It took the jury less than three hours to deliberate, and that included lunch. Defendant Jesse Chaddock, 28, was declared guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity for his part in a July 26 beating at the Gypsy Tea Room. It came as no surprise. That morning, during closing arguments, even Chaddock appeared to be losing hope, his eyes sunken and glazed over, his body slumped in the suit that hides all his tattoos, even the one that reads, rather bluntly, "skinhead."
Chaddock and other witnesses claim he has quit the Confederate Hammerskins (CHS), the racist skinhead group to which Chaddock admits he once belonged. He claims to be in the process of covering his racist tattoos, which include an SS Nazi sign, the number 666 and at least three separate crossed hammers, the symbol for CHS. But the prosecution, led by Toby Shook, pointed to Chaddock's history of violence (including half a dozen similar incidents) and his current friends, including CHS founder Scott Tarrant, to prove otherwise. In a devastating moment for the defense, the jury listened to a 2003 Internet interview with Tarrant from a white-power radio show: "Once a skinhead, always a skinhead," said Chaddock's friend Tarrant, who still plays drums for the white-power band Bully Boy. In the interview, Tarrant casually tossed around the n-word and talked about retribution for those who testified against him during his own trial in the '90s, which resulted in a nine-year sentence.
Amid all the talk of skinheads, white power and tattoos, it was almost possible to forget about David Cunniff, the 45-year-old father of three initially paralyzed at Gypsy (he has since regained limited use of his limbs thanks to a robotics program at UT-Southwestern Medical Center). But eyewitness accounts of the night's events were harrowing: One bystander remembered the sound of Cunniff's head cracking against the concrete. "It was like a bowling ball hitting the floor," he said. Cunniff's 19-year-old daughter Caitlin recalled the horror of the event and how she yelled "Daddy! Daddy!" as her father lay, unmoving, in a pool of his own blood.
"This is a classic type of [skinhead] assault," said Dallas police Detective Truly Holmes, who investigated CHS in the '80s and '90s. But Holmes' testimony was called into question by defense attorney Phillip Hayes after the detective switched a few of his answers, claiming he initially "misspoke."
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"You'll say anything to get a conviction for the state, won't you?" Hayes prodded.
Despite the defense's efforts to couch this incident as a "typical bar fight" and Cunniff's injuries as the result of a "freak accident" occurring after both men fell to the floor, jurors sided with the state's account of a "brutal and unprovoked" attack, in which Chaddock struck Cunniff, threw him to the ground and repeatedly slammed his head against the concrete, resulting in what Cunniff's doctor called "one of the two worst neck injuries I've ever seen...consistent with high-speed collisions or multiple beatings."
What prompted this whole thing? It was never clear. Chaddock claimed he stepped up to defend his 22-year-old friend Terry Shanks, 5-foot-6, who appeared to be threatened by Cunniff, who stands 6-foot-3. "Some asshole started a fight in your bar," Chaddock testified to telling his friend Scott Beggs, who booked bands for Gypsy at the time. "I'm sorry, but [the fight] was unavoidable."
The prosecution tells a different story: Cunniff, who brought his 15-year-old daughter Courtney to the Old 97's show, saw Shanks flick a cigarette at a tall black man exiting the club. The cigarette hit the wall right above him, spraying lit embers on his head and Afro.
"Hey, man, that's not cool," Cunniff said.
Shanks responded defensively. "Do I know you?"
According to testimony, Cunniff eventually replied either, "You don't wanna know me," or, "I don't know you, and I don't wanna know you," at which point Chaddock stepped in, asking, "What if I wanna know you?"
From there, it was only seconds before Cunniff lay unconscious and Chaddock was pulled outside by his friend Judd Horn. It is significant that not only does Horn have skinhead ties, but CHS founder Scott Tarrant was also there with Chaddock that night. In light of Chaddock's claim that he was distancing himself from a shameful skinhead past, the company he kept did little to help his case.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence against Chaddock, however, was the man himself. He took the stand in a day-long testimony that was alternately fascinating and painful. Chaddock appeared coarse and informal, prone to slang and pointless tangents. In describing one friend, Chaddock said to the jury, "You know how Hulk Hogan has 24-inch pythons? Well, this guy has 23-inch pythons." Before re-enacting the night's events, he would straighten himself and say, "OK. Check it." During one of those re-enactments, he went to the judge's bench, pretended as if it were the Gypsy Tea Room bar and struck it. Twice. Spectators in the gallery exchanged wide-eyed looks. What was this guy thinking? Was he really so ignorant of court protocol? Sadly, I suspect he was trying to appear friendly and knowledgeable, to speak to the jury as he might his own friends. But he came across as uncontrollable and self-absorbed, even frightening. In three hours of defense questioning, he managed to establish little more than incredible sympathy for his lawyer.
Tears did quiver in Chaddock's eyes when he was asked about Cunniff's injuries. "Words can't explain it," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I'm responsible for that?" But his behavior between the incident and the time he was caught in Long Beach, California, lacked that kind of remorse. When asked why he and friends went drinking at two more bars after the incident, he replied, "It was midnight! It was still early!"
Before sentencing, Chaddock took the stand again to beg for the jury's mercy. "I'm extremely sorry, Mr. Cunniff," he said, breaking into tears again. "I never meant to hurt you like that."
At press time, the jury had not reached a consensus on sentencing. Chaddock could receive anywhere from five years to life.
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