Cambria man's lawyer points to witnesses' criminal pasts as trial begins

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comSeptember 11, 2013 

Brandon Noble Henslee

Prosecution witnesses expected to testify against a Cambria man charged with killing his half brother lack credibility, have lengthy criminal pasts and are motivated to lie, a defense attorney told a jury Wednesday.

“This is similar to a homicide that occurs in a hobo camp or a prison yard,” attorney Fred Foss said during his opening statement in the murder trial of Brandon Henslee, 23. “Most of these people were either on parole or felony probation.”

Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham told the jury that Henslee’s DNA was found on the handle of a baseball bat containing his brother’s blood — and that Henslee asked his mother to help create an alibi for the night of the murder.

Tyler Hanks, 20, had been reported missing in August 2012. On Aug. 26, sheriff’s deputies found Hanks’ body under a tree roughly a half-mile from the home he shared with Henslee, their mother, Sheri Grayson, her husband, Mike Coffin, and family friend Stephen Smith.

Hanks died of blunt-force trauma and puncture wounds.

Witnesses later said Henslee had made life-threatening statements toward Hanks a few hours before he went missing. Witnesses also reported seeing someone who looked like Henslee moving a large yard-waste can around the time of the murder, and Henslee was also reportedly seen rinsing out the can.

Foss, however, said there are many potential suspects in the case, including several prosecution witnesses. Coffin, he noted in court, took a swim in the ocean the morning sheriff’s deputies arrived to look for Henslee — and neglected to report Hanks as missing even though he hadn’t been seen for days.

“Mr. Coffin didn’t want the police to get involved in this,” Foss told a jury.

Coffin’s convictions include gross vehicular manslaughter, aggravated assault, theft, spousal battery and transportation of a controlled substance.

When Foss told the jury Coffin had disposed of clothing items he’d worn, Henslee, sitting beside him, chuckled audibly. Henslee, who was on disability for a mental illness, had previously been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Outside the jury’s presence, Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy warned Henslee not to make further outbursts, saying he could be heard if he wanted to testify. Henslee said he wished to testify. But outside the courtroom, Foss said he didn’t plan on calling Henslee, partly because of his mental illness.

Foss described the home Henslee lived in as a dysfunctional place, where convicts and drug users congregated. Smith, who moved into the garage, had convictions for burglary, theft, false imprisonment and spousal battery.

“These are the witnesses that are now pointing a finger at my client,” he said.

According to a police report, Henslee and others attempted to cover up the crime, though the report did not mention who helped Henslee. The report also noted that Henslee gave statements that “implicated knowledge and participation in the crime,” which investigators believe occurred inside the home.

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