Suspicions raised after Georgia woman says she accidentally shot her boyfriend

The relationship between high school sweethearts turns toxic, culminating in a fatal shooting with allegations of abuse that would leave their families shattered and their small town of Griffin, Georgia, divided over the evidence in the case.

"48 Hours Suspicion": The Case Against Mary Katherine Higdon
"48 Hours Suspicion": The Case Against Mary K... 42:35

Produced by Clare Friedland

On August 1, 2018, Mary Katherine Higdon called 911 to report she had shot her boyfriend of seven years, Steven Freeman.

"Um, yes ma'am. I accidentally—my gun was tampered and I'm so sorry. I—I accidentally just shot my boyfriend in the neck," Higdon told the 911 dispatcher.  "I'm so sorry." 

It was all an accident, she told first responders. She said she was handing the gun to Freeman when it went off and that she didn't know the weapon was chambered.

When she talked with investigators at the police station, they say she confessed to murder and she was arrested. But there was a major problem:  the audio on the tape where she allegedly confessed was impossible to hear due to a feedback hum.

The prosecutor says the shooting was no accident. The state contends that the couple's relationship was unraveling, and Mary Katherine shot Steven in anger after he hadn't come home for dinner and ignored her calls and text messages.

"All I know is what's in my heart," Higdon tells CBS News correspondent David Begnaud. "And I know what happened that night. … I loved Steven. And I would never ever do anything to hurt him."

What would a jury decide?

MARY KATHERINE AND STEVEN 

Police body cameras captured the chaotic scene the night Steven Freeman was shot and killed by his girlfriend of seven years, Mary Katherine Higdon, inside the home they shared.

COP [police bodycam]: Ma'am, he's still got a pulse, OK? Just let us work on him, OK?

Police bodycams capture chaos during response... 01:37

Mary Katherine Higdon is in the living room and so is Steven Freeman. He's lying on a mattress. Mary Katherine is hovering over him and he's literally dying in front of her.

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON [police bodycam]: I'm so sorry.

COP: Calm down, OK? Calm down.

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: Please, just tell me he's alive!

Mary Katherine told the police that her gun went off accidentally as she was handing it to Steven, who liked to keep it on the side of the bed at night for protection.

Mary Katherine Higdon: None of our guns that we've had around our house were ever, you know, chambered; there was never a bullet in the chamber. … it was never my intention to ever injure him or kill him.

Those words ring hollow to Steven's grieving mother, Jennifer Freeman. 

David Begnaud: Have you spoken to Mary Katherine Higdon since this all happened?

Jennifer Freeman: I have not. … She will never give me an answer that's going to be good enough for me. Because this should never have happened.

Steven was 23 years old.

Jennifer Freeman: Everybody just loved Steven because he was just sweet, you know, just a good kid. …  Steven's heart was huge.

higdon-freeman.jpg
Steven and Jennifer Freeman Jennifer Freeman

He was a devoted son. Jennifer treasures the note he wrote her after she had gone back to school and completed her college degree.

Jennifer Freeman [reading note aloud in tears]: "To the most wonderful woman in the world. … and know that, if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish all of your hopes and dreams and more. I love you to the moon and back, Steven" … And that was our thing, it was either "I love you more" or "I love you to the moon and back," that was our little thing.

Steven had a happy childhood growing up in the town of Griffin, Georgia.

Jennifer Freeman: Always had a smile on his face, always. That was from the time that he was a little bitty baby through adulthood. … He loved the outdoors, loved it. That was probably his passion above all else was to be outside … Duck hunting, deer hunting, fishing, camping — that was where he found his peace and his comfort.

Mary Katherine's father, Tom Higdon, and older sister Sarah say she, too, was a happy child who liked to put on a show.

Tom Higdon: She always was the entertainment in the room no matter what age. … She's just fun-loving. …  I remember one time she had a pet frog that she used to walk around the neighborhood with a shoestring [laughs].

Sarah Higdon: We would say our life would be boring without her.

Steven and Mary Katherine began dating in high school. The romance quickly became pretty serious, and they moved in together after graduating. Steven worked at repairing roofs; Mary Katherine was a pre-school teacher's aide.     

David Begnaud: Did you like Mary Katherine?

Jennifer Freeman: I did, I did. …  I loved her. … She would eat at our house on Sunday night with my parents and our extended family … and we certainly considered Mary Katherine like a daughter.

