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Jury gets Bruce case; closing arguments wrapped up Friday

Nov 22, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

A jury began deliberating Friday afternoon in the case of a Shoshoni man on trial for murder and domestic violence.

Lawyers for the prosecution and defendant Shey Elan Bruce finished closing arguments just after noon Friday in Lander District Court.

Deputy county attorney Ember Oakley said all of the evidence fits together like a puzzle to show Bruce killed Charles Darrell Laster, 65, of Shoshoni.

Public defender Mitch Guthrie argued some evidence contradicted the state's theory and other pieces were missing altogether.

"It's frustrating to try to do a puzzle and get to the end and not have all the pieces," Guthrie said. "Do we have all the pieces?"

Witnesses and evidence corroborated each other to show Bruce struck Laster and Laster's wife, Lavena, in the head with a beer bottle the night of May 14. The next morning, Lavena Laster found her husband dead of what was found to be bleeding in his brain caused by blunt force trauma, such as a blow from a bottle.

Both Lasters side and Shey corroborate the details of the attack, Oakley said.

Bruce told one witness he went into a bedroom of Charles Laster's home and saw the man and his wife. Bruce told the young woman, "I hurt them real bad."

A recording of a 911 call Oakley replayed for the court includes Charles Laster stating a man named Shey hit him in the head with a beer bottle and attacked his wife.

Lavena Laster agreed she was in the bedroom with her husband when Bruce came in and someone knocked her out.

"It all fits," Oakley said.

A forensic pathologist during an autopsy of Charles Laster found he died of bleeding within his brain.

"He said the injuries were consistent with being struck with a beer bottle," Oakley said, referring to the doctor.

Jealousy was Bruce's motive, Oakley said, pointing to testimony the man was upset to see that Charles Laster had his hand on his wife's leg earlier in the day May 14.

Evidence questioned

Guthrie argued that physical evidence was missing from the trial. Investigators could have tested beer bottles found on the scene for DNA and fingerprints and could have tested fluids evident on Charles Laster's body after he died to give a better understanding of what killed him.

"They chose not to test a single piece of evidence collected in this case," Guthrie said. "That was their choice."

Some facts also did not fit with the prosecution's account, Guthrie said.

He pointed to one witness who examined Laster after the alleged attack and did not see any injuries. Another witness living near Laster heard a loud noise like a gunshot in the direction of Laster's trailer hours after the alleged attack, Guthrie said.

Laster also had balance issues, was prone to falling and had been found passed out on his floor several times, Guthrie said. He suggested Laster easily could have fallen and hit his head after Bruce allegedly assaulted him.

Testimony about beer-bottle injuries from a second forensic pathologist, called by the defense, did not square with the prosecution's theory either, Guthrie said.

"What do we know about hitting people like this (with the bottom) with this thing?" Guthrie asked, referring to the expert's testimony. "Its' going to leave a mark, it's a circle, has ridges, it's a 90 degree angle and it's going to break the skin."

The talk of gunshots was irrelevant, Oakley said in her rebuttal. Furthermore, experts decided testing the physical evidence Guthrie spoke about would add anything to the case, she said.

"You have to discard the pieces that aren't part of the puzzle," she said. "We are here to evaluate the evidence presented."

Judge's instruction

Bruce is charged with second degree murder, and the jury will have to decide if the state proved all parts of that charge. The charge carries a penalty of 20 years to life in prison.

To be guilty, Bruce must have acted with malice to purposely perform an act that led to Laster's death, District Court Judge Norman E. Young told jurors. They can but do not have to presume malice from the use of a deadly or dangerous weapon, Young said.

If the jury decides the state did not prove second-degree murder, it could find Bruce guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

That charge applies if a person, "Unlawfully kills any human being without malice, voluntarily upon a sudden head of passion," Young says.

Bruce's domestic violence battery charge alleges he caused bodily harm to a household member, and it carries a penalty of up to six months in prison.

Witnesses have testified Bruce was in a romantic relationship with Lavena Laster on May 14.

As the jury started deliberating just after noon Friday, it could have a verdict as early as that afternoon, but it may come much later.

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