September 26, 2009

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
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.