Jurors often felt “shell shocked” during the Shoofly Ruins murder trial of Steven Brydie.
That is according to juror Dan Anderson and Joe Parone, an alternate juror in the case.
“That’s what muddled our heads so much, we kept hearing conflicting statements,” said Parone.
After eight days of testimony by eyewitnesses and law enforcement, the jury found Brydie guilty of negligent homicide, but cleared him of aggravated assault and second-degree murder charges.
As an alternate, Parone did not take part in the deliberations but listened to all the testimony.
The trial had lots of conflicting and shifting testimony, but certain physical evidence was withheld and attorneys never offered a motive for the killing.
The prosecution argued Brydie committed second-degree murder because he deliberately shot Michael “Big Mike” Whitis in July 2018 at the Shoofly Ruins parking lot off of Houston Mesa Road.
However, the jurors concluded the prosecution left too many questions unanswered to support a verdict of second-degree murder, with its mandatory minimum sentence between 10 and 22 years.
The jurors said they disregarded the everchanging eyewitness accounts and focused on the physical evidence — holes in the car from bullet fragments, the sensitivity of the trigger on the gun and the angle of the fatal bullet. However, the lack of a complete ballistics report and uncertainties in how to interpret the physical evidence left them with reasonable doubt about whether Brydie fired the gun on purpose, they said.
After repeated votes on other charges, the jury settled on negligent homicide, which carries with it a one- to three-year minimum sentence. Brydie could get a longer sentence though because of his prior criminal record, which includes drug use and sales.
Parone said sometimes the handling of the evidence and testimony seemed “slipshod.”
Despite their qualms about the prosecution’s case, Parone and Anderson both came out with respect for the legal system — with its deference to the jury and search for the truth.
Anderson said the judge impressed him and the jury had common sense deliberations.
“Everyone asked good questions,” he said.
Eyewitness accounts shiftBesides Brydie, two other people were present in the minivan when the revolver in Brydie’s hand went off, shooting Whitis in the throat and instantly killing him.
Kaylee Brown was in a relationship with Brydie at the time of the shooting. She owned and drove the minivan in which Whitis died.
Jeffrey Michael Roberts owned the gun Brydie used to kill Whitis. Jeffrey sat behind Brydie in the minivan.
Brenda Roberts, Jeffrey’s wife, ultimately found the group after the shooting, then tried to stab Brydie, according to testimony.
The accounts of Brown and the Robertses changed from the night of the shooting, through the pretrial and into the trial.
Yet, while Brown’s third explanation of the events meshed with the physical evidence, the Robertses discredited themselves so badly with the jury, “we just about had to reject everything they said,” said Anderson.
But that also made them examine the evidence more carefully.
“It forced us to look at each witness and ask, do we reject everything they said? There is always a little bit of truth in a lie,” said Anderson.
Confusion about ballisticsNeither Parone nor Anderson could understand why the state did not enter the ballistics reports into trial. Turns out, the state forensics lab had finished the report after the trial began. The defense and the prosecution agreed not to admit the report into evidence because neither side had time to study the report and determine how it would help or hurt their case.
The car had several holes on the inside and the bullet fragmented when it hit Whitis, causing confusion among the jurors about the angle of the fatal shot.
“So they had the jacket to the bullet, but again, they weren’t allowed to say there were bullet holes. They were just marks. They took swabs (to see who fired a gun), but didn’t test them,” said Anderson.
Parone said the decision not to admit the report had a big impact.
“It really screwed things up,” he said. “They spent a lot of time on that window and the holes and stuff. We all knew there was one gun and one shot and you (knew about) the wound through Mike, so you guess it’s got to be the bullet hole.”
Nor was the holster entered as evidence. Brydie’s version of events said Jeffrey told Brydie to take his holstered gun when they left the house. Brydie told police that the holstered gun was uncomfortable and so pulled it out to give it back to Jeffrey, but it went off accidentally because it had a hair trigger. The Robertses maintained Brydie pulled out the gun and waved it around, threatening everyone in the car. Brown’s account fell somewhere in between.
