- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - An argument over stares exchanged across a room at a party preceded the shooting that killed two one-time Auburn University football players and another man during a party, witnesses testified Thursday.

Ashanti Jones told jurors that then-Auburn football player DeAngelo Benton and Desmonte Leonard, 24, of Montgomery began arguing because Benton thought Leonard was staring at him during the bash, held at an apartment complex clubhouse in June 2012.

Benton complained that Leonard “was looking at (him) funny,” testified Jones, who threw the party with one of her sisters.

“He mentioned it to me, but I told him to leave it alone,” she said. Previous evidence indicated the two were arguing over a woman.

Jones’ testimony came as prosecutors finished presenting their final witnesses after five days of testimony. The state plans to rest on Friday so the defense can begin calling witnesses; it’s unclear whether Leonard will take the stand to explain his claim of self-defense in the slayings.

Five witnesses have identified Leonard as the gunman either by name or description, and four of them said they never saw him involved in a fistfight or being attacked. Testimony by at least one prosecution witness indicated Leonard may have been hit with a bottle, as his lawyers contend happened.

Testimony showed the verbal dispute between Benton and Leonard escalated into a fistfight between friends of the two men and ended in a shooting that killed one-time Auburn football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips, plus DeMario Pitts. Three others were wounded.

Leonard is charged with capital murder and other crimes. He could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Austin Vaughan said he saw Pitts hit two people with bottles, but he didn’t identify who was struck. Under defense questioning, he recalled telling police that a man with earrings was knocked down, a possible reference to Leonard, who was wearing earrings that night.

Current Auburn football player Keymiya Harrell identified Leonard as the shooter but said he didn’t see him involved in any fight before the shots rang out.

“He was standing in the back,” said Harrell.

Partygoer Ashley Brown, whose brother Xavier Moss was among the wounded, said she heard the argument but didn’t know what it was about. Brown, however, said she could tell Benton “was just in a rage.”

A crowd tried to calm Benton in a corridor outside the clubhouse for a few moments until someone broke a bottle, followed by the sound of gunfire. Brown testified she dove into bushes at the sound of shooting.

“There was a guy lying beside me and he was dead,” said Brown. “As soon as I saw that I got up and ran.”

Jamichael Goss said he also heard a bottle break, followed by nine shots. Goss testified the gunman was standing up, which conflicts with the defense’s opening statement that Leonard was on the ground when he began shooting after being hit with a bottle.

Phillips’ cousin Currian Whitlow disputed the notion that someone threw a bottle that struck Leonard right before the gunshots.

“I know for a fact the defendant didn’t get hit,” said Whitlow.

Forensic testimony showed Pitts and Phillips had traces of marijuana in their systems. Pitts and Christian had been drinking alcohol, a forensic expert testified, but neither was above the legal limit for driving of .08.

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