Jury Acquits Hunter In Killing Of Connecticut DEP Officer

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"Jury Acquits Hunter In Killing Of DEP Officer
By EDMUND H. MAHONY, The Hartford Courant

DANIELSON - After deliberating less than two hours, a jury on Tuesday
acquitted a deer hunter of all charges associated with fatally shooting a
state conservation officer, apparently accepting the argument that the
victim's camouflage clothing and behavior were a factor in what amounted to
an accident.

The speed of the not guilty verdict stunned colleagues and family of state
conservation officer James Spignesi Jr., as well as Windham County State's
Attorney Mark Solak, who was using the case in part to deter unsafe hunting
in Connecticut's dwindling open space.

The six-person jury from Windham County, in the state's rural northeast
corner, cleared hunter Kevin P. O'Connell, a former state correction
officer, of a charge of second-degree manslaughter. The charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of a year in prison. Jurors also acquitted O'Connell, now
31, of the lesser, included offense of criminally negligent homicide, a
misdemeanor.

After recovering from some surprise at word that jury deliberation had concluded so quickly, O'Connell, a tall, soft-spoken father of two young daughters, stood stoically and showed no surprise when the verdict was announced. Afterward, he apologized profusely to Spignesi's family and
former colleagues at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"I'd really like to apologize to them for the pain and suffering they've gone through," said O'Connell, who lost his job as a correction officer after the accident and has been working since as a carpenter. "I can't imagine how
they feel. I'm very sorry this whole thing happened."

Spignesi's relatives and many of his colleagues had sat somberly in court
since evidence in the case began on Feb. 28. They appeared somewhat relaxed and confident of a conviction earlier Tuesday afternoon when Solak and defense lawyer John Kelly of Orange completed their closing arguments.

But the relatives and friends were stunned when the jury foreman announced not guilty verdicts. Relatives complained among themselves that, in their view, O'Connell had never shown remorse. Then, visibly angered, they closeted themselves in Solak's office without saying more.

Outside the courthouse a dozen or so of Spignesi's colleagues gathered and
one complained that the verdict seemed to trivialize Spignesi's death, which
occurred on Nov. 20, 1998, while he was trying to enforce state hunting
laws.

"It's like nothing ever happened," one said. "Absolutely nothing."

State marshals escorted the jurors from the courthouse through a secure exit
after the 4:50 p.m. verdict. The jury members and alternates - two women
and six men - drove off without elaborating on their unanimous decision.

That O'Connell killed Spignesi, a dedicated conservationist, with a single
shot fired through the upper body from a deer rifle, has never been in
dispute. All the evidence and argument in the case turned on the question
of whether O'Connell's shot was so dangerously ill-advised that it amounted to
an act of criminal recklessness.

O'Connell was hunting, with permission, on a friend's 17-acre field in
Scotland. Spignesi and a partner in the state's environmental police were
looking for illegal hunters on the third day of deer season for rifle hunters. They spotted O'Connell's car parked near an entrance to the field
at about sunset.

Spignesi and his partner decided to investigate. Just when they
investigated was in dispute. The day Spignesi died was dark and overcast and evening threatened rain. By law, hunting ended at sunset - 4:27 p.m. that day - and
there was almost no light a half-hour later.

Undisputed testimony in the case showed that Spignesi and his partner donned
camouflage jackets and made a conscious effort to walk onto the field
without making any noise.

In his summation to jurors, Solak argued that O'Connell was frustrated by
three days of unsuccessful hunting and decided to break the law and hunt in
unsafe light after sunset. He reached the decision in part, Solak argued,
because he was familiar with his friend's land.

"He was able to make a conscious decision to ignore the law ... to stay on
the land to hunt well after sunset," Solak said.

Solak also tried to convince the jurors that firing in poor light was only
one of O'Connell's errors in judgment. Collectively, he said, those errors
amounted to criminal recklessness. O'Connell's position has always been
that he fired at a large doe after studiously identifying it. Spignesi - unseen
against a line of trees in his camouflage jacket and dark green uniform -
was hit by accident, O'Connell's lawyer, Kelly, argued.

Kelly told jurors in his summation that even the prosecution evidence should
convince them that there was enough light to identify and fire at a deer. After Spignesi was hit, his partner testified during the trial that he looked in the direction of the rifle report and clearly identified O'Connell as
the shooter.

"They can't have it both ways," Kelly said.

What's more, Kelly argued that Spignesi's camouflage jacket - designed to
hide his presence - should clear O'Connell of a charge that taking the shot
was a substantial risk that the hunter consciously disregarded. Jurors
needed to find that O'Connell disregarded the risk to conclude he acted with
criminal recklessness or negligence.

"If you can't see them," Kelly said of the two conservation officers, "how
can you make a conscious decision to disregard their presence and fire at
them?" Copyright 2001 Hartford Courant."
 


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