Since the beginning of Brian Smith’s trial, prosecutors have told the jury that they’ll need to view what amounts to a close-up film of a woman’s torture and murder.
That day came Monday, when prosecutors presented more than 20 minutes of video they say was filmed by Smith himself, as he strangled and beat Kathleen Jo Henry to death in the early hours of Sept. 4, 2019.
Smith is charged with the deaths of Henry, 30, and Veronica Abouchuk, 52. His trial started last week in Anchorage.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby had weighed arguments over whether the video was so violent it should not be shown to the courtroom as a whole. The trial is also being live-streamed online.
Court proceedings are public, and the public has a constitutional right to know, Saxby said. But the judge said he also held a duty to ensure victims and their families are treated respectfully by the court system.
“I need to characterize the videos: The videos show a woman’s last 35 or so minutes of life,” Saxby said. “They show her being strangled to death. And she’s obviously already been severely beaten by the time the videos were taken, while she’s dying.”
“In addition to being robbed of her life, she’s being robbed of her dignity,” Saxby said. “And I have concluded I have a duty not to make the court system complicit in that.”
As a compromise, Saxby had a large screen set up to be visible to the jury but facing away from the courtroom gallery, where family members, news media and others were seated. Everyone in the courtroom would hear the audio, but only the jury, defendant and attorneys would see the images.
From the witness stand, Anchorage Police Department Detective Brendan Lee provided context for the videos before the prosecution played them, each a few minutes long. Prosecutors contend the man in the video is the defendant, Brian Smith, filming inside a Midtown Anchorage hotel room.
What followed was more than 20 minutes of extraordinarily disturbing footage. Much of what is said in the video or described about the contents is too graphic to share.
On the video, a distinctive British South African accent narrates violence with turns of apparent glee and annoyance, once breaking into an AC/DC song. He refers multiple times to the killing being filmed for some kind of an audience.
“Hit the ‘like’ button,” he says at one point. “I’m trying to make a movie,” he says, while strangling Henry.
“In my movies, everyone dies,” he says theatrically at another point. “What must my followers think about you?”
He also makes reference to Henry not being his only victim.
“People need to cooperate,” he said. “People need to know when they’re being … serial-killed.”
At some points in the video, he laughs or giggles.
The murder was taking “the longest ever,” he says.
At one point, he asks the unconscious Henry if she realizes he’ll still need to dispose of her body.
The jury also viewed a series of photos that Lee, the detective, said document Smith removing Henry’s body, wrapped in a sheet, from the hotel room and transporting it to his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck on a hotel luggage cart.
Jurors looked attentive but at times disturbed by what they were seeing and hearing.
In the gallery, family members of victims listened. Some hung their heads and cried. One woman in the back row who said she’d come to “stare down” the defendant did just that, holding a steely gaze in his direction.
Smith’s wife, Stephanie Bissland, sat in the front row. She glanced at her husband as she listened.
As the videos played, Smith sat at the defense table, which had been set up to face the large screen. He rarely looked away.