When Brooke Soares took the witness stand in the case against Michael Hoyt she was confident about what she had seen and heard when she drove upon two men clashing with one another in the middle of Paulson Road in Turlock on Feb. 1, 2010.
By the time she left the witness stand she had admitted that on that day she described herself to a detective as “scatter-brained.”
In between and over two days of testimony, Soares was subjected to a cavalcade of questions from defense attorney Frank Carson that resulted in her testimony wavering from previous statements and peppered with dozens of “I don’t remember” replies.
Soares is an important witness in the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s case against Hoyt because she is the only person outside of Hoyt and his friend Barbara Romero who was present for at least a portion of the altercation between Hoyt and Kenneth Winter.
Hoyt is on trial for second-degree murder for the death of 67-year-old Winter. The prosecution contends Hoyt was so angered over a traffic incident involving Winter that he beat the man so severely it caused Winter’s death hours later. The defense claims it was Winter, who had a blood alcohol level of .20 percent, who was the aggressor in the altercation and that Hoyt acted in self-defense.
Under questioning from Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson, Soares testified that as she approached the two vehicles on Paulson Road she saw Winter curled up on the ground in a fetal position with Hoyt hunched over him and striking him with his fist around five times.
Soares pulled over at the scene and after an approximately 30 second delay she got out of her car and yelled out to the two men. It was about that time, she testified, that Hoyt returned to his vehicle and left the area.
Soares went to offer aid to Winter and asked if she should call 911, and he replied no he didn’t want the authorities called, according to her recollection. Winter asked Soares to help him find his Pekingese dog Sasha, who had run from the scene during the fight. Soares found the dog and helped Winter into his truck, as a second motorist came upon the scene. Soares testified she told the woman what had happened and the woman offered to follow Winter home to make sure he was ok.
It was during the cross-examination that Soares’ recollection of the day began to falter. Carson questioned how Soares knew it was around five blows she saw Hoyt land and specifically if she had counted them. She replied she hadn’t and couldn’t answer how she had come to the estimate of five.
Some of the questions that seemed to trip Soares up appeared to be minor in scope, but when added all together dealt a blow to her testimony. For example, Soares testified she saw Winter hitting Hoyt on the feet with his fist, and was adamant it was just on the feet. But Carson referenced her interview with detectives that day of the incident in which she repeatedly said Winter hit Hoyt’s legs and feet.
Carson called into question Soares’ motivation for testifying, implying she had a bias for the Winter family because she felt sympathy for them and had gotten to know the widow, Bernice Winter, since the incident. He also suggested that Soares had an interest in “playing the hero.”
Carson felt he was being stymied from questioning Soares’ motivation and he called for a mistrial in the case, which was denied by Judge Ricardo Cordova, but Carson was granted more leeway after that in his questioning.
“Her perception and motivation is central to this case,” Carson said in his argument to the judge.
Soares testified she had spoken to Bernice Winter on multiple occasions after the fatal incident through her job as a dog groomer, but that their conversations never ventured into the subject of the case or her upcoming testimony.
Carson also raised a concern that Soares had been hugged by members of the Winter family and told she was doing a good job, which would sway her testimony toward them.
During his re-direct, Emerson took a point-by-point approach to rehabilitate Soares’ creditability as a witness. Specifically he asked “is getting hugs making you want to lie?”
“No,” Soares replied.
Emerson also pointed out that given the time delay between the incident and the preliminary hearing, which happened in May 2011, it was natural that some details be lost.
“Some of the details may have been forgotten over time,” Emerson said to Soares. “How is your recollection now?”
“It’s a little foggy,” Soares answered.
“But you remember the broad strokes?” Emerson asked.
“Yes,” Soares said.
To help bolster Soares’ testimony, Emerson requested the videotaped interview between her and Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Detective Darwin Hatfield be shown to the jury, an idea that Carson made a strong objection against.
“The appropriate time to have shown this would have been when she was on the stand,” Carson said.
Cordova ruled the video will be shown to the jury, but that certain statements will be redacted.
Testimony in the case is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.