After 14 months of being led in and out of the Pennington County Courthouse in shackles, Brian Duncan left on Wednesday night a free man.
At 6:25 p.m., a jury acquitted him of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Helen Wright, in 2015. Wright, 60, was found dead at the Western Thrifty Inn, a motel on East North Street, where she lived with Duncan.
A Rapid City forensic pathologist who conducted her autopsy ruled that Wright died from strangulation, pointing at hemorrhaging in her neck.
But a Colorado Springs forensic pathologist, who reviewed the case for the defense, reached a different conclusion. Wright died from pneumonia, Dr. Leon Kelly said, and the hemorrhaging was a sign of decomposition, since her body wasn’t found till days after her death.
Duncan said Wright died on the motel room bed that Oct. 31 while he was trying to perform first aid on her. He admitted leaving town, without informing anyone of Wright’s death, two hours after it occurred.
Pennington County prosecutors said these were signs of guilt from having killed Wright. A psychologist for the defense disagreed, saying Duncan’s experiences as an African-American have resulted in a personality disorder that is paranoid of police and of being falsely accused.
After the jury foreperson read the “not guilty” verdict, Duncan’s head fell on his arms at the defense table and he began sobbing. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of life without parole.
“If I believe that I’m innocent, I will fight till the end,” Duncan, dressed in a gray suit, told the Journal after the hearing, his first public statement since he was charged with murder in May 2016.
Duncan’s defense attorneys, Conor Duffy and Jeff Fransen, looked emotional after the verdict was pronounced.
“Representing an innocent man is a huge responsibility and pretty scary,” said Duffy, the lead counsel. "I'm relieved."
Fransen added: “We believed in his innocence from the get-go. I’m so proud that this jury saw the truth.”
The prosecution declined to comment. But Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris, whose department led the police investigation, sent a statement saying: “Domestic violence is often extremely challenging to investigate and I would imagine to prosecute. It’s even more difficult when a death is involved and a victim can’t speak for herself.
“With that said, I respect the jurors and judicial process.”
Wright's death was one of nine deaths in 2015 that law enforcement had ruled as homicides.
Duncan's verdict came on the seventh day of trial, about seven hours after 7th Circuit Judge Matt Brown handed the case to the jury of eight women and four men.
During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Duffy described some of the state’s trial evidence as “sideshows.” These include, he said, the focus on Duncan’s leaving the motel room as if it had been scrubbed clean and his telling a Rapid City police detective that he had been “evasive” during their previous conversation.
Duffy asked the jurors to instead focus on Wright’s cause of death. Both the prosecution and defense presented multiple photos of Wright in the motel room and on the autopsy table.
Kelly, who testified on two days, said also he didn’t find fractures in the cartilage or bone in Wright’s neck, among the usual signs of strangulation in people age 40 and older. This was the first time since he became a certified forensic pathologist in 2008, Kelly said, that he disagreed with a counterpart's conclusions.
Wright apparently suffered from various ailments, including a heart disease. Kelly said that reviewing Wright’s medical records, which local forensic pathologist Dr. Donald Habbe admitted not doing, helped him reach the conclusion that she died of natural causes.
“Two hundred pages of medical records found just feet from the deceased and he doesn’t even look at them?” Duffy said.
Habbe didn’t need to review Wright’s medical records, Deputy State's Attorney Wayne Venhuizen responded, because they were laid out for him in the victim’s body on the autopsy table. Underscoring Habbe’s 28 years of experience as a forensic pathologist, Venhuizen said the doctor had been performing autopsies since Kelly was “in diapers, or at least pullups.”
Besides the hemorrhaging in Wright’s neck and the blood spots in her eye, Venhuizen said further proof of strangulation were two short, linear marks found along her neck.
“This is consistent with fingernail marks,” the prosecutor said in his closing statement, “right where she was being strangled.”
Other pieces of evidence presented at trial were not sideshows, Venhuizen said in his rebuttal of Duffy, but “minor pieces of evidence” that showed the full picture in the case.
The lawyers also argued over motive. The prosecution highlighted statements Duncan made to police about being “upset” with Wright for constantly urinating on their bed and being a difficult patient.
“This 'seven-year burden,'” Venhuizen said, “he wanted her gone.”
The defense said there was no evidence the couple had anything but a loving relationship, in which Duncan served as Wright’s caretaker. And why would Duncan kill Helen, Duffy asked, when her disability checks paid for their lodging?
“Absence of motive tends to prove innocence,” he said.
Duncan’s murder prosecution, Duffy said, was a seed that sprouted from the statement of a Rapid City paramedic that she found strangulation marks around Wright’s neck.
“Stop this thing. Bring back a not guilty verdict,” Duffy told the jury.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Duncan’s name was taken off the Pennington County Jail’s list of inmates. His release was still being processed at that time, said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Helene Duhamel, but he was expected to be out the same night.