Testimony in the Luke VanHemert murder trial wrapped up Friday morning in Mahaska County court, as VanHemert took the stand in his own defense. the 24-year-old VanHemert is claiming self-defense, having been charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of former William Penn basketball player Marquis Todd.
VanHemert’s testimony began with his account of the initial car accident and subsequent second altercation with Todd’s teammate, Mikeal Donaldson. He reiterated the testimony from the day before given by Elijah Marcus, saying Donaldson swerved his car at both of them, causing VanHemert to throw a rock at Donaldson’s windshield, and Marcus to hit the windshield with a tree branch. VanHemert claimed Donaldson’s car had already turned around to come back north past his house before he threw the rock, a point the state would dispute later in cross-examination.
The main part of VanHemert’s testimony, however, centered on the fight between himself and Todd–the only full description of that fight that was heard during the trial. According to VanHemert, he was on the side of the house when he saw Todd following Stanley VanHemert towards the front door of the house, with Todd yelling at the elder VanHemert. Luke claimed he came running towards Todd when he saw Todd raise his fists toward his father. At several points during his testimony, VanHemert said he was scared for both his life and his father’s.
VanHemert said Todd threw the first punch, and he tried to tackle the much taller man without success. He claimed Todd grabbed him and started punching him in the head, so VanHemert tried to escape by pulling himself to the ground. He said Todd fell on top of him, pinning him down on his left side and continuing to throw punches. It was at that point that VanHemert claims he pulled a pocket knife from his pocket, opened it, and swung the knife blindly upward at Todd until Todd let him go and stood up. After the fight ended, VanHemert said he panicked, ran behind his house to an empty field and threw the knife away. Law enforcement officials have never recovered the weapon.
Prosecutor Andy Prosser was quick to question VanHemert’s credibility on multiple points. As expected, he repeatedly asked VanHemert why he never claimed self-defense during police and DCI interviews, instead choosing to downplay his role in the fight. Prosser also questioned why VanHemert told police no one had come after his father. As for the fight itself, Prosser pressed VanHemert on how much time it took for him to be punched, fall down, be punched some more, then pull out a knife, open it with one hand and use it. Prosser then asked if VanHemert had simply charged Todd with knife in hand and stabbed him first, which VanHemert denied.
Before VanHemert took the stand, the day began with testimony from his father. Stanley VanHemert said the three William Penn players approached him aggressively in his driveway, and he told them to leave his property before walking away. VanHemert also admitted to threatening to let loose his pit bull on them. He said he knew one of the players had followed him towards the front door, but he said he was making his 911 call when Luke VanHemert came from the side of the house, and he did not see how the fight between his son and Todd began.
Ater Luke VanHemert testified, defense attorney Alan Cook rested his case. Judge Lucy Gamon announced that the jury was dismissed for the day. Judge Gamon and the attorneys for both sides will spend the rest of Friday discussing the legal instructions that will be given to the jury. Closing arguments in the case are expected to begin Monday morning.