ORCHARD PARK, New York When Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney finally took the stand Tuesday, the last day of testimony in their criminal trial, McGraw charged that sheriff's deputies aggressively assaulted him, rather than vice versa.
McGraw conceded that he did push Detective Arthur Litzinger of the Erie County Sheriff's Department while the deputy was attempting to pull Chesney off a police horse at Ralph Wilson Stadium near Buffalo in June. But McGraw denied grabbing Litzinger's neck and attempting to snap it, as the deputy testified. McGraw also denied coming after Litzinger's partner, Sgt. Mark Rokitka.
Rokitka, who served McGraw with a personal injury civil suit as the star entered court Monday, had testified that he struck McGraw's leg with his nightstick because the singer was coming at him with a clenched fist.
McGraw told the jury that Rokitka was the aggressor and that he kept yelling, "I'll kill you! You touched my partner!"
"I said, 'Please don't hit me with the stick in front of my kids,'" McGraw testified. "And he did, twice, with full force."
Litzinger, McGraw said, urged Rokitka to back off, saying, "Mark, calm down. We made a mistake."
McGraw said he realized he was approaching sheriff's deputies and used restraint. "My only concern was to stop Kenney from falling," onto the concrete headfirst, he said.
Chesney testified that once the deputies began scuffling with McGraw, "everyone left me, so I just got off the horse myself."
A key point in the defense's case had been that Chesney was "violently" ripped down from the horse.
Chesney admitted that he did not follow Rokitka's orders to get off the horse, and said he instead tried putting his arms in the air and telling the officer he had permission to be on the horse.
When asked whether his help was needed at all since Chesney got safely down off the horse, McGraw responded, "Yes, exactly," implying that his intervention prevented Chesney from falling onto the concrete.
McGraw, who is charged with misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest, obstruction of governmental administration, menacing and harassment, also contradicted the testimony of Chief Thomas Steabell. The ranking officer that night, Steabell told the court Monday that he boarded the McGraw tour bus to negotiate with the singer to come out.
McGraw testified that he went on the bus only to find his children and wife. In a "civil, calm" discussion with Steabell, McGraw asked for an apology from the deputies and wanted to know if he was under arrest, he said.
According to McGraw, Steabell said repeatedly that he was not under arrest, that "there was no need for that," and that the deputies would talk things over with McGraw and his camp at a "neutral place, a fire hall," to determine what happened.
The fire hall is where the sheriff's deputies on stadium duty routinely base their operations. As they were leaving, McGraw said, he asked Steabell, "One more time, for the record, am I under arrest?" To which Steabell replied, "No, there's no need for that," according to McGraw.
Steabell testified Monday that he told McGraw, "Since you're not going free, you're under arrest."
A employee of the George Strait Country Music Festival drove McGraw in his own vehicle to the fire hall, in what Steabell described as a concession a move McGraw said added to the confusion about his status.
At the fire hall, McGraw said he heard Capt. James Coyle tell his daughter, Sharlene Turner who, according to Chesney, had given the singer permission to ride the horse to lie.
"He said, 'You better not tell them you gave him permission to ride that horse. You'd better lie, or they'll sue our asses off,'" McGraw said. "I knew then what this was about. I couldn't believe it, that he said that right in front of me, and then stared me down."
The prosecution tried to depict McGraw as tough and imposing and Chesney as wild. McGraw conceded he may have had a couple of beers before the show but said he was not intoxicated.
At the end of McGraw's testimony, Erie County Assistant District Attorney Lou Hremski asked McGraw why another lawyer, in addition to defense lawyer Thomas Eoannou, was sitting in the courtroom.
"It's not because I'm going to sue anyone, if that's what you're getting at," McGraw said.
Hremski said that a notice of claim had been filed on McGraw's behalf against Erie County, keeping the possibility of a lawsuit open. McGraw denied any knowledge of the notice and testified that he had not signed any papers.
After testimony ended, the defense rested and Hremski expressed confidence for the prosecution. "You heard a very different set of facts today," he said. "We feel comfortable with the witnesses that we put on, we feel comfortable with the rendition they provided to the jury, and we're going to stand behind it."
Closing arguments will be made Wednesday morning, and after the judge instructs the jury, deliberations will begin.
If convicted, McGraw could face up to a year in prison. Chesney, charged with disorderly conduct, could face 15 days in jail.
Eoannou said he will explain in his closing argument why McGraw was justified in making physical contact with a police officer.
"New York state law says that when a police officer is using excessive force, physical force can be used to repel that," he said. "A police officer cannot randomly use force against a citizen."
McGraw has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to stand trial, he said, but "it doesn't matter. I'm right."