After a nine-day trial, a jury on Friday convicted Steven Brydie of negligent homicide in the death of Michael “Big Mike” Whitis at the Shoofly Ruins in the summer of 2018.
The jury found Brydie innocent of all other charges in a case that involved drugs and four people in a minivan with two guns in the hours before dawn.
Negligent homicide carries a penalty of one to four years, according to the state statute. Brydie had previously rejected a plea bargain for second-degree murder and assault, with a sentence of 18 years. Instead, he gambled on a trial, which could have yielded a 75-year sentence — possibly enhanced because of his existing criminal record.
The jury deliberated several hours after the defense and prosecution ended closing arguments at 4 p.m. on Oct. 18.
The victim’s family members are “beside ourselves,” at the leniency of the verdict, said Michael Whitis Sr., Big Mike’s father, who attended every court hearing for a year and a half.
“I’m at a loss. I really am,” he said. “We were prepared for manslaughter, but not this.”
He worried Brydie could “do no time, basically time served. My son’s life was worth so much more than this.”
The verdict turns on the jury’s conclusion that Whitis’ death was an accident, rather than the result of an argument or intent. The jury weighed conflicting, shifting eyewitness testimony, sketchy physical evidence and the lack of a motive for murder. Ultimately, the jury accepted Brydie’s claim that the gun went off accidentally as he twisted around in the front seat, killing Big Mike in the back seat.
Trial testimony showed that the events near dawn at the Shoofly Ruins unfolded in chaotic circumstances. The other people in the car said Brydie was crazed and threatened to kill them, but their stories constantly changed and contradicted one another. Brydie fled the scene of the shooting and was arrested nearby. The other people in the car moved the van, stripped off the plates and delayed calling police.
In his closing, Deputy Gila County Attorney Brad Soos urged the jury to remember, “I told you the basic undisputed facts in the case and they never changed … the fact is that this man killed Michael Whitis.”
Soos urged the jury to convict Brydie for second-degree murder saying there’s no doubt Brydie shot Whitis on purpose, even if he didn’t plan the murder in advance. A jury can find a defendant guilty of second-degree murder even if they didn’t intend to cause the death of the victim.
To prove their point, the prosecution called many law enforcement witnesses from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, Payson Police Department and the Department of Public Safety state crime lab. The prosecution argued the angle of the fatal bullet proved the gun didn’t go off accidentally while on the console between the two seats as Brydie claimed.
However, the additional results from the state crime lab arrived in the middle of the trial and so did not make it into evidence — by mutual consent of the defense and prosecution. The reports included things like ballistics tests and tests for gunpowder residue on the hands of people in the car.
The prosecution also called on the witnesses who were in the minivan with Big Mike and Brydie when the shooting occurred.
Those witnesses — Kaylee Brown and Jeffrey Michael Roberts — continually changed their stories, prosecutors said. They offered differing accounts when they first talked to police, during preliminary trial testimony and during the trial itself. Roberts also had a gun and owned the gun that killed Whitis.
At first, Brown and Roberts insisted Brenda Roberts was present when the shooting took place. Brown changed her story after Brydie, in a recorded account, telling officers Brenda was not present.
Brown also changed her story when police asked why blood stains showed the van had been moved — contradicting initial statements. Initially, she said her foot slipped off the brake and the van rolled backward. During the trial, she said the group drove to a remote trailhead to strip the van of its license plate and registration. They debated leaving the body and van in the hopes others would discover it. They later drove the van back to Shoofly, parking in a slightly different spot relative to the blood stains. Eventually, they called the sheriff’s office.
“Why create the fabrication if it happened as straight forwardly as the state asks you to adopt?” asked defense attorney Michael Bernays.
Bernays urged the jury to reject second-degree murder charges and noted they could find other verdicts like manslaughter or negligent homicide.
The jury convicted Brydie of negligent homicide.