Jury finds Heskett guilty of second-degree murder in home-care death

Ronald Eugene Heskett, right, hugs members of his family after jurors on Wednesday found him guilty of second-degree murder in the 2014 death of his disabled home-care client, Vance “Van” Moulton.

Jurors on Wednesday found a Eudora man guilty of second-degree murder in the 2014 death of his disabled home-care client.

Ronald Eugene Heskett, 49, was accused of twisting a towel around the neck of Vance “Van” Moulton, 65, on Sept. 12, 2014, and asphyxiating him.

Jurors deliberated for more than four hours Wednesday after listening to closing arguments by the prosecution and defense.

Over the past week, prosecutors presented evidence to suggest that Heskett killed Moulton, who had cerebral palsy, for a financial motive, pointing to an approximate $13,000 in cash from government refunds missing from Moulton’s apartment. They also looked at a series of expenditures Heskett made, shortly after the checks were cashed, on a 1972 Chevelle and numerous car parts.

Heskett had claimed since Sept. 22, 2014, that the killing was an assisted suicide. He said Moulton had been persistently asking him to “shoot him” for six months to a year before Moulton’s death. Heskett testified Tuesday that the missing $13,000 did indeed go to the car and car parts, but that it was as part of a plan with Moulton to “flip” the car and sell it for $25,000.

Heskett, originally charged with first-degree murder, was accused of killing Moulton intentionally and with premeditation. Prosecutor David Melton claimed in his closing arguments that the evidence showed that Moulton did not want to die.

“(Moulton) didn’t commit suicide. He wasn’t assisted to commit suicide. He was murdered,” Melton said.

Melton said that even if jurors believed that Moulton asked Heskett to kill him, Heskett physically killing Moulton still constituted murder because suicide is “the deliberate destruction of one’s own life.”

“It’s not suicide if someone asks me to shoot them and I point a gun at them a pull the trigger,” Melton said. “That’s not suicide; that’s murder.”

Ronald Eugene Heskett testifies in his defense in Douglas County District Court Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. Heskett, 49, of Eudora, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with Vance Moulton’s death. Prosecutors allege Heskett had a financial motive to kill Moulton, but the defense says Moulton’s death was an assisted suicide.

Further, he questioned why few witnesses besides Heskett testified that they’d thought Moulton was suicidal.

“Mr. Moulton was depressed for a full year and no one noticed except for the defendant,” Melton said.

But Heskett’s attorney, Mike Warner, argued that there was testimony from witnesses who said Moulton mentioned wishing that he were dead. Additionally, Warner reminded jurors that Heskett’s testimony was itself evidence.

“He testified — he did not have to — and he testified about the good, the bad and the ugly,” Warner said. “If you find (Heskett) credible, that’s evidence.”

Warner claimed prosecutors over-charged Heskett’s case. He said that charging Heskett with first-degree murder or, in the alternative, second-degree murder, left jurors with a difficult decision, as Heskett already admitted to killing Moulton — but not with premeditation or with the motive in the prosecution’s theory of the case.

“If the evidence in this trial does not support the crimes charged, you must find him not guilty,” Warner said. “You may think you can’t do that. It’s not your fault. It’s the way this case was charged.”

Warner argued Tuesday to let jurors have the option of convicting his client of assisted suicide or voluntary manslaughter if they could not come to a unanimous decision on the first- and second-degree murder charges. Douglas County District Judge Peggy Kittel, however, said those charges did not count as lesser-included charges to the first-degree murder charge, so she did not allow them as options to be included in the jury instructions.

At the end of his closing arguments, Warner choked up, telling the jurors to follow the letter of the law.

“When you’re a defendant, it’s an up-hill battle and it’s lonely. But Mr. Heskett is a good man and he deserves to be treated with respect to the law,” Warner said. “It’s going to be tough to acquit him, but you must.”

But as Melton wrapped up the trial with the second half of his closing arguments, he disputed the defense’s theory. Melton probed why usual indicators of suicide — like a mental illness diagnosis, leaving a note or dying in a more peaceful manner — were absent from this case.

“If Vance had been thinking about killing himself, why wouldn’t he leave a will behind?” Melton said. “Look at how he died. He died in a bed with a soiled diaper. That is not dying with dignity. That’s not dying on his own terms.”

Around three hours into deliberations, jurors submitted a question to the court. They asked the judge: “Do we have to unanimously agree that Ron is not guilty of first-degree murder, or can we move on to second-degree murder if we’re deadlocked on first-degree murder?”

The attorneys and the judge discussed the matter outside of the jury’s presence. They agreed the jury could legally consider the alternative charge of second-degree murder if they didn’t all agree on the first, but Kittel said, “We can’t really tell them.” Instead, Kittel told jurors to refer back to their jury instructions for direction. A juror responded, “That’s what we thought.”

One juror, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Journal-World after the verdict was read that several jurors thought Heskett should have gotten the first-degree murder conviction. She had no further comment.

Other jurors declined to speak, many with tears in their eyes and holding tissues as they walked from the courthouse.

Last month, prosecutor Eve Kemple said she had offered Heskett a deal to plead guilty to first-degree murder, and in return she would allow Heskett to argue at sentencing for a 25 years to life prison sentence, instead of first-degree murder’s mandatory “Hard 50” — or 50 years to life. The Hard 50 became mandatory in first-degree murder cases for crimes that happened after July 1, 2014, when the sentencing law changed.

Warner said though his client was not acquitted, he thought the jury’s selection of second-degree murder was “certainly a better outcome” than the original charge and plea offer.

“You could tell the jury had a really difficult time deciding this case,” Warner said.

Reflecting on the verdict, Warner claimed the charging on the case – of first- and second-degree murder – affected the outcome.

“This case was overcharged and we’d communicated that to the DA’s office since the start,” Warner said. “With only two options given, I think the jury did the best they could trying to figure out a case with a lot of issues.”

Melton and Kemple could not be reached for comment Wednesday after the verdict, but Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said in a news release that the “jury agreed” with the prosecution’s motive theory.

“We never believed that Heskett was trying to help his friend commit suicide,” Branson said. “Van Moulton was murdered by Ronald Heskett to cover up the fact that he had stolen money and used it to buy a car. The jury agreed.”

Kittel ordered Heskett to stay in jail without bond until his sentencing hearing, which she scheduled for Nov. 6.

Depending on his criminal history, Heskett faces anywhere from about 12 to 54 years in prison.