Mary Katherine Higdon: He was just, you know, he's just like, my best friend. … that loved me and that was there for me and just listened to me … And we just really hit it off great. … We were just, I guess you would say, like two peas in a pod.

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Mary Katherine shared Steven's passion for the outdoors. Tom Higdon

Mary Katherine shared Steven's passion for the outdoors. Before long, she won over his closest friends, Thomas Skinner, Andrew McRee, and Chase Pruitt.

David Begnaud: What did you like about her?

Chase Pruitt: That she made my friend happy. … I mean, most girls won't even get in the woods for 30 minutes. If she'll go fish with you for four hours or go deer hunt with you, then that's awesome, man. I'm glad you found somebody that makes you happy.

The couple also shared a passion for guns.

David Begnaud: How many guns did Steven own?

Thomas Skinner: He had a couple of shot guns … couple of rifles —

Chase Pruitt: They owned a lot …  around 10 maybe.

Thomas Skinner: — probably around that. …

Andrew McRee: Yeah, she would brag about how she would, she knew more about guns than — than Steven or us.

That is because Mary Katherine landed a job selling guns at a local sporting goods store where Thomas Skinner also worked.

Thomas Skinner: Before you're able to sell a gun, you're trained and taught how to handle it, you know? Like, how to hand somebody a gun.

David Begnaud: Do you believe her when she says," I just held it up and it went off?"

Thomas Skinner: No. No, not for a second.

Yet that was the first story Mary Katherine told police when they arrived at the house that night.

To Detective Adam Trammel, it also seemed like an unlikely story.

Det. Adam Trammel [at gun range]: This is a Glock model 380.

David Begnaud: Is it possible for this gun to just go off, accidentally?

Det. Adam Trammel: Not from my experience … The trigger would have to be pulled.

David Begnaud: This is ... this is not the weapon that was used?

Det. Adam Trammel: That's correct, it's just the type of gun ...

David Begnaud: … the type of gun.

David Begnaud: Can you show us the process of loading the weapon and firing it?

Det. Adam Trammel: Yes, I can … First, you would load your ammunition … you would insert the magazine [click], you would rack the slide; and fire the weapon. [gunshot].

Police were also suspicious ... for another reason. 

POLICE DASHCAM: She's claiming it was accidental discharge ... but based on some of the evidence we've seen in the house while we were in there tending to him, uh...it looked like they'd been fighting.

higdon10.jpg
Food thrown on the ground at the crime scene made investigators question if the shooting was accidental, as Mary Katherine had claimed initially, or if foul play might have been involved.    Spalding County District Attorney's Office

Lieutenant Chris Wilson saw the evidence firsthand.

Lt. Chris Wilson: Now, of course, there are new homeowners here and everything here is — it looks very nice and well-kept. That wasn't the case that night. There was food slung everywhere ... on the cabinets and on the floor, food thrown there.

David Begnaud: I guess it looked like they had been throwing it at each other?

Lt. Chris Wilson: It looked like there had been some food tossed around here.

As Mary Katherine Higdon was taken in for questioning, police knew there had to be much more to this story.

QUESTIONING MARY KATHERINE

Jennifer Freeman struggles to understand how her son's life could have ended so violently at the hands of a woman he loved – Mary Katherine Higdon.

Jennifer Freeman: Steven was the calm in the storm. … We used to laugh and say he would outlive everybody, because he didn't stress out about anything.

COP [police bodycam]: Listen to me. We're gonna work through this, OK? We're going to work through it. We're going to work through it. It's all right, OK? Just come with us. Come on, we'll get you a cigarette … 

David Begnaud: They took you to the police station — they didn't take you in handcuffs. They just wanted to ask you some questions.

Mary Katherine Higdon: Mm-hmm.

David Begnaud: You agreed to cooperate.

Mary Katherine Higdon: Oh yeah, most definitely.

But detectives Adam Trammel and Chris Wilson found the story that Mary Katherine told them in the interrogation room hard to believe.

Mary Katherine told the police that Steven asked for the gun, so she claims she tossed it to him. Now, he's in the living room on a mattress. But she says when she tossed it, the gun went off.

Det. Adam Trammel: When she said she tossed the gun, that didn't match what I would think a normal person would do.

