September 26th, 2009

IF THE LIES DIDN’T FIT, WHY’D THEY ACQUIT?

On October 5, 1996, a jury in Hartington, Nebraska acquitted
Eric Stukel of manslaughter in the 3rd degree, citing a lack of
evidence in the case; however, some jurors now say they
regret that decision.

Understanding why the jury made the decision they did isn’t
that difficult. There was a general feeling in the Cedar County
area that this case should have been a matter for South
Dakotans.

All the kids involved in this case had come from South Dakota,
thus it should have been South Dakotans footing the bill for
the trial, South Dakotans losing pay to sit on a jury, and so
forth.

During jury selection one member of the panel admitted she
was friends with Eric Stukel’s mother.

Somehow she arrived on the jury anyway.

When the jury took a straw poll to determine where jurors
stood on conviction at the beginning of deliberations, eleven
of the twelve jurors voted for guilt.

Stukel’s mother’s friend told the rest of the jury, at that point,
nothing they could say “would change her mind.”  

The weekend was fast approaching. The jury wanted to get
back to their families. Nobody wanted this trial in the first
place. Four years had passed. Convicting Stukel wasn’t going
to bring back some girl none of them had even known.
Besides, had the prosecution really proven their case without
any element of doubt?

In the Cedar County News, an anonymous juror said, “There
was no way we could find him guilty without any element of
doubt.” *

This is gross misunderstanding of the law on the part of this
particular juror. Any element of doubt and reasonable doubt
are two very different things. The first suggests an
absoluteness which is intellectually dishonest under nearly
every circumstance.

This juror, seeming to speak for the group, had little or no
understanding of the law, and her duties as a juror.  

Secondly, according to poorly written Nebraska law, the
prosecution had to prove Tammy died within the confines of
Cedar County.

Forensic pathologists and law enforcement proved that Tammy
didn’t die in that ravine, but as to where Tammy died, the
prosecution never made much of a case. The fishermen never
took the stand. The people who had heard the altercation at
the party never took the stand. The prosecution presented
plenty of evidence suggesting Stukel was guilty of
manslaughter, but as to where he murdered Tammy, the jury
could only guess.

When Eric Stukel was first arraigned in September, 1995, his
attorney Mike Stevens pointed out that to prove manslaughter
in Nebraska the prosecution must have proof to indicate in
which county the crime happened. According to Stevens, the
prosecution did not have this proof. **

Could Tammy have died in Knox County and not Cedar County?
Both the Stephenson farm and the ravine in which Tammy’s
body were found sat within a short distance of the county line.

Could Tammy have died within Knox County?

However unlikely, this possibility does exist.   

According to a witness in the jury room, based upon this
technicality (at least in part) one by one, eleven jurors were
talked out of their initial verdict and Eric Stukel walked out of
the courtroom a free man.

What was Eric Stukel’s reaction to all this?

He claimed to have loved Tammy. According to a jury, he was
not guilty of killing her. Shouldn’t he want to know why he was
framed? Shouldn’t he want to know who was really responsible
for Tammy’s murder?

Shouldn’t he want to know who was really responsible for
nearly sending him to prison?

Those of us who loved Tammy are desperate for answers, but
Eric Stukel has never acted concerned for anything but saving
his own skin.

In a tenth year reunion album put together by the Yankton High
School Class of 1993, Eric Stukel wrote: “I fought the law!”

That’s how he sees himself in all this—as a hero fighting the
law. No remorse, no sorrow for Tammy’s death—just bragging
rights. “I fought the law!” ***

The question continues to arise in quiet conversation: if
several people were involved in covering up Eric Stukel’s
crime, why weren’t they charged in the matter? In a federal
court, conspiracy is punishable with a sentence of up to
twenty years. This would have equaled the maximum time
Stukel could have served for manslaughter.

Once Stukel was acquitted, any chance of prosecuting his
friends for conspiracy or his sister for perjury became a near
impossibility, and had the prosecution tried to bring up
elements of conspiracy during the trial—Brian Sedlacek and
Katie Larson’s appearance at the dam, Dusty List’s strange
statements to law enforcement—they would have risked
muddying and confusing their case.

In other words, the defense could have simply asked: “How
can we possibly pin the sole blame for Tammy’s death on Eric
Stukel, when several others seem to be involved? Any one of
them could have killed Tammy!”  
During pretrial hearings, motions get made and agreed upon by
the prosecution and defense teams. Testimony like Jason
Adamson’s gets thrown out, and suddenly Eric Stukel is
cleaning his car alone and going to the ravine alone—not what
happened at all. Testimony by the fishermen gets discarded,
because the fishermen insist the girl being assaulted had
blond hair.

What about the altercation that was heard at the party? One
person says they heard the altercation; one person recanted
his previous statement about hearing the altercation; the rest
claim to have heard nothing. Thus, through these sorts of
pretrial negotiations, several pieces to the puzzle suddenly
vanish.

The judge gets to make rulings too: Tammy’s picture is never
seen in trial because her beauty might sway the jury, while
Eric Stukel is allowed to clean himself up to make himself
look like a fine, upstanding citizen—the old adage about
putting perfume on a pig seems to apply here.  

Court room tactics also come into play: the defense
subpoenas dozens of Tammy’s friends to keep them out of the
courtroom, with no intention of ever putting any of them on the
stand, while Eric Stukel’s family and friends fill the seats
behind him—a cheap tactic by the defense meant to sway the
jury on a subconscious level.  

Piece by piece and motion by motion, the reality of the
situation gets stripped away until nothing human and real is
left in the process.  

This is why a court of law is always the last place to go
looking for truth.


*  Cedar County News Staff. “Jurors: Evidence was lacking in
Stukel case.”
Cedar County News. Oct 12th, 1996.

** Rothanzl, Lorna. “Suspect Surrenders.”
Yankton Press and
Dakotan
. Sept. 16, 1995.

*** Eric Stukel wrote this in a 10th year class reunion album
put together by the Yankton High School class of 1993.