We were both 22.
As a young reporter covering courts in Caldwell County in 1987, I noticed what a high percentage of people facing charges were roughly my age. Sometimes what landed them in trouble was a situation similar to one I had been in, but a different choice here or a different starting point there made all the difference in the outcome.
There was not a lot about Sammy William Sturgill or his background that felt familiar to me, but we were both 22 – he was born in October 1965, I was born a couple months earlier. We were both slim. He appeared to be in better shape. He looked like a nice enough guy, and from the thumbs-up he flashed at the News-Topic’s photographer while being led out of the courtroom during his murder trial, he sure seemed to have a sense of humor.
Sturgill testified in his own defense in that November 1987 trial, a not at all common thing for murder suspects to do. I recall that he was calm and seemed relaxed as he described the events of Feb. 3, 1987, that ended with Walter Blevins, 68, bleeding and unconscious, suffering from many injuries but dying of a blow to the side of the head.
Both of them, Sturgill said, were drunk; Sturgill described himself as having a chronic drinking problem. But in Sturgill’s telling, Blevins was the aggressor, angry that Sturgill had sold him for $6 a whiskey bottle half full not of whiskey but a mix of whiskey and soda, and Sturgill, drunkenly defiant, refused to give the money back. Blevins pulled a pocket knife. Sturgill, stumbling back into the woods, saw a discarded wine bottle, picked it up and smashed Blevins in the side of the head, causing Blevins to drop the knife, which Sturgill said he picked up and used to stab Blevins.
The story sounded reasonable to me.
But Sturgill’s version didn’t account for the extent of Blevins’ injuries, which included a number of fractured ribs, the prosecutor pointed out. Nor did it explain how fibers from the Blevins’ wool cap became stuck to the toe of one of Sturgill’s boots. The prosecutor’s contention was that the fatal blow to the head came not from a wine bottle swung in self-defense but from a kick to the head while Blevins already lay bloody and broken on the ground.
I had largely forgotten that trial until a couple of weeks ago when I was searching through microfilm at the Caldwell County Public Library, trying to find a particular story I wrote around that time and came upon that front-page photo of Sturgill giving the thumbs-up, with perhaps a wry smile under his moustache and a light in his eyes, on the day that he testified.
Last week, after Sturgill himself died after being stabbed in another confrontation with an older man, I kept thinking about that photo — the distance from that courthouse scene to a recent county jail mug shot of Sturgill, and the distance from my seat in that courtroom to my office now.
Sturgill’s family describes a man who, when sober, was kind and generous, who planted flowers and vegetables at the Gateway Nursing Center on Harper Avenue. When he was younger, “he was a good kid,” his older sister told the News-Topic on Wednesday.
It all awakens in me that feeling I had at my first full-time job, sitting in court, watching young men my age stand not more than 10 yards from me and face judgment. Where do things begin going wrong? Where did things pass that point that ultimately one person would sit on one side of that courtroom, able to walk out the building’s front door, and another person would sit on the other, being led out the back in handcuffs?