Judge declares mistrial in Durrell Jones first-degree murder trial

A Douglas County judge declared a mistrial Wednesday morning in the first-degree murder trial of Durrell Jones after jurors were unable to reach a verdict.

“To me there’s just not enough evidence to prove that he’s guilty,” juror Brenda Davis said as she left the judicial building.

After four days of testimony last week, prosecutors said the evidence pointed to Jones, 26, of Kansas City, Kan., shooting and killing Anthony Vital, 28, on Oct. 14, 2006, in rural Lawrence. Prosecutors say Jones wanted to collect on a drug debt.

But Jones’ defense attorney John Kerns argued the state’s key witness, Major C. Edwards Jr., a co-defendant who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the case, was not credible.

Davis said she thought Jones was not guilty and only two jurors in the end believed he was guilty.

“We need more evidence,” she said. “A lot of the jury thinks he is not guilty.”

The jury of 11 women and one man had deliberated for more than 18 hours since it got the case Friday afternoon.

Tuesday afternoon Chief District Judge Robert Fairchild had called the jury into his court room to ask their progress in the case. The presiding juror said at one point members thought they were at a stalemate but they decided to review every piece of submitted evidence and testimony.

“There is movement, and continued deliberation might be helpful,” the presiding juror said Tuesday. “I would say that it would be a disservice to this process if we did not continue.”

Jurors had the option of convicting Jones of premeditated first-degree murder, intentional second-degree murder or finding him not guilty in the case. But they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Family members of both Jones and Vital declined to comment Wednesday morning.

Jones remains in custody awaiting the new trial.

New trial

Prosecutors indicated after Fairchild declared a mistrial they would retry the case.

“We truly appreciate the service of the jurors, and like them, we are disappointed that a verdict was not reached,” Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said in a statement. “We will review our presentation and prepare for the new trial.”

A new jury will hear the case. Fairchild scheduled the re-trial for Aug. 8, but he said it could occur sooner depending on his trial docket.

Kerns said the defense was disappointed the jury was unable to reach a verdict in its favor, but he indicated his side would be ready to present their evidence to a second jury.

“I can appreciate the fact that the jury did take this case seriously by the fact that they deliberated for more than 17 hours,” Kerns said. “It showed they focused on the case. They didn’t take their job lightly, and I respect that.”

A mistrial by hung jury in a Douglas County murder case is not uncommon.

In 2008, a jury could not reach a verdict in the first-degree murder and aggravated burglary trial of Allen Dale Smith, a Topeka man who was accused of shooting and killing jeweler David Boose at Boose’s Lecompton-area home. Prosecutors convinced a second jury months later to convict Smith of first-degree murder in the case.

Jones trial evidence

Prosecutors Amy McGowan and David Melton, both chief assistant district attorneys, said evidence, including cell phone records and DNA evidence, corroborated Edwards’ testimony. Edwards said Jones pulled a gun on him and Vital in a car Edwards was driving that night because Jones wanted Vital to pay him for a bottle of PCP Jones had fronted him one month earlier.

Edwards said Jones directed him to keep driving west on Sixth Street out of Lawrence until ordering him to pull over in a rural driveway two miles west of town. Then Edwards said the men bailed out of the car, and Jones shot Vital three times. They left the body there, and Edwards said Jones threatened him. They returned to a party at an apartment on Sixth Street.

Edwards, who prosecutors said would get four years off his sentence for testifying, was arrested days later in Mississippi. He said he had left town because he feared Jones would kill him.

But Kerns had questioned why Edwards, who said he was held at gunpoint in the car, had entered a plea in the case. Edwards said he was remorseful for leading Jones to Vital when he knew Jones had a gun, but Kerns accused Edwards of trying to pin the murder on Jones to get a shorter sentence.

Prosecutors said items at the murder scene contained DNA of both Edwards and Jones. Kerns argued prosecutors could not prove how the items linked to Jones, a Neosporin cap and an unsmoked Moore cigarette, got there. He said Edwards had been driving several people around Lawrence that day and the items could have fallen out of the car.

Davis, a juror in the case, said she thought prosecutors needed to look more at other people Jones and Edwards were around that night. Witnesses said the two men were at a Lawrence party with several known drug dealers.

Davis said she had a problem believing several witnesses in the case.

“They were all on drugs,” she said. “And they would change their story.”