Nov 24, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterA jury has decided that Shey Elan Bruce killed Charles Darrell Laster on May 14 but did not do so maliciously.
That difference led to a manslaughter conviction rather than one for murder and likely cut decades off Bruce's eventual prison sentence.
Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett was happy with how his deputies built a case on circumstantial evidence and struggled against the "CSI effect," meaning the expectation by jurors to have DNA and other clear physical evidence.
"Those two did a hell of a job with what they had," Bennett said in an interview.
"When they did not have much physical evidence they had to get right down and slug it out with testimony."
After six hours of deliberation, jurors returned their verdict at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Lander District Court.
They found Bruce, 45, not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of manslaughter and domestic violence battery.
The maximum penalty for manslaughter is 20 years in prison, six months for domestic violence battery.
Bruce would have faced 20 years to life in prison if found guilty of second-degree murder.
Neither the court nor attorneys informed jurors of the potential penalties for the charges.
District Court Judge Norman E. Young will sentence Bruce at a later hearing.
Bennett had no comment as to what sentence his office would seek for Bruce.
Though Bruce was charged with second-degree murder and domestic violence battery, Young told jurors that if they did not think the evidence supported the murder charge they could find Bruce guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
The verdict showed that jurors thought prosecutors were convincing in the issue that occupied the most time in the trail, whether Bruce's actions killed Laster.
On the subject of why the killer acted, however, defense attorneys carried the day.
To be guilty of either charge, the suspect has to have committed an act that led to someone's death. Manslaughter applies when the killer acts upon a "sudden heat of passion," whereas second-degree murder requires someone to act maliciously.
Throughout the three-day trial, deputy county attorneys Pat LeBrun and Ember Oakley argued that Bruce struck Laster, 65, and his wife Lavena, 49, in the head with a beer bottle at about 10:30 p.m. May 14.
Lavena Laster found her husband dead at 5:30 a.m. the next day of what was found to be bleeding inside his skull.
To their cause, prosecutors mustered statements by Charles Laster, Lavena Laster and Bruce and the testimony of the forensic pathologist who performed Charles Laster's autopsy.
Public defenders Devon Petersen and Mitch Guthrie attacked the prosecution's theory by gathering evidence that Laster was prone to falls and introducing expert testimony the dead man's wounds did not match those a beer bottle would cause.
The lawyers also argued the state had little physical evidence to support its story.
Both sides spent less time addressing Bruce's motivation for the attack.
Two witnesses testified that Bruce, who was in a romantic relationship with Lavena Laster, may have been jealous of her husband. Young also informed jurors they legally could but did not have to infer malice from the use of a dangerous or deadly weapon.
Bennett was satisfied with the verdict.
"Justice was served," he said. "The jury performed exactly as it was asked to."
The strength of Bruce's lawyers helped the justice system work properly, Bennett said.
"They are well-respected, very competent attorneys," he said. "They presented their case in a very competent manner."
The defense attorneys in the trial were critical of the investigation of Laster's death, arguing that authorities should have collected more evidence from the scene of the crime.
"Typically in a murder trial you have an extraordinary amount of physical evidence...but when you hit somebody in the head with a beer bottle there just isn't much physical evidence," Bennett said.
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