inconsistency," Robinson answered.
"That's the key thing," said Barnard. "Once you heard both stories, both of them were charged with arson."
"That is correct," Robinson said.
Friday afternoon was devoted to closing arguments, with Barnard re-emphasizing the evidence that pointed toward premeditation. The definition of voluntary manslaughter requires that the killing result from a state of passion.
"She was out of a state of passion and into a state of wanting to kill him," Barnard exclaimed.
"At worst, this was voluntary manslaughter," argued Patterson. "Don't surrender your honest convictions. Don't give in just to return a verdict."
District Attorney Rob Carter had the last word for the prosecution.
"None of what you heard tells you you should find her guilty of anything but first-degree murder," Carter said. "The proof doesn't show anything less. You have ample and sufficient evidence. Find her guilty of both, today."
Arguments ended at 4:50 p.m. Friday, and the jury unanimously voted to take a dinner break and come back to hear Judge Lee Russell read the charge, and then deliberate their verdict, which took between one and two hours, according to courthouse sources.