Mary Katherine Higdon
Mary Katherine Higdon is questioned by Lt. Chris Wilson. He says that during this interview, Higdon confessed to shooting her boyfriend Steven Freeman in anger. Spalding County District Attorney's Office

It also didn't match what she told the investigators at the scene. She told them she was simply handing the gun to Steven — not tossing it, and that's when she accidentally shot him below the neck. Lt. Wilson decided to confront her.

LT. CHRIS WILSON [to Mary Katherine during interrogation]: Do not talk over me when it's my turn to talk. I actually — I let you have your say. You gave me some cockamamie bull---- story.

David Begnaud: You kind of lost your cool on her.

Lt. Chris Wilson: Not really. That's a tactic. … At that point we weren't buying the story. So, I slap my hands … I say, "Stop lying to me. Tell me the f---ing truth right now; last time."

David Begnaud: What did she do?

Lt. Chris Wilson: She said, "I did it out of anger." Yeah, just like that.

higdon04.jpg
After her police interview, where police say Mary Katherine Higdon, 24, admitted to shooting Steven Freeman in anger, she was arrested and charged with his murder.  Kate Lenhard and Ashton Fallin

Believing that they had an ironclad confession on tape, they arrested Mary Katherine Higdon for murder. But there was a big problem. 

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON [interrogation]: I—yeah, I think it was …

There was nothing but feedback on most of the recording. And it couldn't be fixed.

Lt. Chris Wilson: Oh, no. What can we do?

David Begnaud: So, at this point, all you've got to say what she said was what you two remember?

Lt. Chris Wilson: That's correct.

But they still had the forensic evidence that convinced them Steven's shooting was no accident.

David Begnaud [at gun range]: So, her story was I don't keep a round in the chamber?

Det. Adam Trammel: Correct.

David Begnaud: OK, what did you find on the weapon that said to you, I don't know if I believe that. Looks like she loaded it that night?

mkh-weapon.jpg
Prosecutors and police say there was cooking grease on the magazine and the slide of the gun, which they believe proves the shooting was no accident – that the magazine was out at one point and Mary Katherine had loaded the gun and racked it that night, after she and Steven threw the dinner she had prepared in an argument. Spalding County District Attorney's Office

Det. Adam Trammel: There was cooking grease on the magazine. … There was also grease on the slide of the gun, which tells me that the magazine had to be out at one point. Rounds loaded. Slid back into the gun and racked.

Mary Katherine had told police she was cooking dinner for Steven that night – the same dinner they found thrown on the kitchen floor.

CHASE PRUITT [police bodycam]: She's just very loud, very dramatic, very always over-the-top, looking to go start an issue …

As investigators began to question the couple's friends, they discovered this teenage love affair had turned toxic. And most of the blame was being placed on Mary Katherine.  

mkh-hero.jpg
Mary Katherine Higdon Tom Higdon

CHASE PRUITT [police bodycam]: Eight, seven times out of 10 she was yelling, she was bitching at Steven for something.

Steven would often walk out during an argument and block Mary Katherine's number from his phone. That's because she would call him obsessively, according to his co-worker, Alijah Varela. 

ALIJAH VARELA [police bodycam]: Some mornings, several different occasions, he would get to work and before we even got to the first job, he'd have 30 missed calls from her. Like, she was just blowing him off the line.

His friends also told detectives Steven feared she was unstable and dangerous.

CHASE PRUITT [police bodycam]: I — I know that she's pulled a gun on him before.

DET. ADAM TRAMMEL: Oh, has she?

CHASE PRUITT: Oh, I know that, I know that he's told me, I mean I know, I mean, I know she's done it three or four times, like, at least.

David Begnaud: Each one of you was told by Steven that Mary Katherine pointed a gun at him. Is that correct?

Chase Pruitt: Mm-hmm.

Friends [in unison]: Uh-huh. Yes.

Thomas Skinner: As soon as they said he was shot [snaps fingers] … I knew what happened; I knew Mary Katherine did it.

On April 21, 2018, three months before he was killed, Steven texted his friend Andrew McRee: "MK is running around screaming at the top of her lungs outside. And now she's trying to shoot me…and herself."

As alarming as that sounds, it was another alleged incident the following month that left Steven badly shaken. 

ANDREW MCREE [police bodycam]: He said, you know, "she's pointed a gun at me multiple times," he goes, but, uh, "this time was the one time I saw a look in her eyes and I was actually scared that she might shoot me." … so, he came over to my house that night.

higdon-friends.jpg
From left, Chase Pruitt, Thomas Skinner and Andrew McKee CBS News

David Begnaud: Did Steven ever report that to the police?

