By James B. Kelleher
(Reuters) - Kentucky's Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction on Thursday of a man accused of killing his girlfriend, saying trial testimony from a woman who had once seen him shoot a toy gremlin between the eyes had prejudiced the jury against him.
Richard Gabbard was convicted of wanton murder in 2007 for the shooting death of his long-time girlfriend, Michelle Krystofik, the previous year. Gabbard admitted he shot Krystofik but said it was an accident that occurred while he was cleaning his gun.
During his trial, a prosecution witness named Stacey Little testified that four and a half years before the shooting, she and her boyfriend had visited Gabbard and Krystofik.
Little testified that while the four sat around a picnic table drinking, Gabbard "became annoyed by the noise from a 'Furby' toy which was in the middle of the table ... (and) said he was going to blow the toy's brains out if it made that noise again," according to the court's eight-page opinion in the case.
When the Furby, a once-popular plush toy that talked, squealed, sneezed and snored, repeated the noise, Gabbard grabbed a pistol and fired at the toy, which was just two feet away from his guests, "hitting it directly between the eyes."
Prosecutors said the incident was important and should be admitted as evidence because it demonstrated Gabbard's skill with a gun as well as his hot temper and indifference to the safety of those around him. The trial judge agreed.
But the Kentucky Supreme Court disagreed, throwing out the conviction and ordering a new trial.
"We agree that the Furby incident implied that appellant was competent in handling and firing guns ... and less likely to have accidentally discharged the weapon," the court said in its unsigned opinion.
"(The) defense theory was that the gun malfunctioned, causing it to fire accidentally. The fact that he was a good shot was not particularly probative of whether the gun malfunctioned or fired accidentally."
All the incident did show, the high court said, was that Gabbard could be easily angered -- evidence that was "extremely prejudicial" and may have substantially swayed the jury's verdict, the court said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)