MT. PLEASANT — The defense began its case in Seth Techel's retrial on Thursday, putting a spotlight on Techel neighbor Brian Tate.
The defense contends Tate is a likely suspect in Lisa Techel's murder and one investigators overlooked. Prosecutors argue there is no evidence to connect Tate to the crime.
Druecilla Chickering was the first witness for the defense. She said she had a friendly relationship with the Techels but a more uneasy relationship with Tate. She called him, “kind of a different person.”
“I always thought he was odd, even a little weird at times,” she said.
Prosecutors asked whether Techel had asked about Tate.
“[Techel] said he was having some problems with Brian, and he wanted to know what my husband and I thought,” she said.
“What did you tell him about Brian Tate?” asked prosecutor Andy Prosser.
“I just said he was different. We didn't really know much about him, other than what he told us,” she replied.
Jack Chickering, Druecilla's husband, said he talked with Tate occasionally. Tate called him two or three days after the murder. During the conversation, Tate said it wouldn't have happened if the sheriff's department had done their jobs.
The conversation concerned Chickering enough to call the sheriff's department and report it.
Under cross examination, Chickering said he wasn't generally worried about Tate being a threat to others.
The defense continued its focus on Tate when it called Sheriff Mark Miller. Miller was chief deputy in the Wapello County Sheriff's Department at the time of the murder. He responded to the Techel property and remained there “for quite some time.”
“Was Seth there, still there when you left?” asked defense attorney Robert Box.
“I don't recall,” Miller said.
Miller said the department knew of Tate as a potential threat to deputies' safety. Box focused on an email from the department's dispatchers about Todd Caldwell's concerns. The email included a reference to a Keokuk County deputy killed by a mentally ill man.
Deputy Don Phillips, the current chief deputy, put up police tape around the Techel property. That led the defense back to “Tree X,” a tree marked with an “X” near which the murder weapon was found. Phillips' comments took defense attorney Steven Gardner by surprise.
“I believe there was more than one tree with an X,” Phillips said.
“That's a new one for me. Where was the other tree with the X?” Gardner asked.
Gardner questioned whether Phillips might be mistaken about numbers on other trees. After viewing photos of the site, Phillips conceded he might have been mistaken.
While Phillips was on the stand longer than any other witness from Thursday's proceedings, much of the time was taken by recordings of his interactions with Tate.
The defense played audio of investigators talking with Tate the day of the murder. Tate talked about vandalism to his property and some disagreements with Techel. But, while rambling, he never raised his voice or got angry.
Tate did indicate he was aware of how people viewed him. “I was Mr. Nice Guy for a long time,” he said. That changed over the years. “Now I'm not so nice.”
A second recording was a dashboard video from Phillips' patrol car when he went to Tate's home.
The defense opened its case after the state's final witness, firearms expert Victor Murillo, finished his testimony. He began Wednesday afternoon.
Gardner asked about the process of “cycling” a spent shell casing from the shotgun's chamber after firing. Murillo used a dummy shell to demonstrate the process. The gun, which Murillo identified Wednesday as the murder weapon, ejected the shell properly.
That's an important point for both sides. The gun was locked with a spent shell still inside the chamber when it was found the day after Lisa Techel was killed. The defense says that indicates the killer's lack of familiarity with the gun. Techel was familiar with it.
When Gardner asked about residue testing, Murillo said his office does not routinely carry out analysis of clothing for gunshot residue. It's not present in every case, he said. Residue on a shooter's clothing is most commonly associated with use of handguns. If there's not a pattern from the gunpowder, there's not a lot his office can analyze.
“A lot of it has to do with the circumstances of a shooting,” he said.
Murillo testified he gave evidence in “several hundred” cases about the reliability of gunshot residue testing. The test was mentioned during Techel's questioning but was never carried out.
Prosecutors asked Murillo whether the nuances of the testing helped persuade his office to cease the testing. He said that was part of the issue. Their other agencies had “so many questions, so many unanswered questions, that's one of the reasons we stopped doing it.”