A Vandalia man who has been in jail for close to three years on charges of attempted first-degree murder was found not guilty of that offense and convicted on a lesser charge of aggravated domestic battery on Tuesday.
Gregory M. Hill, who has been jailed on $750,000 bond since Aug. 17, 2017, when his wife sustained severe injuries in a domestic incident, was also acquitted on a second charge of aggravated domestic battery at the conclusion of a one-day bench trial.
Hill, 50, will now be sentenced on the aggravated domestic battery charge on Aug. 5, with the maximum penalty for that Class 2 offense being seven years in prison. He will remain in jail until that sentencing hearing.
That maximum is two years more than Hill would have served had he accepted a plea bargain offered by the office of Fayette County State’s Attorney Joshua Morrison.
Ed Veltman, who represented Hill along with Thomas Lacy, told Judge Kevin Parker that Morrison’s office would dismiss the attempted murder charge in exchange for Hill serving two years in prison on top of the time he has already served in the Fayette County Jail for aggravated domestic battery.
Hill, Veltman said, chose not to accept that plea offer.
Prior to presenting their client’s case, Lacy offered a verbal motion for a directed verdict that would result in the dismissal of the murder charge.
Parker told Lacy that his “arguments are persuasive,” but denied that motion.
Initially, Hill was charged with throwing his wife to the floor before striking her. In amended information filed last Friday, Morrison’s office removed the allegation that she was thrown to the floor.
In finding Hill not guilty on one of the aggravated domestic battery counts, Parker said it was alleged that Heather Hill was thrown to the floor and that it was not clear that that had happened.
In his opening statement, Morrison said that in the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 2017, police were called to the Hill residence for a report of a fight or argument.
Upon their arrival, a Vandalia police officer found Heather Hill on the floor in the kitchen with a neck injury.
He said the couple’s son, Coe, called 911 and that he “witness to part of it,” and that the son saw Greg Hill “strike or kick (Heather Hill) in the back or neck area.”
Morrison said that the couple’s son saw Heather Hill strike her husband on the head “with an open hand.
“This is what preceded the fight,” Morrison said. “He (Greg Hill) struck or kicked her to the point of her neck was broken.”
Due to her injuries, Heather Hill was unable to testify during the trial.
Because of that, a video deposition was taken late last year. In March, Parker ruled that the video deposition could not be presented during the trial, but the transcription of the deposition could.
For the reading of the deposition, Morrison and Lacy read their parts of the deposition, and Kira Palmer, victim/witness coordinator in Morrison’s office, read in the role of Heather Hill.
Morrison said in his opening statement, “This was an ingregious attempt to end someone’s life.”
During the trial, he said, “His intent will be clear, it will be crystal clear.”
Lacy conceded during his opening remarks that Heather Hill had sustained “an absolute awful injury.”
But, he said, “a lot of things” were factors in the domestic incident.
“It started with a strike by the victim,” he said.
Lacy said that in the prosecution’s case, “There has to be specific intent to kill,” and that it is not there.
He said that Heather Hill told Greg Hill’s niece “she knows that it was a freak accident … that he did not intend to harm her.”
Lacy said, “Nothing shows the intent to commit first-degree murder.
“The question is, is there anything that constitutes aggravated domestic battery,” he said.
Defense witnesses included Beth Flynn, the sheriff’s office dispatcher who handled 911 calls about the domestic dispute, and Jeff Tippen, the Vandalia Police officer who was the first to arrive at the Hill residence.
As Morrison started to play the 911 calls, Lacy said that he had not heard the calls, something that upset Parker.
“Folks, we’re a thousand days into this,” Parker said, offering to take a recess so Lacy could hear the calls before they were presented in court.
One of the 911 calls was made by the Hills’ son and the other by their daughter.
The daughter told the dispatcher that her mother was paralyzed and needed help, and Hill got on the call to say, “My daughter overreacted. Everything’s fine.”
Coe Hill said that arrived at the residence after 2 a.m., after getting off of work, and that his father was sleeping on the couch.
He testified that his mother did not want him staying there that evening, and that she “slapped him (Greg Hill) … to wake him up … to get me out of (there).”
The son initially said that he saw his father kick his mother in the back and was “on top of her, rolling her around.”
