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Judge finds accused Erwin pizza spitter not guilty

August 5th, 2014 1:59 pm by Brad Hicks

Judge finds accused Erwin pizza spitter not guilty

Amanda Engle

ERWIN — Following nearly two hours of testimony, Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street determined that too much doubt existed to convict the Erwin woman charged earlier this year with spitting on a police official's pizza.

Amanda Engle, 30, 729 Rock Creek Road, was found not guilty of vandalism at a Tuesday bench trial in Unicoi County Criminal Court. Engle was arrested in January and was initially charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly spitting on a pizza purchased by Unicoi County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Frank Rogers. This charge was amended to vandalism at a March hearing in Unicoi County General Sessions Court. In May, a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Engle on one count of vandalism under $500.

If Engle had been convicted, she could have faced up to one year in jail.

Both Rogers and Engle provided testimony at Tuesday's bench trial. Rogers testified that on Jan. 23, he contacted the Erwin Pizza Hut to order pizzas to take home to his family. Rogers said once he arrived to pick up the food, he encountered Engle, then an employee at the restaurant, who advised him his order was not yet ready and asked him to wait.

After paying for his order and sitting on the bench to wait for the pizzas to be finished, Rogers saw Engle remove his pizzas from the oven and begin to slice them, he testified. Rogers also said he observed no other pizzas being prepared or in the oven.

Rogers said as Engle removed his pizza from the oven and began to slice it, he observed her "cut her eyes" toward him and saw her spit straight down to where she was slicing.

"She spit straight down on that pizza," Rogers said. "She was slicing it, and she spit straight down. It wasn't a hock kind of spit. When she leaned was leaned up slicing it she spit straight down, and I saw it string out of her month. It was obvious to me at that point that she had spit on the pizza."

Rogers said after he called Engle's attention to this, he asked to speak to a manager, with Engle advising him that she was a manager. Rogers testified he then asked to speak with Engle's boss, who was in Johnson City at the time. Rogers said he spoke with this person via phone and told her that one of the store's employees had spit on his pizza and he intended to take her to jail.

When Rogers asked Engle if she knew who he was, she responded "Yes, you're Frank Rogers," Rogers testified.

"She looked familiar to me, but right at that very minute I didn't know where I had seen her from," Rogers said.

Rogers said a UCSD deputy arrived at the Pizza Hut to transport Engle to jail. Rogers testified he followed this deputy as he took Engle to the Unicoi County Jail, but did not go enter the jail as Engle was booked. Instead, Rogers said he returned to the Pizza Hut to collect the pizzas for evidence, wrapping the boxes with evidence tape and taking them home to store in his freezer.

During cross examination by Engle's defense attorney Jim Bowman, Rogers said he did not see Engle spit directly on the pizza. He also testified that he made inquiries to the District Attorney General's office to seek approval to have DNA analysis conducted on the pizzas. He said this request was denied, adding that the evidence was not submitted for testing.

"I didn't need a scientist to tell me she spit on the pizza," Rogers said.

After the state rested its case, Bowman motioned for the court to consider a pair of legal issues. For Engle to be charged with vandalism, it must be established that Rogers had ownership at the time of the alleged incident. He said the applicable portion of the state statute pertaining to vandalism requires proof that a pollutant or contaminant led to the destruction of property, proof that Bowman said the state failed to provide.

"Does saliva amount to a pollutant or a contaminant?" Bowman said.

Street denied Bowman's motion for acquittal on the grounds of ownership. He said also saliva could be defined as a contaminant for the purposes of the charge of vandalism under case law before dismissing this portion of Bowman's motion.

"It involves an issue, quite frankly, that the court looked and has found no cases," Street said. "So guess what gentlemen - you have the only spit-on-pizza case ever in the jurisprudence history of Tennessee, so there's no guidance as to whether or not this in fact is vandalism or it's disorderly conduct as originally charged or alteration of food."

Engle testified that she was working as a shift manager at the restaurant at the time of her arrest, and she also said that she cut the pizzas as normal when removing them from the oven. However, when asked directly by her attorney Nikki Himebaugh, Engle denied spitting on Rogers' pizza.

Engle said she was arrested and taken directly to the Unicoi County Jail after Rogers spoke with her manager. She also said she is not aware of Rogers talking with her co-workers at the restaurant at the time of her arrest.

Upon cross examination by Assistant District Attorney General Ryan Curtis, Engle testified that she and her boyfriend were pulled over by Rogers in April 2013. Engle's boyfriend, who was operating the vehicle, was charged with DUI and Engle was charged with DUI by consent. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley previously said Engle had spit in on Rogers' pizza in retaliation for this incident, but Engle testified Tuesday that she was not angry at Rogers.

In his closing argument, Curtis said Rogers had ownership of the pizzas at the time of the incident and, per his testimony, it was obvious to Rogers that Engle contaminated his food.

"The facts are short, the facts are concise, and the facts are supported by a man who no one has discredited," Curtis said. "The state would ask that she be found guilty of vandalism."

But, in his closing argument, Bowman said Rogers failed to photograph the picture after the alleged incident, did not "double check" it for saliva or point it out to Engle, and left the pizzas unsecured for several minutes as he followed the deputy to jail. He also said little effort was made to prove that saliva existed on the pizza, as it was not tested.

"(Rogers) said 'Well, it costs too much money to do DNA,' and he doesn't want to say it but, in effect, he's saying a year of a citizen's life isn't worth that effort," Bowman said. "He put a price on justice, there's no doubt about that."

Before issuing his ruling, Street said because the misdemeanor vandalism case was being tried in criminal court, that standard of reasonable doubt must be met. He said that while both Engle and Rogers were credible witnesses, the state failed to prove Engle's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as no photographs, eyewitness accounts or test results were submitted as evidence.

"I don't know why these things weren't tested but, in this particular case, it would have been crucial," Street said. 

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