Murder trial ends with a hung jury

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The final day of a jury trial for Michael Huggins, 26, formerly of Monett, ended on Friday with a hung jury.

After deliberating for over two hours, the jury came back nine to three in favor of acquitting Huggins, who is accused of second degree murder in the beating death of Joshua Woods Utter, 21, of Pierce City, on Sept. 25, 2007.

The jury's decision followed closing arguments, which were offered Friday afternoon after the defense called its last witnesses to the stand.

Barry County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney J. Patrick Sullivan asked jurors to consider the two elements necessary for a second-degree murder conviction: that Huggins had caused the death of Utter by striking him and that Huggins intended to cause serious physical harm to Utter, which resulted in Utter's death.

"There is no grand conspiracy here," Sullivan said. "There was no thought to get the new guy in town.

"This was not a haphazard approach," he continued. "There is a young man lying there dead. We take that seriously. They took photographs and memorialized the scene, collected and measured.

"The timing of the identification is important here," Sullivan said. "Both Detectives (Robert) Evenson and (Doug) Henry testified that they lacked information on the identity of the body until they received a call from the morgue in Springfield. That was a day or more after the body was discovered. The defendant knew the identity of the victim at least three hours or more before law enforcement officials got word from the morgue."

Sullivan noted the autopsy report indicated bleeding into the brain as well as cerebral spinal fluid leaking into the ventricles of the brain, which would cause swelling and eventual death.

Sullivan also reminded jurors of testimony they heard concerning the beating that led to Utter's death.

"The defendant said Gary Dillard had kicked Josh in the head and face six or seven times," Sullivan said. "Michael Huggins was inflicting the punishment, not Gary Dillard."

In his closing argument, defense attorney Brian Smith hammered law enforcement agencies participating in the investigation.

"I hesitate to call this an investigation," Smith said. "Nothing was in concert in this case. No one knew what was going on. No one was responsible for anything.

"Every time I asked officers what they did, their answers were 'I don't know' or 'not me,'" Smith said. "No one at the crime scene thought to ask the neighbors if they had seen anything."

Smith also attacked the professionalism of the departments involved at the crime scene.

"The crime scene tape is meaningless," he said. "No one documented who arrived or in what order. Who came into the scene or left.

"Justice is a fabulous idea when everyone works together, but they didn't," Smith said.

Smith said that law enforcement personnel had the opportunity to not only send the evidence to the state crime lab but have it tested for free, but that Barry County Sheriff's Department Detective Brian Martin, according to testimony from Stacy Bolinger, a DNA analyst at the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab, told her to cease all testing.

"Do the tire tracks match anyone who is supposed to have been out there? We don't know. How about the shoe prints? We don't know. They could have excluded some possibilities, but they didn't.

"The burden of proof is not reasonable," Smith said. Can you leave here firmly convinced that the way they tell it is the way it happened? You're being unfairly asked to make a decision without all the information.

"They chose not to do the things they should have done," Smith said. "There is an awful lot of doubt."

Barry County Prosecuting Attorney Johnnie Cox offered final arguments.

"You're the only ones that matter," Cox told jurors. "Being satisfied with the investigation doesn't matter."

Cox reiterated the elements jurors were to consider: that Huggins caused the death of Utter by striking him and that Huggins intended to cause serious physical harm to Utter, which resulted in Utter's death.

"The defendant was living with these people and called them his friends and family," Cox said. "These are not just Gary Dillard's people, these are Huggins' people too.

"Mr. Huggins is the one on trial here, not the cops," Cox said. "Michael Huggins lied and lied and lied. He lied for two hours to (Monett Police Department detective) George Daoud and Brian Martin. As they picked his lies apart, he kept changing his story. Mr. Huggins is the one who brought up Stubblefield Access. He tried to save [himself] by pointing the finger at Gary Dillard."

Cox said he knew he was asking the jury to make a hard decision.

"I'm asking you to believe those people," Cox said. "Consider what those people said and the consistency with which they said it. Bring justice to Josh and Josh's family."

Following the jury's decision, Huggins was remanded to the custody of the Barry County Sheriff's Department while the state and the defense try to reach an equitable agreement or until the trial is re-scheduled.

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