Chase Pruitt: To my knowledge, no.

Thomas Skinner: I think he thought he could, like, handle it, or… I don't know.

Andrew McRee: He said he cared for her. He doesn't want her to go to jail.

The relationship was on-again, off-again, and it was a roller-coaster ride right up to the end. On July 30, 2018, two days before Steven's death, he texted: "Good morning beautiful." Mary Katherine: "Have a great day." Steven: "You too, love you." But by the next day —

Jennifer Freeman: I said, "are you and Mary Katherine arguing?" And he said, "Yes ma'am. I'm not going back there tonight." And he said, "I'm running from Satan."

Steven slept at a friend's house – ignoring Mary Katherine's calls and text messages. The next evening, she had prepared dinner and Steven was again MIA.   

David Begnaud: You called him a lot on that day, 9:10, 9:12, 9:17, 9:23—

Mary Katherine Higdon: Yes.

David Begnaud: 9:29, 9:38.

Mary Katherine Higdon: Mm-hmm.

David Begnaud: Why — why so many times?

Mary Katherine Higdon: "I guess … cause it is like, irritating … I need to know if I need to just, you know, make me a dinner, I'm trying to wait to eat with you … it's just one answer, "are you coming home, yes or no?"

She found out through Steven's mother that he was still at his friend's house.

David Begnaud: So, once you told her where he was …

Jennifer Freeman: She went after him. Yes. … Of course, I didn't realize that it was gonna escalate, the night was gonna escalate as it did. And I have guilt to this day because I responded, 'cause I didn't want to lie to her.

Steven was already driving home with Thomas Skinner.

Thomas Skinner: She comes out of nowhere riding our tail — like right on our bumper … And she pulled up beside my truck, like, right beside Steven, rolled her window down, and she started yelling at him. … She said, "Are you coming home now?" And he said, "Yes, calm down I'm coming home." But she was like, screaming at the top of her lungs."

Steven Freeman
On August 1, 2018, Steven Freeman was shot in the home he shared with his girlfriend, Mary Katherine Higdon. He was 23 years old.   Jennifer Freeman

Less than 2 hours later, Steven Freeman was dead. While police believe it is an open-and-shut case of murder — fueled by Mary Katherine's anger — her defense attorneys say not so fast. They claim there was a side to Steven Freeman that no one knew.       

ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE

If Steven Freeman truly feared that Mary Katherine might shoot him, why didn't he leave the relationship for good?

Chase Pruitt: I played that over in my head a million times – why couldn't he finally walk away? … Hindsight's 20/20. Maybe we should have done more. Maybe we could have done more.

But Mary Katherine denies she ever pointed a gun at Steven – that is, until the night she killed him.

David Begnaud: Well, let me, let me just read a text. And I wanna be specific here. Steven texted you this: "I know you pointed a gun at me a bunch of times. But the last time you did it scared the [bleep] out of me."

Mary Katherine Higdon: Mm-hmm.

David Begnaud: Did you point a gun at him?

Mary Katherine Higdon: No, no, like I didn't. Because when he was sayin' that, I had pulled a gun to kill myself. … I was thinking about hurting myself.

If true, it wasn't the first time, Mary Katherine's father told detectives. Both he and Steven were concerned about her suicide threats.

Jennifer Freeman: And I didn't realize until after he died that she would tell him that if he didn't come home, that she was gonna kill herself.  Um, I think that's why he stayed.

Steven Freeman, left ,and Thomas Skinner
Steven Freeman, left ,and Thomas Skinner Jennifer Freeman

But by July of 2018, Steven had had enough. He made plans to move to another town with his friend Thomas and not tell Mary Katherine, according to prosecutor Kate Lenhard.

Kate Lenhard: All of the signs were that she was unraveling. … He was planning on moving while she was at work.

He never got the chance. Mary Katherine shot him two days before he was supposed to leave. 

David Begnaud: Did it seem like a pretty straightforward case?

Kate Lenhard: Yes, yes … there was never really any question that she shot him. She was the only one in the house besides him. She confessed to doing it.

Kate Lenhard What we're looking at is what we call the murder board. 

The prosecution claims it discovered Mary Katherine had revised or added details to her story 10 different times.

