A year after the death of Michael Whitis at the Shoofly Ruins, Steven Brydie went on trial for his murder last week.
Gila County prosecutors Jessica Richardson and Bradley Soos say Brydie murdered his friend, but the defense tells a different story — claiming it was all an accident.
No one disputed that Brydie fired the shot that killed “Big Mike” Whitis.
Brydie and Whitis drove to the Shoofly Ruins in the predawn darkness on July 28, along with Jeffry “Mike” Roberts and Kaylee Brown. The group had first met at Robert’s house, where Brydie picked up Roberts’ .357-caliber Magnum.
Once at the Shoofly parking lot, that gun then went off while in Brydie’s hand — either by accident or on purpose — killing Big Mike.
The jury must decide who to believe.
Second-degree murderJudge Timothy Wright told the jury that there are three types of intent with a second-degree murder charge.
The first is, “the defendant intentionally sought to kill the victim, but did so without premeditation,” said Wright.
Second-degree murder could also mean the accused wanted to hurt someone so badly, he knew death could result.
The final definition of second-degree murder involves “extreme indifference” to the victim’s life, said Wright.
The state’s caseDeputy County Attorney Soos told the jury they had an easy job.
“This is actually a very simple case for you to decide. There is one key and undisputed fact, this gun,” he said while holding the .357-caliber Magnum in a box, “was in the defendant’s hands when Big Mike was shot and killed.”
Not even Brydie denies he had the gun.
Soos showed a video of an interview with Brydie shortly after the shooting.
Clad in blue hospital scrubs, his arm in a sling, Brydie said he tried to wrestle the gun out of his baggy pants to hand back to Roberts, who sat in the seat directly behind him in Brown’s minivan.
“As I’m passing it to him ... I lean forward,” he said. “I don’t like guns. Kaylee doesn’t like guns. It makes her anxiety go through the roof.”
He said as he turned, the gun got tangled in the straw of a gas station soda cup covered with a plastic lid. Hung up on the straw, the gun went off, said Brydie.
Soos showed a picture of the cup in the middle console of Brown’s minivan.
Then Soos stated, “Guns do not just go off,” especially a .375-caliber Magnum, which has a double action or a trigger that requires force to engage.
The resulting wound had “a slightly upward angle,” said Soos.
“It is wholly inconsistent from a gun being fired from the lower console,” he said.
The angle of the gun could help the jury determine if Brydie pointed the gun at Big Mike or it accidentally went off while tangled in the straw.
Soos was clear what the state would ask.
“At the end of the day, you are going to be asked to render a verdict that the defendant is guilty,” he said.
The defense’s caseThe defense has a lot to work with. Even Soos admitted during his comments that the witnesses have repeatedly changed their stories about what happened almost each time authorities questioned them.
“You are going to hear some inconsistencies from the witnesses,” he told the jury.
But he made sure to tell them, “the inconsistencies ... all that stuff will be irrelevant to this case.”
Defense attorney Michael Bernays told the jury the inconsistencies “are not just inconsistencies” they are lies told by the witnesses to cover up an accident.
“The question for you to bear in mind is, why lie?” said Bernays. “If Brydie pulled out a gun and shot the victim, why lie? Why not tell the cops what happened?”
He said the lies and inconsistencies in the three witness accounts have cast doubt on all of their initial statements — which suggested Brydie had almost gone crazy, shooting Big Mike and threatening others in the car. He stressed a series of inconsistencies that would show up during the trial:
• Brown initially lied about why the van was moved after the shooting.
• The group removed the van’s registration and license plate because they “were going to leave Whitis in a remote location.” Originally the witnesses had no reason to remove the license plate.
• The three told police Roberts’ wife, Brenda, was with them all the time, but later admitted she arrived after the shooting.
• They initially insisted Roberts did not have drugs in the car, although later witnesses said he did.
Moreover, Bernays insisted the forensic evidence will support an accidental shooting rather than a deliberate killing.
“The state apparently wants to use the angle at which the bullet entered his neck as evidence (Brydie) was sitting straight up when it happened,” said Bernays.
If Brydie was sitting up, Bernays said the state would consider that a premeditated action, instead of an accident because it indicates Brydie was aiming the gun with intent. Instead, Bernays said the trajectory of the bullet will support the idea the shooting was an accident.
Bernays said the lies and inconsistencies in the witness account make everything different.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there are a lot of issues in this case,” said Bernays. “They are not background noise. They go to the background of the state’s case.”
Bernays ended his opening statement with a plea.
“At the end of the case, the state will ask you to convict Steven Brydie. I want to ask you (to find) that the state has not submitted the overwhelming evidence that Steven Brydie is guilty.”
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