As jurors in the Kenan Gay murder trial entered their third day of deliberation on Friday, June 13, trying to decide whether Gay purposely shoved Robert "Robb" Kingston in front of traffic — killing him — during an incident at Ed's Tavern in 2012, one of the two dozen witnesses called during the trial was still mulling over his testimony.
At about 11 a.m., the jury found Gay not guilty.
Local bar owner Jerry Hebert was called as a character witness for the defense, not to shore up the image of Gay as an outstanding citizen — Kenan played football at UNC Chapel Hill and attended the Charlotte School of Law — but to confirm that the deceased Kingston had a history of drunkenly harassing female bar patrons.
Hebert, 50, told the jury that Kingston had become a regular at his bar, The Blind Pig, in January 2012, just after Kingston's engagement ended and only a couple of months before his death. He testified that he liked Kingston as a person, but he would regularly see him making unsolicited grabs at women after drinking heavily.
Gay and multiple eyewitnesses have testified that Kingston was harassing Gay's then-girlfriend (they married in May 2013) Elizabeth Wicker, and that's what led to Gay pushing Kingston out of the door at Ed's Tavern in March 2012. Jurors had to decide what happened next — whether Gay purposely continued to push Kingston, who was hit by an oncoming vehicle, or whether Kingston stumbled onto Park Road and to his death. Had they decided Kingston was shoved, Gay would have been convicted with second-degree murder.
After Hebert testified, he went back to South Carolina where he owns other bars. Over the phone, he struggled to find words to explain how he felt about his role in the trial.
"The information I gave to the court was pertinent ... maybe. Or maybe it helps set someone free that did try to do something bad, I don't know." After a long breath and a moment to think, he continued, "There's some regret there, but I'm happy I did it."
Whether Hebert's testimony alone set Gay free is doubtful. There has been little argument from the defense that Kingston was overly drunk at the time of the incident. Video from Ed's Tavern shows him approaching Wicker and grabbing at her inappropriately as she and Gay exited the bar. Ultimately, though, Kingston's history of handling of women at bars legally didn't matter. The murder trial hinged more on Gay's intentions, which he says were to get Kingston away from his girlfriend.
Hebert had spoken with Kingston when he was a regular at his bar. He said they got along. Testifying about what he had seen of Kingston's behavior toward women while his parents looked on in court was a lot to bear, he says.
"[Kingston] was the type of guy who was the life of the party. He was the type that if he was in the room, you knew he was in the room," Hebert said. "But you also knew you were going to have your hands full later. Beyond that, I had no problem with him."
As a bar owner for five years, Hebert said he has witnessed countless fights and knows that anything might happen in the chaos. He doesn't think Gay was aware of the road, let alone an approaching car.
"You block out everything that's going on around you, and it's five seconds of Gods-knows-what going on," he said. "You have tunnel vision and all you're trying to do is survive."
Although Hebert thinks Gay is innocent, he thought the jury would have agreed on an involuntary manslaughter charge, which would have meant probation for Gay.
Hebert said he followed the case closely and still thinks about the worn-out faces of Kingston's family during his testimony. He said he could not look the victim's father in the eyes when they crossed paths outside of the courtroom. But if he shared a room with them now, he said he would not waver from his decision to testify.
"I would tell them that despite the things I was obligated to say about their son in court, I believe he was a really good young man. I honestly believe that," he said. "I feel bad that I had to do that in front of people who had already gone through so much. I'll never feel good about it, but it was the right thing to do."