Kate Lenhard: The 911 dispatcher asks her what happened … and she says that she was just grabbing the gun to bring it to bed.

Remember, Mary Katherine said she didn't know the gun was loaded.  Then —

Kate Lenhard: Once officers arrive on scene, then she starts telling the officers that she was handing Steven the gun … and that it accidentally went off. 

According to detectives, she told them in the interrogation room that the gun went off when she tossed it to Steven.

David Begnaud: The story you first told them was not true.

Mary Katherine Higdon: Yes. … I knew that obviously it was a lie … But I just, I guess I was just scared.

Then, police say, she admitted shooting him in anger. But she told her father and her sister that she and Steven had been arguing … and that she shot him in self-defense. 

Mary Katherine Higdon [crying]: He just threw every – everything that I made in my face … And I just picked up the gun just to, just scare him, just to get him outta the house, 'cause I was scared.

David Begnaud: When you raised the gun at him, did you say anything to him?

Mary Katherine Higdon: I just said, "get the blank outta my house."

David Begnaud: And what did he do?

Mary Katherine Higdon: I remember [crying] ... I remember him leaning down, and then he just, it just happened all so fast. And then he leaned down, and then he lunged at me and I got scared and I kinda reared back. And then the next thing I know, he was just – I'm sorry, and then he was just bleeding.

Kate Lenhard: She never tells the police that he lunged at her. She has every opportunity to tell the police that he lunged at her. She doesn't do that.

Mary Katherine Higdon
Mary Katherine Higdon CBS News

Mary Katherine says she was embarrassed to tell police that Steven had a history of violence towards her.

David Begnaud: Did Steven ever hit you?

Mary Katherine Higdon [shakes head to affirm]: Yes, not so much like, where it was, like, physical, like punches or anything. Just like grabs there. There was one time where, you know, he smacked me across the face … A lotta times he'd just kind of you know, like, pop me on the back on my head.

But Steven's friends insist she was the violent one in the relationship.

David Begnaud: You saw Mary Katherine hit Steven?

Thomas Skinner: Yes, I have seen it … yeah, multiple times. One time – face chest, shoulders, everything.

Andrew McRee: One time … she slapped him. And he kind of grabbed her — like, she slapped him hard and he kinda like grabbed her and was like, "don't hit me!"

But Sarah Higdon believes her sister. She says she saw bruising on Mary Katherine's arm two weeks before the shooting.

Sarah Higdon: And I wished that I would have taken a picture of it. And she wouldn't tell me at first. But eventually I pulled her off to the side and I was like, "what is that?" And she was like, "well Steven just grabbed me a little bit too hard." And I was like, "what are you talking about?"

But investigators believe the forensic evidence shows that — far from defending herself — Mary Katherine shot Steven in cold blood, while he was simply sitting on their bed.

Prosecutor Kate Lenhard
"It tells me that this story of him lunging at her doesn't really add up," Prosecutor Kate Lenhard tells CBS News correspondent David Begnaud. CBS News

Kate Lenhard [showing a bloody sheet]: There's very little blood anywhere except for right here on this corner. … It's all in one area, because Steven didn't move. … It tells me that this story of him lunging at her doesn't really add up.

David Begnaud: The thought being, if he had gotten up and started to make his way toward her, there would have been some blood that moved beyond the bed.

Kate Lenhard: Correct.

Jorge Carabajal: Everyone made a rush to judgment.

Mary Katherine's attorneys, public defenders Jorge Carabajal and Michael Granims, insist Steven could have started to get up and go after her. And they say, she had good reason to be afraid because of his alleged history of abuse. 

Higdon defense attorneys
Mary Katherine Higdon's attorneys  Michael Granims, left, and Jorge Carabajal. CBS News

David Begnaud: What kind of abuse was Mary Katherine subjected to?

Jorge Carabajal: Pretty much every kind. … Telling her that she needed to be a certain way … Showing where all the money's going every moment of the day, making her let him know where she's gonna be every moment of the day.

David Begnaud: And what physical assaulting?

Jorge Carabajal: I think that he hit her on the back of the head … And he literally kicked her out of the bed with such force that she flew and hit her head on the — on the doorframe.

David Begnaud: "Did Mary Katherine ever call 911 to report any of this abuse?"

Jorge Carabajal: No. … She always thought that it was her and that she needed to do something better … and it was her fault that she was making Steven angry.

