Hughes reasserts self-defense claim as murder trial winds down in New London

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Joey Gingerella, a sociable guy known affectionately as "Jo Jo Nice," invited Dante Hughes to play pool as closing time approached at Ryan's Pub in Groton on Dec. 11, 2016.

"We didn't get a chance to play," Hughes testified Friday at his murder trial in New London Superior Court.

Life, and then death, got in the way.

Hughes spent about three hours on the witness stand explaining why he pulled his Glock 9 mm out of his back pocket, aimed it at Gingerella's chest and pulled the trigger in the parking lot of the neighborhood bar. He said he thought Gingerella was reaching into his waistband for a gun. Gingerella was not armed.

His attorney, Walter D. Hussey, guided him through the story under direct examination before prosecutor Paul J. Narducci attacked it at length under cross-examination.

Hughes testified he'd worked 16 hours that day, first as a flagger at a road construction site in Montville and then as a line cook at Fatboy's Kitchen and Bar in New London. He said he had one drink, a Crown Royal vanilla whiskey, before leaving Fatboy's with his girlfriend, Latoya Knight, stopping briefly at his father's house in Waterford and heading home to Groton. He said he wanted to stop for a drink even though Knight, who testified earlier in the trial that she had been drinking Long Island Iced Tea and Fireball shots, wanted to go home.

But once inside the bar, Hughes said he didn't have time to drink the bottle of Heineken beer he'd ordered before Knight threw the beer in his face and hit him in the forehead with the bottle. He followed her out to the car and hit her, two or three times, he said, as she sat in the driver's seat. Gingerella and John Hoyt, asked by the bartender to check on Knight, tried to intervene.

"John's pulling me this way, Joey's pulling me that way," Hughes testified. "He's saying, 'Get off her.' He's telling me he'll (expletive) me up.'"

Hughes said he walked away but had the urge to turn around.

"I see Mr. Gingerella go into his waistband and just shot," he testified. "I thought he was in danger of shooting me."

Hughes said he bought the Glock 9 mm for $200 from a friend of his cousin after his girlfriend's ex-husband came into her house and pointed a gun at his head one night.

On Monday, a 12-member jury is expected to begin deliberating in the case after the attorneys deliver closing arguments and Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed instructs them on the murder charge and on a self-defense claim. The judge will decide separately whether Hughes is guilty of a weapons charge.

Before resting its case Friday, the state elicited testimony from Medical Examiner Frank Evangelista, who performed an autopsy on Gingerella on Dec. 12, 2016. Evangelista described Gingerella's three gunshot wounds in detail, though he said he couldn't determine in which order they occurred.

One 9 mm round entered the victim's left shoulder. The entry wound, a red circle displayed on a projector in the courtroom was close to a large tattoo of a cross that his family said memorialized Gingerella's grandmother, who died in 2012. The bullet went through his armpit, perforated the left lobe of his lung and grazed the heart, Evangelista said.

Another round entered Gingerella's abdomen left of his belly button and traveled downward, through the intestine and into the hip. A third entered through the back of his left thigh and exited via his groin, grazing the lower part of his abdomen as it traveled, according to Evangelista's testimony.

The victim was 24 years old, 6 foot 1 inches tall and weighed 202 pounds, according to the medical examiner. The cause of death, Evangelista ruled, was gunshot wounds to the torso and extremities. The manner of death was homicide.

Toxicology tests indicated Gingerella had a blood alcohol content of 0.18 percent when he died and also had marijuana in his system. Gingerella had struggled publicly with addiction to pain pills, and his parents received some comfort knowing no opioids were detected.

Prosecutor Christa L. Baker decided not to display some of the more graphic photographs from the post mortem examination on the courtroom projector. She handed them to the jury members, who passed them around for viewing. They'll have all of the photographs and the autopsy report in the jury room during deliberations.

Also testifying Friday morning was Sydney Wyatt, a bartender at Madden's Irish Pub in West Falmouth, Maine, who said Hughes came into the pub about 9 p.m. on Dec. 11, 2016, and told her he was heading north to Holton, Maine, to visit his sick grandmother. But testimony later in the morning from Special Agent James J. Wines of the FBI indicates that Hughes, based on his cellphone activity, didn't go any farther north. Instead, he traveled south to Boston, where cellphone records show activity in the area of the South Station transportation center, before heading west to Buffalo, N.Y. He was arrested on Dec. 13 after he tried to walk across the Rainbow International Bridge into Canada.

From the witness stand Friday, Hughes explained how family members had helped him flee after the shooting, his uncle cutting his hair, his brothers arranging rides and giving him money.

"I was running scared," he testified.


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