Travis Stay sat slouched Thursday morning in a chair at the Canad Inn - a weight clearly off his shoulders.
A rollercoaster of a murder trial ended for the 24-year-old defendant the night before when a jury found him not guilty of beating Joel Lovelien to death.
Stay, who faced a possible sentence of life in prison, said the verdict didn't surprise him.
"I guess I've known the whole time I'm innocent," he said. "I'm just fortunate enough for the jury to have seen through and seen my innocence."
Stay said he turned down an offer from the prosecution to plea to a lesser charge of manslaughter - a deal that was on the table since last summer.
"I was never interested in it, never considered it," he said.
Roughly 14 months since Stay came home with Lovelien's blood on his clothes, the former UND student said he hasn't remembered anything new about that night.
"I have no memory from two bars from before the Broken Drum," he said, referring to the watering holes that the party bus he was riding stopped at prior to reaching the scene of the crime.
In one of two interview videos played for jurors, Stay told police he had little to no memory from the time he was punched at the Broken Drum by another bus rider until he hailed a cab to go home about a mile from the bar. In that window (about an hour and 10 minutes), Lovelien was found unresponsive outside the bar.
Stay said he and his defense team considered putting him on the stand, but decided otherwise. "I felt that two interview interrogations were a good enough preview for the jury to see that I really didn't remember," said Stay, who told police he had about 10 drinks that night.
In this whole experience, Stay said, he's matured.
"It's definitely shed some light on a lot of issues, for example: drinking," he said, adding that he now consumes in moderation.
Despite the haze of the night in question, he maintained he wasn't involved in Lovelien's death.
"No way," he said. "There's no doubt at all."
'Jumping to conclusions'
Stay said authorities overlooked other possibilities of what could have happened that night.
"It all boils down to the cops jumping to conclusions. That's what this whole case has been based off of. That's what our defense theory supported, and obviously, it was a good defense."
As his attorneys did, Stay kept the blame for Lovelien's death on a group of East Grand Forks men who were on the same bus as him.
"By the things that they said, you know that they are guilty," he said.
Four of the five men the defense accused testified they were not involved; the fifth was not called as a witness.
Throughout the trial, Stay sat at the end of the defense table facing the jury box with a serene expression on his face.
"That's what you have to look like. On the inside, it's tough, it's rough," he said. "Your lawyers tell you you can't show any emotion."
Even the trial's circus-like atmosphere - with reporters, curious observers and field trips in the courtroom - didn't faze Stay. "I had so much on my platter at the time it was just something that was so insignificant that it just didn't matter," he said.
Stay said his high-powered, high-profiled attorneys inspired him, helping him through the ordeal to the point that he's now considering going to law school. But first he plans to go back to UND to finish the two months left toward his nursing degree.
Being charged with a murder he says he didn't commit has left Stay with what he said is a disgust for the prosecution and police in this case. And so far, he hasn't seen any silver lining in the experience.
"I'm sure there will be some good, but, I mean, it's hard to find that right now," he said.
Though having his supporters filling the rows on the defense's side of the courtroom on every day of testimony was definitely a comfort, Stay said.
"It was great to have the family and friends that I had there," he said. "It really showed how much everyone cares about you."
He said he hasn't had any contact with Lovelien's family. When asked what he would say to them given the chance, he sat in thought for while.
"It's a tragedy. There's no getting around that," he said.
Stay, a free man wearing his Twins hat backwards, said he plans to go home to Princeton, Minn., for Christmas.
"It's great to be able to go home - bottom line," he 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.
IN FRIDAY'S HERALD
Learn more about Joe Friedberg, one of the Twin Cities most well-known defense attorneys, who took on the Stay case.