OTTUMWA — If the jurors missed something in this trial, the closing arguments could at least fill them in on what each side wants them to believe. They began their deliberations late Thursday afternoon.
Robert Eugene Pilcher is on trial for the murder of Mary Jayne Jones, 17, in 1974.
For its closing argument in the trial Thursday, the defense offered a rebuttal of the state's closing argument.
"What the state is doing here, they are laying guess upon guess," said Allen Cook, the lead defense attorney.
What he doesn't refute is Assistant Attorney General Denise Timmins' contention that Jones was shot. Nor that she died as a result of being shot, the first two findings necessary to convict Pilcher of murder. He doesn't even argue, he said, against Timmin's closing statement saying the act was murder.
Not only that, he told the jury, but it was certainly a first-degree murder. A brutal murder.
None of that has anything to do with his client, he said, because the state has not shown any evidence that Pilcher committed the crime. But why, asked Cook, do a state attorney and witness need to mention Pilcher was found in a men's shelter in 2012? Is it the need to have someone found guilty of this crime and it might be easier to convict a homeless guy no one cares about?
Sure, he could get into the farmhouse where the murder was committed, Cook acknowledged. So could lots of people. There was a loaded gun at the farm so Pilcher would have access to it? So would anyone who was there.
The new evidence, the DNA evidence, shows what? asked Cook. That Pilcher had been to his cousin's house in the past? They already knew that. That he'd had sex on the bed? They knew that, too. His DNA on the blanket in multiple locations doesn't prove murder or even that he had sex with the victim. The prosecutor's own evidence, Cook reminded jurors, shows there was DNA on that blanket from several males, including the homeowner, a visitor and the defendant — plus an "unknown male contributor," according to a report.
"Just so we're clear," said Cook. "An unknown male had sex on that bed."
Yes, countered Timmins, but the unknown male didn't leave sperm directly where the deceased victim's vaginal area was located on the bed; that seminal fluid there was linked to Pilcher when DNA test results were returned in 2012.
Cook had told jurors he wasn't trying to beat up on Jones.
"What happened to her was tragic and undeserved," he said.
But he'd be doing a disservice to his client not to point out that with the teen's lifestyle, other bad things could have happened to her, he said. She was 17, dropped out of high school, moved into an apartment with another teen, had a fake ID and used to go dancing and drinking at the town's apparent singles hot spot.
"That's a tragedy waiting to happen," Cook said.
Yes, Ottumwa seems like small-town America, he explained, so maybe prosecutors from Des Moines or family members from North Carolina might not understand, but Ottumwa can be a rough place. And in the '70s, as at least one witness testified, it may have been even wilder.
Timmins spent the first part of her rebuttal addressing that line of argument, speaking in what sounded like an angry, measured tone.
"How did she get herself into this situation?" the prosecution asked, then said directly to the jury: "They’ve pointed the finger at everybody except for their client in this case. Now they’re going to point the finger at Mary Jayne Jones? She 'got herself into this situation' because she ran into the defendant that day ..."
We don't know what happened, Cook had told jurors. There were multiple possible suspects. It seems unrealistic that Pilcher interrupted his busy day to commit a brutal murder between 1 and 2 p.m. in the next town over only to rush back to a local civic group's office to sell circus tickets by 2:20 p.m.
"Is it a real possibility that someone other than Gene Pilcher killed Mary Jayne Jones? Of course it is!" said Cook.
That's one argument among many for reasonable doubt.
"Anything is possible, but is it reasonable?" Timmins asked jurors.
Pilcher, said Timmins, had access to the farmhouse. He had the time, despite what the defense would have jurors believe. He had bothered the young lady at her work, and she turned him down for a date. He'd forcefully violated a woman at the farmhouse a few days earlier. Told that lady he liked guns. A few days later, Jones, is driven out to the same farmhouse, taken to the same room, forcefully violated and killed.
"They (the defense team) want you to believe that anyone in Ottumwa who had access to a car on April 9, 1974, could have killed Mary Jayne Jones," said Timmins. "What would they do ... get her to go with [them], drive around the countryside until they found a farmhouse with no cars in the driveway, hope they could get in, sexually assault [the victim] and hope no one came home? Is that reasonable?"
In fact, she rebutted, their argument doesn't make sense.
"They want to say since no one saw her in a car with the defendant, he couldn’t have possibly killed her. Well, nobody saw anyone in a car with Mary Jayne Jones that day. Somebody killed her."
One suggestion that both attorneys gave the jury during their closing arguments: Use common sense. If you remember to use common sense when considering the evidence, you'll come to the correct verdict.
— Ottumwa Courier newspaper reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark