SIDNEY, Iowa — Imprisonment. Torture. Isolation. Battery. Holly Durben’s sister used these words in testimony Tuesday to describe Durben’s relationship with her boyfriend, Brian Davis.
Davis is charged with first-degree murder, accused of killing Durben in 2009 at the home they shared south of Shenandoah.
“He wouldn’t allow us to talk to her on the phone,” Heather Richardson of Bellevue said Tuesday on the witness stand. “He actually bashed her windshield in so she couldn’t (drive) and see us anymore.”
Deputies found Durben lying on her back, her left hand on a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, with a shotgun wound to her head on the morning of July 18, 2009.
The initial autopsy classified her death as undetermined. The investigation was reopened in 2013, and authorities arrested Davis the next year.
Opening arguments in Davis’ trial took place Tuesday, and several prosecution witnesses took the stand. Davis has asked for a bench trial, which means his fate will be decided by District Judge Timothy O’Grady.
Prosecutors argued that Durben’s death was a homicide staged to look like a suicide. Defense attorneys said Durben killed herself.
“This is not a staged suicide. It is a suicide local law enforcement can’t accept because of their past dealings with Brian,” said one of Davis’ attorneys, Michael Hooper of Council Bluffs. “At the end of this case, you may not like Brian. But this is not a popularity contest.”
Davis has a history of criminal charges, including a 1999 conviction for assault and causing serious injury. In 2012, three years after Durben’s death, he was convicted of violating a protection order.
He is currently charged in a separate case in which the victim alleges that on Oct. 2, Davis bent her wrist and slammed it in a door, and punched her in the head, according to court documents.
Durben’s death followed an incident the year before in which she told deputies Davis had tried to strangle her and had put a loaded handgun to her head. Her friends had encouraged her to try to leave Davis, according to the arrest affidavit.
Two days after her death, an autopsy was performed at the office of the state medical examiner. There was reddening on Durben’s neck and in her right eye, signs of possible asphyxiation, the affidavit states.
In the prosecution’s opening arguments, Assistant Attorney General Laura Roan said that Davis had previously threatened Durben’s life and that hours before she was killed, she texted a friend, saying she was scared.
“The evidence will show that he had threatened her. That he had battered her, dehumanized her,” Roan said. “He threatened to kill her in the past, and on July 18, he finally did it.”
After Durben’s death, Davis gave several inconsistent statements to investigators, she said.
Defense attorney Hooper said his client’s inconsistent statements occurred in several interviews over five years.
“The inconsistencies you see in these statements, I don’t think they are going to tip the balance for you,” he said.
Also, he said, Durben had talked about suicide in the days leading to her death. One person who saw her that night will testify she seemed depressed that night. Another will say she threatened to blow her own head off if she could not get out of the house.
Several prosecution witnesses described Davis as distraught after he reported finding Durben’s body with a shotgun wound to the head.
When a recording of the shrieking 911 call he made that morning was played in court, he turned away from the roughly 20 people in the audience and wiped his eye with a tissue.
Richardson said Durben was born in Hawaii and spent much of her youth in Ohio, one of four siblings who had grown up as Navy brats. Durben moved to Shenandoah in 2007 to be with her family and soon started seeing Davis, whom she met at work.
The family had tried to get her to leave him. Richardson even confronted him about it once. “He mocked me,” Durben’s sister testified.
Jamie Stockwell, whom Durben contacted early on the morning she died, testified that Durben had said five months before her death that if she couldn’t get away she would kill herself.
But she walked back a statement she made in a January deposition that Durben had actually made that statement the night before she died.
Her arms folded in front of her, Stockwell said she was scared when she made that statement. “I’m not going to live my life at risk,” she said. A prosecutor asked what she feared.
“I know what Davis is capable of,” she said.
“Objection,” a defense attorney said.
“Sustained,” O’Grady said.
The trial continues today in Sidney.
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