A Rapid City man accused of killing his girlfriend in 2015 did not strangle her but instead administered first aid when he saw her gasping for air, a jury heard on Thursday.
The defendant, 61-year-old Brian Duncan, tried to clear Helen Wright’s airway by applying the Heimlich maneuver, inserting a finger in her mouth to remove the blockage and blowing into her mouth, defense attorney Conor Duffy said during opening statements at the Pennington County trial.
“She gasps a final time, and she dies with her head in his hands,” Duffy said of the events that Oct. 31 afternoon in a motel room on East North Street. Wright was 60 and died from pneumonia, among her many ailments, he said.
Local law enforcement believe, however, that Duncan strangled her. The New York native and U.S. Army veteran is now on trial for second-degree murder, which carries a penalty of life in prison without parole.
Duncan didn’t call for help but rather sat in the motel room for the next two hours, then packed his bags and hitchhiked to Sioux Falls, Assistant Attorney General Scott Roetzel said in his opening statement for the prosecution.
Before leaving the Western Thrifty Inn, where the couple had been staying for around five weeks, Duncan covered up Wright with a blanket, turned down the air conditioner and turned up the TV volume, Roetzel said.
When Duncan was later interviewed by investigators, Roetzel said, he never admitted killing Wright but conceded that “something did happen in the room” for which he was upset with himself. Duncan, who met Wright in 2008, apparently referred to her as a “seven-year burden.”
Her death wasn’t discovered till the afternoon of Nov. 4, when a motel housekeeper testified about becoming suspicious at seeing Wright lying in bed in the same position for hours. She was on her back with her hands at her sides, a sheet pulled up to the bottom of her nose, said Seferina Arguello, the housekeeper who called 911.
There were dark areas all over Wright’s face and body on the sheetless bed, several pictures that were presented in court revealed.
The Rapid City Police Department’s forensic pathologist ruled that Wright died from asphyxiation during an assault, based on the injuries found around her neck, Roetzel said.
Wright’s daughter who traveled from Connecticut, Christina Burgess, as well as Duncan, remained facing the front of 7th Circuit Judge Matt Brown's courtroom while a screen at the back displayed the motel room photos.
Burgess, 35, earlier said she and Wright had a very close relationship, but that it changed after her mother met Duncan. She didn’t know Wright had come to South Dakota, Burgess said, and found out about her death from police.
Besides having bruises, Duffy said, Wright didn’t have the other classic indicators of strangulation: a broken bone and cartilage in the throat area and broken blood vessels in the eye area.
Colorado forensic pathologist Dr. Leon Kelly, who evaluated Wright’s case for the defense, concluded that she died from pneumonia.
Duffy earlier listed Wright’s numerous health problems on a board that he positioned in front of jurors. It elicited an objection from Roetzel, who said the defense shouldn’t be presenting evidence during opening statements. Judge Brown, ruling that it wasn't evidence, allowed the list to be presented.
Duncan’s leaving the motel room after his girlfriend’s death doesn’t make sense, Duffy said, but it was a symptom of his paranoid personality disorder related to his experiences as an African-American. A psychologist is expected to testify that Duncan didn’t report Wright’s death and soon left town because of a race-based paranoia of police and of being falsely accused.
The marks found on Wright’s body — bruises, purple splotches, signs of decomposition, settling of the blood — were “misidentified” as indications of an assault, Duffy said.
“Once that train started rolling, nobody was going to stop this,” he told the eight women and six men seated in the jury box. “Come Thursday, I’m gonna come to you and I’m gonna ask you to stop this. And I’m gonna ask you for that not guilty verdict.”
The trial, Sept. 5 to 14, started with an extraordinarily lengthy jury selection process that took two and a half days.
The last Rapid City murder trial took place in October 2015, when 21-year-old Samuel Tyburec was acquitted of stabbing to death a roommate because of self-defense.