By Ed Meyer
Beacon Journal staff writer
The jury in the Summit County capital murder trial of David A. Stoddard was literally handed one of its guilty verdicts during the defense’s closing arguments Wednesday.
Stoddard, 25, of Barberton, is charged with two counts of aggravated murder — both involving the shooting death of a pregnant 16-year-old, Anna Karam of Akron, on Jan. 6, 2013.
One count alleges Stoddard purposely caused Karam’s death. The other count, an alternate prosecution theory, says he acted with prior calculation and design in causing the teen’s death.
The jury was sequestered Wednesday night and did not reach a verdict before ending deliberations.
But in the panel’s consideration of another serious charge, the attempted murder of a second woman that night, Jessica Halman, 20, of Barberton, attorney Brian Pierce chose a rarely seen strategy.
“When you go back in the jury room, I’ll make your job easy. When you get the attempted-murder verdict form for Jessica Halman,” Pierce said, “sign it, because he’s guilty.”
What happened after Halman was shot, he said, is the focus of the defense’s case.
Pierce and co-counsel Jonathan Sinn conceded on the first day of jury selection, Feb. 11, that Stoddard was responsible for the shootings and should pay a price for what he did.
The defense’s mission by going to trial, they said, was to show that the essential elements of the most serious charges, the two aggravated murder counts, cannot be proven — thus eliminating the death penalty specifications from the equation.
Without convincing evidence that Stoddard purposely caused a death, or that he did so with a plan, Pierce said the jury must find him guilty of the lesser included charges of reckless homicide.
“The state of Ohio isn’t sure what happened. That’s why they’re throwing all these theories at you,” Pierce told the panel.
Deliberations, he said, will be difficult, because technical points of law must be considered.
Common Pleas Judge Thomas Teodosio’s reading of the instructions on the law, alone, took more than 2½ hours.
Stoddard faces seven charges. In addition to the aggravated murder counts, he is charged with two counts of attempted murder, aggravated burglary, felonious assault, and involuntary manslaughter for the termination of Karam’s pregnancy. Gun specifications also are included.
Pierce urged jurors to pay close attention to the sequence of events that unfolded inside a high-traffic party home, at 261 East Archwood Ave., in Akron, after a night of drinking at a nightclub.
Stoddard went there with two handguns looking for his 21-year-old girlfriend, identified as Jennifer Risten. But she wasn’t there.
He then argued with another young man, David Nelson, and moments later, fired four shots.
Halman was hit first. She was shot in the left side of the head, near the ear, but survived. For that crime, a first-degree felony carrying a potential sentence of three to 11 years, Stoddard deserves to be convicted, Pierce said.
The events that followed, both sides agreed, are hazy. “No one here, including defense counsel, is sure what happened,” Summit Assistant Prosecutor Justin Richard told the jury.
Both sides agreed that when the shooting spree started with Halman, Nelson took off running inside the tightly cramped home and Stoddard fired away. Somehow, Nelson wasn’t hit. It was dark inside, Pierce said, because all the light switches were turned off.
Anna and another young woman — the younger sister of Stoddard’s girlfriend — hurried down a flight of steps after hearing the series of shots.
It was then that Anna was fatally shot in the head. But no one knew it, Pierce said, until after Stoddard had fled and 911 had been called.
Although Stoddard had a fierce temper, Pierce said he got along well with Anna, had no dispute with her that night, brought her food during her pregnancy, and thought of her as his “cousin.”
Pierce said those facts showed Stoddard did not purposely kill Anna, and had not set out with a plan to do so.
Richard insisted there was proof that Stoddard acted purposely. His DNA was found on both guns, and the one that he used to shoot Halman was fired only inches from her temple.
Another girl was upstairs in the cramped quarters when the shooting began, the prosecutor said, but still had gunshot residue on her hands.
The proximity of the shootings alone, Richard argued, was enough to prove Stoddard’s intent.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330 996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.