“We never saw the holster,” said Anderson. “But during (Brydie’s) testimony I know that he talked about this huge bulk in his pants.”
During the trial, the jury watched a video of Brydie at the time of the arrest. Brydie did not testify at trial, but in the video he said he wanted to give the silver gun back to Jeffrey because, “I don’t like guns,” he said.
Brydie said he pulled the gun out of the holster. In the process of handing the gun back to Jeffrey, it went off — to everyone’s surprise.
If the state had entered the holster and ballistics reports as evidence, gun owners like Anderson, said they could have decided more about Brydie’s intent.
As it was, Anderson and the other gun owners looked at the trigger and decided it had been modified, giving credence to Brydie’s explanation.
“It had zero creep and about a two-pound pull,” said Anderson. “A person who shoots regularly and likes a tight grip, they will modify it so it has little creep and has a lighter standard for the trigger pull.”
But Brydie had no knowledge of this when he tried to hand the gun to Jeffrey.
“We could tell he was naive about guns,” said Anderson.
Defendant’s intentWhat really swung the jury toward negligent homicide? Intent.
“When it came right down to it, we would have found him guilty of manslaughter if he had cocked that gun,” said Anderson.
The jury never heard anyone testify they heard Brydie cock the gun.
Nor did investigators follow the track of the bullet to physically draw a line back up to where it went off. Because of that, the jury couldn’t tell if Brydie held it up high or down low.
The Robertses maintained Brydie pointed the gun at Whitis and pulled the trigger. Brydie’s version said the gun got tangled up with the straw of a drink on the console between the seats. The angle of the bullet was critical in determining motive, said the jurors.
As for dropping the aggravated assault charges, the jurors decided Brown’s account suggests she wasn’t afraid of Brydie.
“For aggravated assault charges you have to be in fear for your life,” said Anderson. “We had to ascertain how threatened everyone felt.”
Brown looked away from the gun once she saw it in the car, not at Brydie.
“That’s what an upset girlfriend would do,” said Anderson.
And then there was the cover up.
The removal of the license plate and registration.
The moving of the van.
“The cover up was very coordinated,” said Anderson. “It was a very meticulous choreography. It was stupid, but lucid.”
Anderson felt if the witnesses had simply called the police immediately after the shooting, things might have gone differently.
“If they would have connected a couple of dots, like the testing of the bullet holes and the four witnesses, it would have looked different,” he said.
Jury: The system worksAnderson said both the prosecution and defense came to speak with the jury after the trial.
He had concerns about how the trial went.
“My first question to them was, ‘Do you think what we got to was appropriate?’” said Anderson.
Both Michael Bernays (defense) and Rebecca Richardson (prosecution) supported the jury’s decision.
“It was never clear what would happen,” said Anderson. “Some said it was a complete accident ... they all thought there was guilt, but the prosecution didn’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The jury deliberated for five and a half hours, but Anderson thought it would go much longer because the jury was so far apart for most of the deliberations.
“When it came to the specific charges of second-degree murder, the first vote was eight to four” in favor of a conviction, he said. “Then, we talked about manslaughter and that vote was six to six.”
Some jurors advocated, “we can’t go less than manslaughter, this young man is dead.”
Others had doubts.
“It was kind of emotional,” said Anderson.
So they carefully re-read the instructions from the judge. Those instructions said that negligent homicide covers an accidental death, in which the killer was reckless. It’s considered a lesser included offense to first- and second-degree murder, since the elements of the crime are the same. Drunk drivers and others often face charges of negligent homicide, which produces a much shorter sentence than second-degree murder. It may also cover the case in which someone dies when people are gathered to commit some other crime.
After studying the definitions, the jury voted unanimously to convict Brydie of negligent homicide.
“I am very confident in our system,” said Anderson after participating in the process for the first time.