(Editor's note: This story was originally published in December, 2008.)
Supporters of Travis Stay didn't hold back their emotion Wednesday.
After nine days of sitting through witness testimony and legal sparring, they got the verdict they wanted. Shrill outbursts and cries of relief filled the courtroom when the "not guilty" verdict was read at 9:20 p.m., after about six hours of jury deliberation.
Stay's mother, Vickie, shouted, "Thank you! Thank you!" at jurors as they left the courtroom. And Stay's brother, Josh, had just two words: "It's done."
With his smiling mom on his arm, Stay walked out of the courtroom. Asked for his reaction he said, "Not tonight, call me tomorrow."
Outside the courtroom, a woman in the Stay contingent talking on a phone was heard telling someone on the other end: "Everything's back to normal!"
Travis's cousin, Tony, said he thought from the beginning that authorities had pinned the beating death of Joel Lovelien on the wrong man. He also expressed sympathy for the relatives of the 38-year-old father who was beaten to death in the parking lot of the Broken Drum bar.
"I just want the thoughts and prayers to be with the Lovelien family, the right person to be found," he said.
Stay's attorney, Peter Wold, said his 24-year-old client, a former UND nursing student, is going home to Princeton, Minn., for Christmas and hopes to get on with his plan to become a nurse.
"It's a relief," Wold said. "There's a lot of tension sitting in the courtroom for three weeks with stakes as high as those with a young boy like him."
Joe Friedberg, another one of Stay's attorneys, said he thought the forensic evidence, especially the blood spatter analysis of Stay's clothing, tipped the scales in the case.
"I think it came down to the scientific evidence," he said. "I think the biggest thing that we did was hire Mr. Kish who sent his report to Mr. Laber."
After reading the report of Paul Kish, an expert hired by the defense, Terry Laber, a blood-spatter expert called by the prosecution, revised his conclusions about the victim's blood found on Stay's sweatshirt and cargo pants. Laber added the possibility that blood could have gotten there from expiration (coughing, choking or simply breathing) as well as a scenario in which the spatter was created by blows to Lovelien.
Grand Forks County State's Attorney Peter Welte, who didn't try the case but monitored it throughout, said he heard the verdict read about 9:20 p.m.
"We're disappointed," he said. "There were 350-odd exhibits, hours of testimony . . . When (the jury) comes back in four or five hours, you always are concerned. We feel like the trial was conducted very well and that the jury was given ample evidence to convict. We respect the decision of the jury, although we disagree that was the correct verdict."
Welte praised Nancy Yon, the case's lead prosecutor who has been an assistant state's attorney in the office for nine years.
"I think the closing argument by Ms. Yon was fantastic and gave a tremendous summary of the case. Obviously, the jury saw things differently than we saw them. It was a well-tried case."
The fact is, whatever the verdict, someone got away with the murder of Lovelien, Welte acknowledged. But his office has no other route to go on this case and it's over, he said.
"There is no evidence that anyone else was involved with this murder," Welte said. "The trial for the murder of Joel Lovelien has been conducted."
In addition to the charge of murder, jurors also found Stay not guilty of manslaughter, a Class B felony defined as recklessly causing a death. In the instructions given to the jury Wednesday morning, Judge Joel Medd of the District Court told jurors that if they didn't find Stay guilty of murder, they then must consider manslaughter, a lesser offense included within the original charge.
Closing arguments Raised voices, hushed tones, folksy tales, Bible quotes, pretend punches -- jurors witnessed it all when the prosecution and defense delivered their closing arguments. After the parting blows, the jury began sorting through the evidence in the murder trial that began Dec. 2. Yon went after the defense's argument that the real murderers were a group of men who rode the same party bus as Stay but left the Broken Drum shortly before Lovelien was found unresponsive in the parking lot the night of Oct. 27, 2007.
She derided their version as "illogical, far-fetched and completely untrue."
"They are desperate to pin this crime on anyone other than their client," Yon told jurors. "The more they do this, the more you should rely on the facts in this case."
Yon said the five men the defense accused of murdering Lovelien were not at the Broken Drum bar when he was assaulted. She told the jury that Stay was in an angry, fighting mood that night. Yon referred to the fight Stay had gotten in at the Broken Drum before Lovelien was killed and the swing he took at a man in an alley about a half mile from the bar.
Stay left the scene of the crime, Yon said, after beating Lovelien with his fists: "That cowardly little lion fled just as a coward would." Yon said the defense has not given a legitimate explanation why Lovelien's blood was found on the defendant's clothing.
"We have something better than an eyewitness," she said. "We have DNA."
Defense's last shot
Friedberg faulted the police for not running down leads in the case, not analyzing the clothing and shoes of the five men the defense accused of killing Lovelien and for not interrogating them the same as Stay.
He said authorities jumped to the conclusion that the bus transporting the five left before Lovelien was killed. Citing the testimony of expert witnesses, Friedberg said none of Lovelien's blood was ever shown to be on Stay's hands, shoes or on his pants below the knee.
"We eliminated Stay's hands and feet from being involved in this crime," he said. "So, what in the world did he beat him with?"
Friedberg contended that an inebriated Stay was not capable of assaulting Lovelien.
"He's drunk, he's inept, he's had two targets to swing at and missed him both and fell down," Friedberg said.
Ingersoll reports on crime and courts. Reach him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to email@example.com. Herald staff writers Steve Lee and Ryan Bakken contributed to this report..