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CHISHOLM MURDER TRIAL: Attorneys select jury

Rodney Chisholm is "a kind man," who killed his older brother, Donald, last summer with a piece of pipe only after Donald -- a man of "vile character" -- attacked him and threatened to get a pistol and kill him, said defense attorney Steven Light...

Rodney Chisholm
Rodney Chisholm listens as potential jurors are questioned during the opening day of his murder trial in state district court in Grand Forks Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Rodney Chisholm is "a kind man," who killed his older brother, Donald, last summer with a piece of pipe only after Donald -- a man of "vile character" -- attacked him and threatened to get a pistol and kill him, said defense attorney Steven Light during his opening statement Tuesday in Rodney Chisholm's murder trial.

"This case is about why it happened; it's not about the fact that it happened," Light told seven women and seven men chosen Tuesday as a jury plus two alternates. "We are not contesting how he did it, where he did it, when he did it."

From opposite sides of the argument, both Light and prosecutor Jason McCarthy, made clear Tuesday the key issue at trial is whether Rodney Chisholm used deadly force justifiably in self-defense.

According to investigators and a Herald interview, Chisholm, 45, of Manvel, N.D., said he killed his brother, Donald, 59, on June 24, 2010, in self-defense during an argument over some land near Mekinock, N.D., about 20 miles northwest of Grand Forks.

Donald's body was not found until July 7, when Rodney showed investigators where he had buried it and covered the site with tree branches.


But testimony from siblings and neighbors will show Rodney Chisholm is "a patient, kind, faithful and loyal," man who cared for his late common-law wife during her three-year struggle with cancer and for his brother, Larry, who also died of cancer, Light said.

Donald Chisholm, meanwhile, was a man of "vile character," who went into rages and was "crazed and obsessed," according to one neighbor, over petty property disputes, Light said. He had pointed a loaded shotgun at another brother, shot another neighbor's dog simply because it "trespassed" on his land, was unstable, had depression problems and "a passion for guns," Light said.

Rodney, in fact, was the sibling in a big family who tried most to help Donald through his problems, Light said.

Wearing a blue shirt and tan slacks, the bespectacled Chisholm watched the jury pool interviews intently, showing little emotion. However, when Light mentioned Chisholm's late "love of his life," and her death from colon cancer, Chisholm's face crumpled a little as he reached for the box of tissues on the table and dabbed tears from his eyes and wiped his nose. For a moment, it appeared he might convulse in sobs.

He has been in the Grand Forks County jail since last summer awaiting his trial. He appears smaller than the 6 feet, 1 inch, 220 pounds he's listed at by the jail.

After Light's 40-minute opening statement ended the day, Chisholm leaned in to talk to him briefly, appearing to congratulate him on a job well-done.

Chisholm will do the unusual and take the stand in his own defense.

"I will tell you in this case, Rodney will, in fact, testify," Light told the jury pool. "He will tell you what happened."


The autopsy showed Donald Chisholm died of blunt force trauma to his head caused by homicide, McCarthy, an assistant state's attorney for Grand Forks County, told the jury Tuesday during his 24-minute opening statement.

That's the first detail revealed about the autopsy report and would narrow the description in the criminal complaint of Chisholm killing his brother by hitting him with a steel pipe and/or by strangling him.

Light said the autopsy also showed that the two connected hose clamps around Chisholm's neck were not tight enough to have done any damage.

McCarthy described the contraption, however, as tightened by Rodney Chisholm with a screwdriver and indicative of his murderous intent.

Chisholm told investigators, after denying for days any knowledge of his brother's whereabouts, that he fought with Donald in a long-standing feud over his ownership and use of a five-acre piece within a 160-acre plot Donald farmed, McCarthy said. After Donald hit him with a piece of iron, they wrestled, Rodney said. Then, he hit Donald on the side of the head several times with a piece of steel 2 or 3 feet long that "had some girth," McCarthy said.

Rodney buried Donald's body using a skid-steer loader. At some point, he had placed a hose-clamp around Donald's neck, tightening it with a screwdriver and secured his wrists to his belt loops on his jeans with plastic "zip ties," McCarthy said.

When Donald's body was found, his front jeans pockets were turned inside out, and no ID or wallet was found.

After an investigation into Donald's disappearance led to Rodney being booked on property theft charges over stolen farm equipment found on his property, Rodney bailed out of jail using another brother's money, and took that brother's car and fled for California, McCarthy said. He was arrested late July 4 or early July 5 in York, Neb., and brought back to Grand Forks. After denying knowledge of Donald's whereabouts, Rodney, in a conversation with his brother Keith, admitted he had killed Donald, and on July 7, he showed investigators where the body was buried, McCarthy said.


Different account

Light's account of the fight differed slightly. He said Rodney, after being attacked by Donald and wrestling him to the ground, reached into the back of his pickup to get the zip ties to restrain Donald in his rage by pinning his wrists to his belt loops. When Donald ripped a belt loop to free one arm and threatened to get his pistol and kill him, Rodney hit Donald with the pipe in self defense. The trauma of what he had just done kept him from calling law enforcement, leading to "mistakes," including burying Donald's body and later fleeing, Light told the jury.

"Your father never sits down and tells you, 'OK, if you get in a fight with your brother and he dies, here's what you do,'" Light told the jury.

During questioning of potential jurors this morning, Light asked the unusually large panel of 40 people to indicate if they had experience in dealing with addiction to painkillers and other prescription drugs. Several people raised their hands, including a woman who said she is a recovering addict, and several who are nurses who handle and distribute prescription drugs on the job. Others described family situations involving drug addiction or abuse.

Light also asked potential jurors about any experience with firearms, saying that would be a topic discussed during the trial. Light stressed the issue of self defense, asking potential jurors if they believed in the right to use force to defend oneself.

The jury -- plus alternates who aren't identified until the trial is completed -- includes a retired longtime county official, a Grand Forks city employee, three men who said they had gotten drunken driving convictions years ago, and a man who said not long ago he served 18 months on a federal grand jury, hearing several cases during two-day stints about every six weeks.

He told Light the tenure made him feel he'd had enough of such duty, which often involved cases "having to do with sovereign nations and it was hard to get an honest yes or no" from witnesses.

Attorneys from both sides selected the jury in a private meeting after interviewing the 40-member pool.


The only obvious "strike" of a pool member appeared to be when Light asked them if viewing "gruesome photos" of Donald Chisholm's body as it was found after two weeks in watery ground in mid-summer would be a problem.

One woman raised her hand. "I have a weak stomach," she said, citing recent medical problems and said she would not be able to look at such photos. "I would have to cover my eyes," she said.

Light turned to Judge Lawrence Jahnke to request a quick "sidebar" conference, but Jahnke waved it off, indicating apparently the woman effectively was struck from the jury.

The charge against Chisholm carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The trial resumes early today with the first witnesses. Judge Jahnke told jurors Tuesday morning he expects the trial to last four to five days.

(Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; email him at slee@gfherald.com )

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