David Begnaud: Some of Steven's friends say that she was the abusive one. … verbally, pointed a gun at him, more than once.

Michael Granims: Nobody ever saw that. … All of that came from Steven.

Steven Freeman
Steven Freeman Jennifer Freeman

The defense team claims it uncovered evidence of Steven's Jekyll-and-Hyde personality in an angry tirade of text messages that Steven sent to Mary Katherine a year prior.

Michael Granims: The 63 pages or whatever of hateful, horrible, threatening text messages — that was what really, really corroborated it.

These texts are from an old phone of Mary Katherine's that prosecutors didn't even know existed. Steven had discovered that Mary Katherine slept with a friend of his while they were broken up. The language is so ugly we can't repeat most of it.  But there was also a photo of him holding up a dead fish with the caption, "this is you, bitch," as well as a threat: "I'm going to f---ing wreck you for wrecking me."

David Begnaud: "Did you know he was talking to her like that?"

Jennifer Freeman: I didn't. …  But I do know that he was a human being, and he was hurt … He was angry. And I don't condone the language, I don't condone what he did. 

The defense claims this is just the tip of the iceberg.  As Mary Katherine takes the stand at her trial, her testimony takes the courtroom by surprise.

MARY KATHERINE TAKES THE STAND

On June 17, 2019 – almost a year after Steven Freeman's death – 24-year-old Mary Katherine Higdon goes on trial for murder.  

David Begnaud: What do you think is your strongest evidence?

Kate Lenhard | Prosecutor: The physical evidence. … the grease on the gun; that there was no other person present; that all of the blood is in one area. There's nothing that shows that he was moving or coming at her at the time that he was shot. … the text messages of her getting him to come home, trying to get him to come home; calling over and over and over.

Prosecutor Kate Lenhard says the physical evidence supports her theory that Mary Katherine shot Steven in anger after he hadn't come home for dinner and ignored her calls and text messages. But there were still some hurdles to overcome:  

DET. ADAM TRAMMEL [interrogation]: …  if you want to tell me what, what went on tonight, you know, in the very beginning.

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: I—yeah, I think it was …

David Begnaud: That is your confession.

Kate Lenhard: Sure.

David Begnaud: And it's pretty much inaudible.

Kate Lenhard: Yes. … how do you mess up the confession, especially when it's such a powerful confession.

And then there was this:   

COP ON PHONE [bodycam]: The gun is in an evidence bag because we secured it when we made entry …

First responders moved the gun found next to Steven Freeman, claiming they feared that Mary Katherine was reaching for it.  

COP ON PHONE [bodyam]: We did take pictures of it before we removed it, before we moved it, all right?

David Begnaud: As a prosecutor, when you heard the cops say, "we moved the gun, we moved it for safety reasons" why did that bother you?" 

Kate Lenhard: Because you could just as easily have moved her for safety reasons. Leave the gun where it is. That's rule number one; you don't mess with a murder weapon."

Now, facing the possibility of life in prison, Mary Katherine Higdon made the risky decision to take the stand.  

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: When it was good, it was good. But when it was bad, it was bad.

Mary Katherine tearfully paints a portrait of Steven as an abusive and controlling boyfriend.  

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: And he'd expect, you know, his clothes all ready and folded and his shoes where they needed to be … He'd want me just to make sure his shower was started for him.

Mary Katherine Higdon
Mary Katherine Higdon takes the stand during her trial. CBS News

While he often seemed to have one foot out the door, Mary Katherine says, Steven would angrily accuse her of cheating on him.  

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: … And I was like, "Steven … you saw that we were just in there talking" … and he just said "no, I know, you know, you're just a whore." 

The defense introduces those ugly, threatening messages that Steven sent after finding out Mary Katherine had slept with one of his friends. 

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON [reading]: "At least now I know what you once again were, what everyone told me not to get with when I picked your scrub ass up out of the mud and made you, bitch."

Mary Katherine claims his texts frightened her – because the relationship had become violent. 

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON [reading]: He said, "the more s--t you talk, the more you get punished when I get home." 

MICHAEL GRANIMS: How did you understand the threat of being punished when you would get home? 

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: He'd, you know, smack me around … sometimes he would grab me and shake me and say, you know, why can't you just do better and be better and just do what I tell you to do?

The details are graphic -- but they are just the beginning.  

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON [reading]: He said, "I miss you too much. I am coming home to you, and you're about to get it bad. You're going to the red room tonight..." 