Under cross-examination, he said he did not see it. “I wasn’t involved.”
Under redirect by Morrison, he said he did see his father kick his mother “in the upper back. It wasn’t soft.”
In her deposition, Heather Hill said her husband was kneeing her in the back of her neck and that he struck her “about three times.”
She said he then started “dragging me around, telling me I was faking it (injury).
“He told me I just couldn’t go around hitting people and not expect to get hit back,” she said.
Heather Hill initially said that she didn’t believe that he was trying to hurt her, but said later during the deposition that she thought that he was.
She said that after striking her husband, she fled into the kitchen. “I got into a fetal position, thinking he would leave me alone.”
Asked if she had told Greg’s niece that it was a freak accident, Heather Hill said “it was a freak accident that he broke my neck. He didn’t intend to hurt me.”
Contrary to what her son had testified, Heather Hill said that she and her husband were sleeping, and awoke when her son came into the residence.
She said during the deposition that it was Greg, not her, who objected to their son staying overnight that night, and that he laid down on the couch to prevent the son from laying down there.
Heather Hill said that she hit her husband with an open hand as she was trying to get him to return to bed.
While conceding that she didn’t want her son staying there without contributing to the household, she didn’t object to him staying there that night, as opposed to having to sleep outside.
The final prosecution witness was Dr. Christopher Graves, a Springfield orthopedic spine surgeon who performed surgery on Heather Hill.
He said that there was a “transection of the spinal cord … it was basically cut in half.”
After three years, her case “still stands out” as to the type of injury.
Her muscles had been ripped from her skin. “It looked like a bomb had gone off in the back of her neck.”
In asking for a directed verdict on the murder charge, Lacy said, the prosecution had presented no evidence to support the claim that Greg Hill was trying to kill his wife.
“There is no testimony on this issue,” he said.
Morrison said, “Mr. Hill jumped on top of his wife (and) struck her in the back of the neck. The evidence is uncontroverted at this point.
“His intentions, although he may regret them now, are clear. You cannot hit someone on the back of the neck and not expect them to die,” Morrison said.
“He clearly was trying to do her physical harm,” he said.
The main defense witness was Greg Hill’s niece, Brittany Hill, who testified about visiting Heather Hill in the nursing home.
“I asked if he (Greg) meant to hurt her. She said, exactly, ‘No, it was a freak accident,’ and then she started crying.
During cross-examination, Brittany Hill said that after making that statement, while crying, Heather Hill said “but,” and something like, “did hurt me.”
After saying that she clearly remembered the first part of that, but not the second, Brittany Hill said it was because Heather Hill “was crying, mumbling” when she said it.
In his initial closing argument, Morrison said that a defendant “don’t regularly say I intended to kill.
“The only thing at issue is his intention.”
He said a charge of attempted murder involves “any act which constitutes a substantial step” toward murder.
Striking his wife “multiple times is a substantial step.
“There was no reason for that type of reaction” after she at struck him, Morrison said.
“Could he be mad? I’m sure he was,” Morrison said. “His reaction was to sever her spine.”
“He nearly severed her head. There is no question what he was trying to do. It was him trying to kill her in that moment.
“You don’t separate muscle from bone unless you intend to kill them,” Morrison said.
In his closing argument, Lacy said, “It’s pretty unusual (when) a victim says what’s on her mind.”
The victim in this case, he said, told someone that it was “a freak accident,” and that Greg Hill didn’t mean to harm her.
“Her beginning to cry is the accent, the telling point,” Lacy said.
As to the son’s testimony, Lacy contended that it did not match up to what Heather Hill said had happened.
On Heather Hill’s statement to Brittany Hill, Lacy said, “You have to take her at her word – he didn’t mean to harm her.”
“There isn’t a singular element that is clear that establishes the element of this case,” Lacy said.
In his final closing, Morrison said a freak accident “is when the result is not expected.”
In this case, “One can reasonably expect them to sustain a spinal injury.”
On Greg Hill striking his wife, he said, “This is a forceful, powerful blow that cause her to be in the state she’s been in” since the incident.
“He struck her – that’s it, that’s how it happened,” Morrison said.
“That is an intentional act. In that moment, he is liable for that. Everything that led to him striking her in the back is irrelevant.
“He tried to sever her head – that’s it,” Morrison said.