Jurors had their doubts in Granby manslaughter case
July 27, 2011
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS – A Grand County jury found former Granby resident Kristen Schoen not guilty of accidentally killing her boyfriend with a shotgun in Granby last year.
The jury arrived at its decision around 2 p.m. on Friday, July 22 – having deliberated for one hour on Thursday, July 21, and much of the next day.
Schoen, 25 years-old at the time of the incident, was tried for manslaughter and a lesser reckless endangerment charge for allegedly having pulled the trigger of the gun that killed her boyfriend Michael Thomas, 25, after a day of drinking at the victim’s manufactured home on a residential street in Granby.
The jury found Schoen not guilty on both charges at the end of the nine-day trial.
14th Judicial District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham and Deputy District Attorney Heather Shwayder Hughes relied on evidence of gun powder residue on Schoen’s right hand and her own alleged confessions captured on video the night of the incident in interviews with Granby Police.
Schoen repeatedly confessed to the crime, according to evidence, saying : “I’m a murderer”; “I shot him”; “I killed him.” And eight times, the prosecution pointed out, Schoen said the words: “I pulled the trigger.”
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But the evidence also revealed that Schoen waffled in statements.
Although most of the time she said she had dared Thomas to shoot himself that night, at one point she told Granby Police Chief Bill Housley that Thomas dared her, and she pulled the trigger. Other times she said statements such as: “It was an accident,” and “Mike shot himself.”
Longer than two hours after the time of the incident, Schoen’s blood alcohol level was still about three times the legal limit at which someone in Colorado is considered to be driving under the influence.
“Alcohol doesn’t make you confess to crimes you didn’t do,” said Oldham in closing statements on Thursday.
Both Schoen and Thomas had been drinking heavily the day of Thomas’s death, according to undisputed information brought up during the trial. Schoen and her then 5-year-old daughter lived with Thomas.
Prosecution and the defense agreed that at about 7:45 p.m. the night of the incident, Schoen awoke from a drunken nap to an intoxicated Thomas sitting at the edge of the bed holding his shotgun to his throat. Schoen’s daughter was in the next room.
But the prosecution and defense disagreed about what happened next. The defense argued that Thomas many times before had threatened suicide while under the influence of alcohol, and Thomas pulled the trigger himself.
On occasions prior to his death, Thomas had twice shot his shotgun from inside the home during bouts of suicidal depression, according to testimony. That night in August, Schoen believed she had ridded the home of the only shotgun shell Thomas had available. The defense’s scenario was she allegedly dared him to shoot himself, perhaps under the impression he was without ammunition.
“She was tired of the man she loved holding a gun to his chin, threatening suicide and then turning a gun and shooting things in the house,” one of Schoen’s attorneys said in closing statements.
But the prosecution maintained while Schoen was unsure about whether the gun was loaded, she reached for the shotgun trigger and pulled it after daring her boyfriend to do so, based on her own series of alleged confessions.
“He turned to her for help and compassion. And when he turned to the woman he loved, little did he know, he turned to the wrong woman,” Oldham said in closing statements. “Only a cold-hearted woman would dare the man she claims she loves to kill himself when he’s threatening suicide.”
Evidence showed that the right-handed Schoen was found to have gun powder resideue on her right “trigger” hand; but an expert testified that gun powder can be picked up in various ways. The defense argued Schoen may have picked up gun powder by touching the victim, simply being in the room, being in contact with police, being in a police car and by being at the police department on suspicion of manslaughter.
Other possible DNA and fingerprint evidence on the gun was deemed inconclusive – only traces of prints on the gun and indeterminate DNA on the trigger.
Schoen’s Public Defenders Sheryl Uhlmann and Hilary Perry, of Steamboat Springs, argued the prosecution’s case relied solely on statements Schoen made “during the fog of alcohol and trauma.”
After the alleged crime, Schoen was “hysterical” and speaking erratically for several hours, Perry told jurors.
Jurors could see her drunken and confused behavior for themselves in the video of police interviews.
For one juror who asked his name be withheld for this story when reached post-trial, the video interview showed to him Schoen could have been speaking figuratively, saying she “pulled the trigger” by daring Thomas to do so, or in possible expressions of “guilt from not actually taking him seriously” during Thomas’s suicidal state of mind.
Schoen’s confused testimony during police interviews captured on video was contradictory in some parts and contradicted parts of her testimony on the stand, said juror John Shurson of Fraser. And the case lacked physical evidence, he said.
“She was very intoxicated and emotionally distraught at the time of the video taping. It was hard to determine the real truth,” Shurson said. “In the original tape certainly there was some damning evidence, and if there had been some physical evidence to corroborate any of that she would have been in big trouble.”
And some jurors had little confidence in the overall investigation of the crime, both jurors said.
After hearing repeatedly during the trial that Thomas had only one shell, jurors uncovered another live shell in the gun case while examining evidence in the jury deliberation room.
“The jury as a whole did a really conscientious job given what we had to work with,” Shurson said.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603