MICHAEL GRANIMS: What is the red room?

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: It's like one of those I guess sex rooms off of "50 Shades of Grey."

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: It wasn't any specific room, but it was just when like we would bring out like these certain things that we had bought.

MICHAEL GRANIMS: What would happen in the red room?

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: I mean he'd just tie me up and hit me.

Mary Katherine tells the court that on two occasions the rough sex turned into rape. One time, she says, it was just after the couple had returned from a trip to Disney World.  

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: … he started hurting me really, really bad. [Crying] I said, "Steven please stop," and he said, he said that since he's spent so much money on me at Disney, I need to give him what he deserves." 

Kate Lenhard: To get up there and call a dead man a rapist, that's disgusting … She had never told anyone that before. How convenient to wait until you're sitting on the stand accused of his murder. And he can't defend himself. 

But Mary Katherine insists that's why she was so afraid of Steven the night she shot him. And she adds a new detail -- claiming Steven became angry after finding out she wanted to end the relationship.  

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: So, he started throwing things, started you know, pushing me around. And that's when I got scared. And I just wanted him out of the house. … And then that's -- the next thing I remember is him lunging at me and then the next thing that I remember then is him standing there, saying call 911.

What she leaves out of her testimony is the moment she pulled the trigger. 

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: I never wanted to hurt him. I never wanted anything like that. I didn't even know it was chambered.

Kate Lenhard isn't buying any of it. In her cross-examination, she confronts Mary Katherine for never having complained about Steven's alleged abuse. 

KATE LENHARD: Can I give you a minute to show me in those text messages between you and he and you and every other person that was in your cell phone where you talk about him being physically violent?" 

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: I never talked about it, only with friends. I never texted out.

Then the prosecutor has her own surprise for the court. Hours before killing Steven, Mary Katherine was searching violent internet pornography sites – while at a babysitting job. 

KATE LENHARD: All of those and many more you looked up when Steven was not with you, but it was him that liked the red room, is that your testimony?

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: Yes, I looked up things for ideas because obviously he's gone. I wanted to please him.

Kate Lenhard: The woman who just told you that she was raped looks at gang rape porn, bondage porn …Why would you relive that trauma?" 

Now, Mary Katherine Higdon is about to find out if the jury believes her.  

WHAT WILL THE JURY DECIDE?

Mary Katherine Higdon spared no detail in her emotional testimony about alleged abuse by Steven Freeman.

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: So, and anytime I'd stand up for myself or I'd, you know, kind of retaliate, he said don't—don't hit me 'cause if you hit me, I'm gonna hit you 10 times harder …  

Now it's the prosecution's last chance to argue that none of it is true.

KATE LENHARD: This is not a case of self-defense. This is a case of manipulation.

In closing arguments Kate Lenhard reminds the jury of the different stories Mary Katherine told the police.

KATE LENHARD: The gun was tampered; it was an accident; I tossed it; I don't know what happened; I was scared; I was angry.

But she did not tell them that she was abused – and the prosecutor does not believe she was.

Kate Lenhard: When your abuser is out of the house and you are safe, are you as a victim of domestic violence going to track down your abuser where he is with his friends … are you going to go and track him down? Does that make sense?

The prosecutor says Mary Katherine's rage boiled over on the night of August 1, 2018, after Steven finally came home and then refused to eat the dinner that she had prepared.

KATE LENHARD [holds up gun]: "Look at me Steven. Look at me Steven." And when he doesn't, he is shot in the left side of the neck where you know that he's not facing her. He never sees it coming.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Michael Granims focuses on Steven's alleged history of abuse.

MICHAEL GRANIMS: Those were his words – the more you do this, the more you're going to get punished.

Granims brings up those ugly texts that Steven sent Mary Katherine a year prior.

Michael Granims: That torrent of demeaning, hatred texts is probably the worst tirade that I've ever seen, and I'm a criminal defense lawyer.

Then, he recounts Mary Katherine's most serious allegation – that Steven raped her.

MICHAEL GRANIMS: And she's crying and she's telling him it hurts, "Steven, stop Steven, you're hurting me." His answer, "well, I spent money on you at Disney, so I'm entitled to this."

He insists Mary Katherine saw the same frightening look in Steven's eyes just before she shot him. 

MICHAEL GRANIMS: Mary Katherine Higdon knew exactly what was coming.

