After hearing closing arguments Friday, before Christmas, jurors in the Kevan Kuhlman murder trial went home for the holidays and returned to the courtroom with a guilty verdict Wednesday, Dec. 28.
The 12-person jury found Kuhlman guilty of second-degree murder in the 2001 death of Payson television station manager Susan Birchak.
The prosecution had sought a first-degree murder conviction.
Kuhlman previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a 2002 plea bargain agreement, but returned to court and won a post-conviction relief appeal that resulted in a trial.
The suspect contended he did not understand that the plea agreement would require every day of his 20-year sentence be served. Kuhlman said he believed he would be entitled to credits for good behavior.
The 41-year-old Payson man did not have much to lose in going to trial. There was the chance of an acquittal or dismissal, or possibly a longer sentence on a first-degree conviction. But Kuhlman was already serving 20 years, ordered through his plea agreement.
In Arizona, second-degree murder carries a sentence of 10 to 22 years, and requires that every day of the sentence be served. Kuhlman may get credit for time already served. Sentencing rests with Judge Peter Cahill, who will determine Kuhlman's prison term Jan. 20.
Following the verdict, defense attorney Christy Riggins said, "We're very disappointed by the verdict. Obviously the jury found he wasn't guilty of committing premeditated first-degree murder. A lot of legal issues need to be resolved by the court of appeals." Riggins indicated that she would file paperwork to begin the appeals process on the request of her client.
Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores said the prosecution would seek the maximum sentence of 22 years by proving aggravating circumstances. Those circumstances include several other domestic violence incidents involving Kuhlman. The length of the sentence depends upon aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
As the law permits, Kuhlman did not take the stand during the trial.
"My office really appreciated all the hard work of the Payson Police Department," Flores said. "Hopefully, with this conviction, there will be closure for Susan Birchak's family."
Murder weapon undetermined
In the Dec. 23 edition of the Payson Roundup, it was reported, based on earlier testimony, that police suspected Birchak was strangled with a vacuum cleaner hose. That theory was not proven in court testimony.
It was determined that Birchak died as a result of strangulation. Police had collected a vacuum cleaner hose, and said suspicious marks on the victim's throat matched the pattern on the hose.
The exact manner in which strangulation occurred was not determined, nor was any item in evidence proven to be the murder weapon.
Defense counsel Riggins tackled the issue, saying, "The pathologist indicated that the most likely weapon would have been a belt. They never found a belt." Prosecutors theorized in closing arguments that the marks on Birchak's neck were caused by jewelry on her hands while she was attempting to protect her throat.