BENTON -- A Calvert City man accused of providing alcohol at a party that preceded a fatal Marshall County crash a year ago was found not guilty by a jury Friday afternoon.
Benjamin Pierce, 24, faced two counts of third-degree unlawful transaction with a minor, as authorities claimed he provided alcohol to 16-year-old Sierria Jones and Kori Lane, who was then 18.
Lane currently faces a count each of manslaughter and driving under the influence in the wreck that killed Jones early May 20, 2017. A law enforcement report stated Lane's blood alcohol content was .065. The legal limit to drive for anyone under 21 is .02. Jones registered a .056.
Pierce's defense attorney, David Bundrick, called no witnesses on his behalf in Marshall District Court Friday, and Pierce did not testify.
Bundrick contended to the jury that Lane's testimony was not credible as she admitted in court Friday to giving differing accounts to deputies of how much she drank at the May 19 party.
Lane testified Friday that when she arrived at the party late that night, Pierce, who was aware of her age, had handed her various kinds of alcohol.
She also testified that she saw Pierce, who was staying close to Jones the entire time Lane was at the party, hand Jones alcohol.
"He handed her the vodka. She drank it straight out of the bottle," Lane said.
Lane cried near the end of her testimony and left the courtroom in tears after testifying she had considered Pierce her "best friend," and that he was the one who normally provided her with alcohol.
The party, multiple witnesses testified, took place at Pierce's home in Calvert City on the occasion of his mother's birthday. Multiple witnesses testified a cooler containing alcohol was present and that no one appeared to be checking IDs to keep underage attendees from drinking.
Lane was the only witness who testified that she saw Pierce giving alcohol to others.
When Assistant Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall called Jackie McFarland as a witness, she testified that a few weeks after the party she heard her cousin, Michael Brandon Stevenson, say that he had bought the alcohol for the party and that Lane had kept it in her car before the event.
Darnall asked whether she had direct knowledge that Stevenson had bought the alcohol, and she said she did not.
Stevenson testified that he had not bought alcohol for the party. His girlfriend and Lane's friend, Alicen Bradley, testified that neither she nor Stevenson drinks alcohol.
Both testified they did not see Pierce hand Lane or Jones alcohol.
Darnall, in his closing statement, argued that even if someone else had purchased the alcohol, if Pierce had handed the drinks to the girls knowing they were under the legal drinking age, he would be guilty as charged.
"Who cares who bought it a few weeks prior?" he asked.
He highlighted that the defense didn't bring any evidence that would conflict with the allegation of Pierce handing out the drinks, calling it "uncontradicted evidence."
Bundrick focused on Lane and her credibility.
She would have had reason to lie to protect the reputation of her friend Bradley's boyfriend, he said, adding that he thought it unlikely McFarland would lie under oath to implicate her cousin, Stevenson. "Generally speaking, you don't commit felonies to cover up misdemeanors," Bundrick said.
The jury instructions, he said, were clear in that they required proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Pierce specifically gave alcohol to the two teenagers.
"They don't ask you whether you think Buddy was a responsible host. It's not illegal to throw a party and see somebody drinking," Bundrick said.
The jury returned its verdict after less than an hour of deliberation, clearing Pierce of both counts.
Darnall said the verdict was surprising, but he respected the jury's decision.
Pierce and Lane are both named in a wrongful death lawsuit in Marshall County regarding Jones' death.
Lane was expected to plead guilty last week to her charges regarding the wreck, but the day of the hearing Circuit Judge James Jameson recused himself, citing a previously unknown family relationship regarding the civil suit.
A status hearing was set for later this month after a special judge can be appointed.
Pierce faces 18 more counts of third-degree unlawful transaction with a minor in district court, none of which Darnall said was related to the May 2017 incident.
A pretrial conference on those charges was set for Friday, but District Judge Jack Telle continued that hearing to Monday.