Granims demonstrates his point with an unusual prop as a metaphor.

MICHAEL GRANIMS [playing a jack-in-the-box]: Does anybody have any doubt about what's going to happen next?

As the case heads to the jury the drama is far from over.

Victor | Juror: I just knew it was a major responsibility.

Chris | Juror: I knew pretty much no matter what you vote one family gets hurt. You destroy one side of that courtroom no matter what you vote.

Within minutes of getting the case the jury took its first vote: 10 to two, guilty. But then —

Chris: And I knew that I was about to be the one to upset that apple cart. So, I went ahead and did that.

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Jurors Victor, left, and Chris, told their fellow jurors that they shared the defense's concerns about the investigation – starting with that lost confession. CBS News

Both Chris and Victor told their fellow jurors that they shared the defense's concerns about the investigation – starting with that lost confession.

Chris: Inside I was like, are you kidding me? … I know this isn't a major city, but it's audio equipment.

Victor: She's still in custody. Why are you not going to bring her back in to at least speak with her again?

But Mary Katherine had already obtained a lawyer.

COP [body cam]: Where's the gun at?

MARY KATHERINE HIGDON: (crying) it's right there …

And they questioned why the police moved the gun that was used to shoot Steven.

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At the crime scene, police moved the gun used to shoot Steven Freeman, claiming they feared Mary Katherine Higdon was reaching for it. Spalding County District Attorney's Office

Chris: It's ludicrous to argue that it's easier to move the gun than it was to move her.

What also troubled them: prosecutors had cracked open Mary Katherine's cell phone for texts, social media and search histories. But they decided not to spend another $1,800 to unlock Steven's phone.

Chris: It was too expensive to pay another two grand to crack his phone open? Let's see what kind of person he was to try to dispute the rape and abuse allegations or back them up. They didn't do that.

David Begnaud: But you could already get those messages on Mary Katherine's phone.

Chris: No, we get the messages between them two. We don't get what he was talking about with his homeboys or what he was looking up online.

Chris and Victor say they were left with serious doubts about all of the prosecution's evidence.

Chris: All of it's tainted from the way the cops handled the investigation. … Well if you don't have any evidence you don't have a case. … I didn't have any proof that she had done much of anything except for lying.

And those lies didn't seem to bother either juror.

Chris: If I was being arrested for potentially murdering somebody, I probably would get scared enough that I would just come up with whatever story I could.

David Begnaud: But that almost seems like you're making an excuse for her.

Chris: Not making an excuse. I'm just empathizing with the situation.

Victor: And in toxic relationships there are mountains and mountains and mountains of lies.

By the next afternoon, it was clear their arguments had made an impact. And, so, the jury had a verdict:

JUDGE: We the jury find as follows: count one, malice murder, we find the defendant not guilty. Count two, felony murder, we find the defendant not guilty …

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Mary Katherine Higdon reacts to her not guilty verdict. CBS News

Not guilty of murder – as well as the lesser charges of assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. 

Kate Lenhard: And I'm just sitting there and I'm thinking I failed this family. And that was hard.

Detective Chris Wilson: We did good work on this case … Say that you don't trust police because of the interview; say you don't trust the forensic evidence. … You still have the 911 tapes where she says, "I shot my boyfriend." 

Two hours later, Mary Katherine Higdon was a free woman.

Mary Katherine Higdon: I cannot believe this is happening right now.

As she watched the woman who killed her son walk free, Jennifer Freeman could barely contain her anger toward the jury.

Jennifer Freeman: Steven definitely got the short end of the stick. Because I don't believe that they even listened.

Victor insists he was just following the law.

Victor: I think she killed him. And that's wrong.

David Begnaud: But you voted not guilty.

Victor: Because of the evidence.

David Begnaud: Am I understanding you correctly to say that because the police screwed up, she's not guilty?

Chris: I didn't say she's not guilty. She's not in prison.

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Mary Katherine Higdon and Steven Freeman Tom Higdon

David Begnaud: The jury found you not guilty on all the charges. Do you feel any guilt?

Mary Katherine Higdon [crying]: Only 'cause I loved Steven. And I never meant that to ever happen to him.

Mary Katherine Higdon has moved to another state.

To honor Steven, Jennifer Freeman volunteers to raise awareness about domestic violence.

  • David Begnaud
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    David Begnaud is the lead national correspondent for "CBS This Morning" based in New York City.