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A suspended Virginia Tech Hokie linebacker took the stand in his own defense during his trial for killing a person who he alleges pretended to be a woman during an intimate encounter.
Isimemen Etute, 19, stands accused of the 2021 murder of Jerry Paul Smith, 40, who Etute met under the name “Angie." (Smith's family has identified the victim as a gay man, according to ABC affiliate WSET, and Smith is not listed on the Human Rights Campaign's compendium of transgender and non-conforming people killed in 2021.)
After a near-anonymous sexual encounter with Angie and her apartment on April 10, 2021 — during which Etute allegedly told detectives she kept her place dark, hid her face with a hoodie and paid him $50 after performing oral sex on him, according to ABC affiliate WJLA — Etute allegedly said he began to suspect Angie was not a woman.
When he returned to the the darkened Blacksburg apartment on May 31 for what Angie believed would be another sexual encounter, Etute allegedly told detectives, he used his phone flashlight to illuminate her face and discovered she was a man. He then allegedly admitted to detectives that he punched Smith five times, possibly kicked his victim in the face and ran out to sounds of "bubbling and gurgling," according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Smith was discovered dead the following day after his family requested a welfare check. The medical examiner said he died of blunt force trauma, and the autopsy report revealed that every bone in his face was broken, he had missing teeth and he'd sustained multiple facial fractures, according to the paper.
Etute took the stand on the third day of his trial and gave a play-by-play of what he now says happened the night that Smith died, according to The Roanoke Times.
After being prodded by friends in the prior weeks about whether Angie was actually a woman, Etute admitted he went back to the apartment with two friends, who waited outside in the hallway of Smith's apartment complex.
“If it was a man, I was just going to run out,” Etute testified.
Etute said that he accompanied Angie to the darkened bedroom and, after a period of time, asked to have sexual intercourse. The victim, he testified, partially undressed and assumed a position on all fours on the bed, exposing the buttocks. Etute explained that he groped his partner, including trying to reach around for the genitals, and something felt off to him. He then pulled back his partner's sweatshirt hood, turned on his phone’s flashlight and discovered his partner had a man’s facial hair.
“I felt violated,” Etute testified, according to the Times. “I was just shocked and in disbelief that someone had tricked me and lied to me.”
Etute then claimed he got up, stood next to the bed and asked Smith "Why didn’t you tell me?" Smith, he testified, chuckled, reaching for Etute’s crotch with one hand and down the side of the bed with the other. Etute said he worried that Smith was attempting to grab a gun — though he'd never seen a weapon — which he said prompted him to punch Smith in an alleged act of self-defense.
Etute then voluntarily got on the courtroom floor for jurors, showing how he says he beat Smith by using a tissue box to represent the victim’s head, according to the Times. Jurors had to stand from the panel to watch the demonstration.
The defendant told the court he believed he “bruised [Smith] up a little” but was surprised to learn from police that the victim had died.
“Honestly, I was destroyed,” Etute stated. “I was upset with myself, even, because I never intended to harm anyone.”
Jurors will be tasked with deciding whether or not the defendant acted in self-defense, as he doesn't deny killing Smith.
One of the focal points of the case was the defense’s pretrial motion to use a “Gay/Trans Panic Defense,” which they filed earlier this month.
The legal strategy is thought to secure more lenient sentences for defendants who claim their violent acts were a response to learning a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity. Compounding matters for the defense is that Virginia became the 12th state to implement a ban on the “Gay Panic” defense in April. The defense, however, argues that the ban did not go into effect until after Etute committed his alleged crimes.
Judge Mike Fleenor has yet to rule on the defense’s motion but said he would do so before jury deliberations.
The defense has portrayed the victim as a sexual predator who "catfished" the defendant, traumatizing Etute to the point where he had to allegedly fight for his life.
In his opening statements on Wednesday, Defense attorney Jimmy Turk said his client beat Smith because it was “the only thing reasonably could do… to ensure he got out of Jerry Smith’s apartment alive.”
Closing arguments were expected to take place Friday, after Turk calls more witnesses, according to the Times. Then jurors will decide whether or not Etute is guilty of second-degree murder.
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