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The stabbing death of a local man allegedly at the hands of a UVA student has forever linked two families, two communities, and two separate worlds.
It’s like a wedding that both sides think is a bad idea. The past week, the Charlottesville Circuit Court was divided into “defendant” and “victim” sides of the court, with each side of the aisle avoiding eye contact with the other.
In one of several dramatic moments, defendant Andrew Alston took the stand November 9 and voice breaking claimed he’d pulled a knife on Walker Sisk in self defense and that Sisk had taken from it him and lunged.
Twenty stab wounds later, Sisk lay dying on the 14th Street sidewalk, and Alston’s knife disappeared.
The trial began November 3, almost a year after volunteer firefighter Sisk, 22, left home on a Friday night to relax with friends.
Third year UVA student Alston, then 21, from Lower Gwynedd Township, Pennsylvania, also headed out with friends and his visiting older brother. During the course of a booze fueled evening, November 8, 2003, the paths of these two young men intersected briefly with tragic, life altering consequences.
In court, Alston charged with second degree murder sat sandwiched between his two Alexandria defense attorneys. His parents, Robert and Karen Alston, sat two rows back on the defendant’s side, accompanied by a couple of supporters.
On the prosecution side of the courtroom, Howard and Barbara Sisk occupied the front row, perhaps to be closer to the proceedings, perhaps to avoid awkward eye contact with the Alstons.
The town v. gown lines were drawn the Sisk side usually packed with family, friends, and plenty of uniformed firefighters. During testimony from the victim’s friend and fellow firefighter, Jimmy Schwab, about how Walker Sisk died, Howard Sisk sprang up and said, “I’m out of here.”
Schwab recounted that he and Sisk had been out drinking and were leaving Orbit Billiards after 1:30am November 8 when a member of Alston’s party whom Schwab dubbed “the mouthy one” started a verbal confrontation.
Even when Alston’s brother,
Kenny, came over and somehow caused Sisk to fall, Schwab said, he wasn’t worried. When defense attorney John Zwerling asked why, Schwab answered, “Walker wasn’t a fighter.” That was a contention the defense would later try to disprove.
Schwab also noted that he never saw a knife.
The victim’s mother, Barbara, slipped out of the courtroom before the testimony of Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia’s chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy and detailed for the jury the 20 stab wounds Sisk sustained.
Fierro numbered the wounds not in chronological order and was about to describe wound number six when observers heard the sound of whimpering. It was the defendant sobbing at the picture of the five stab wounds the prosecution contended he put in Sisk’s shoulder.
Judge Edward Hogshire rushed the jury out of the courtroom, and Alston was absent for the remainder of Fierro’s testimony.
Of the 20 wounds, most were superficial, Fierro testified. However, one “the one that caused death” plunged three inches in to penetrate Sisk’s heart.
The prosecution produced photos of a gash on Alston’s right hand, and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jon Zug asked Fierro if Alston’s wound could have be defensive.
“It could be, but that’s less common,” said Fierro. “It slips because of blood on the hand,” Fierro testified. “It doesn’t have to strike bone. All you have to have is a moist hand.”
Fierro placed the victim’s blood alcohol level at around .19 to .21 more than double the legal limit of .08.
Next up: former Alston girlfriend Karen Graham in her second trial appearance involving her ex beau. In November 2003, she testified that Alston had punched her at a party that September.
In that trial, although Judge Robert Downer called it “classic domestic violence,” he acquitted Alston of assault and battery charges because he wasn’t convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.
Graham testified that after the alleged 12:30am assault after another night of partying, she “felt like crap” that someone she loved had gone to jail.
She told the judge that Alston’s parents drove down from Pennsylvania that same day for what she called “damage control.” The elder Alston, an attorney, drafted a statement for her to sign recanting her claim that Andrew Alston hit her. Graham signed the statement, and in subsequent emails Graham hinted that she punched herself.
“I wanted everything to be over and Andrew and I to be together, whatever the cost,” Graham explained a year ago.
In the current murder trial, Graham’s involvement was limited to mentioning that her then boyfriend frequently carried a pocketknife.
Erica Schaul, who lived beside Alston at 1850 Jefferson Park Avenue, told the court that on the night of the killing she went to his apartment and saw his knife, which she estimated to be about four inches long.
The defense asked if Schaul measured it. “It was big enough that it made me uncomfortable,” answered Schaul. “I didn’t want to be around it.”