Jury finds Bryant guilty of manslaughter
Belfast — After more than four hours of deliberation Friday, Aug. 10, a jury of nine women and three men found 20-year-old Luke Bryant guilty in the shooting death of his best friend, 19-year-old Tyler Seaney.
The jury began its deliberations at about 10:15 a.m. and after taking a brief break for lunch, returned with a verdict at 3:35 p.m.
The jury found Bryant guilty of Class A manslaughter, a crime that is punishable by a minimum of four years and a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, according to Assistant Attorney General Leanne Zainea.
In the moments before Justice Robert Murray read the verdict aloud, members of Seaney's family gathered together, and some could be heard crying softly and uttering "Please, God." Bryant's supporters also huddled together and hugged one another as Murray read the jury's decision.
Bryant did not visibly react when Murray announced the guilty finding, but a number of his supporters openly wept after the justice spoke.
Bryant's attorney, Steven Peterson, asked the judge to poll the jurors individually, and all 12 jurors confirmed the guilty finding.
Following Seaney's death at Bryant's Knox apartment on the night of Feb. 19, 2011, Bryant told police he was trying to clear a jam out of a Mossberg Model 500-A, 12-gauge shotgun when it went off accidentally as Seaney was exiting the nearby bathroom.
Three days later, during a taped three-and-a-half-hour interview with detectives, Bryant changed his story and said he was trying to scare Seaney with the shotgun because Seaney had shot him with an AirSoft gun earlier in the day. While testifying Thursday, Aug. 9, Bryant said he told police he was engaged in a scare game involving guns — a game he admitted he and Seaney played occasionally to get a reaction out of one another — because he was "emotionally worn down" and wanted to end the interview.
Following some discussion regarding scheduling that involved both attorneys, Murray set Bryant's sentencing date for Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 1 p.m. The hearing will take place at Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast.
Bail denied due to flight risk concerns, lack of local ties
When it came time to consider whether Bryant would be granted post-conviction bail, Zainea recommended Bryant be held without bail immediately for several reasons.
Zainea said Bryant's father, who now resides in the Philippines, contacted his son prior to the trial and suggested he leave the country and come stay with him. Then, Zainea said, a recent posting on Bryant's Facebook page suggested he was interested in leaving the state to go to California.
Zainea added that Bryant is currently unemployed, has limited family ties in the area and faces a potentially lengthy prison sentence, all of which she said are factors in the state's recommendation.
Peterson said Bryant's father did contact him with the suggestion that he leave the country, but Bryant opted to stay for his trial. Additionally, Peterson said, Bryant has no passport.
Regarding the Facebook posting, Peterson said Bryant's girlfriend attends college in California and the posting was not an indication that Bryant intended to leave the state.
Peterson stated Bryant has been free on $100,000 surety bail prior to his trial, and has followed all of the conditions of his release since his arrest four days after the Feb. 19 shooting.
"He has not had any problems since he has been out on bail," said Peterson, adding the Bryant has not missed any of his court dates.
Peterson referred to the state statute regarding post-conviction bail, which states that a defendant can be considered for post-conviction release if there is no substantial risk that the defendant will not appear for future court dates, or pose any danger to the community. The statute also states there must also be no risk of that the defendant will commit further crimes.
Peterson added that Bryant has family and close friends in the area, many of whom came to support Bryant throughout the trial, and requested Bryant remain free to assist with the preparations for his sentencing hearing, as well as a possible appeal.
In the end, Murray noted that because of Bryant's lack of employment and "issues regarding leaving the jurisdiction" post-conviction bail was not an option in this case.
"The court is not persuaded that post-conviction bail is appropriate under these circumstances," said the justice.
Prosecutor says shooting death was 'no accident'
During her closing statements Friday morning, Zainea told jurors the shooting death of Seaney was no accident.
"A young man who was on the verge of heading off to the Army was shot and instantly killed, but it was no accident," said Zainea of Seaney's death on the night of Feb. 19, 2011. "An accident is something you have no control over."
Zainea said Bryant changed his account of what occurred on the night Seaney died in the Feb. 22 interview with police not because he was tired and he wanted to leave, but because it was the truth.
But Zainea said the evidence presented in the state's case demonstrated that the gun did not misfire and that Bryant was trying to scare Seaney just as he told police.
And Zainea said since the state firearms expert testified earlier in the week that the shotgun had a trigger pull requiring at least six and a half pounds of pressure in order for it to fire, it was unlikely that Bryant pulled the trigger inadvertently.
"That amount of pressure, ladies and gentlemen, is more than a tap," she said. "It's more than a reflex, more than a seizure... We all know guns don't discharge unless you pull the trigger."
Zainea also reminded jurors that Bryant took a hunter safety course and had grown up around guns, and that even though he knew how to handle firearms, he still experienced an accidental discharge of a firearm the weekend prior to Seaney's death in a tree house behind his apartment. The prosecutor referred back to Bryant's own testimony, during which he stated that he pointed two other guns either straight up at the ceiling or toward an exterior window on the night he shot Seaney, but opted instead to point the shotgun at the bathroom.
"He pointed that shotgun at the bathroom door, the same door he knew Tyler [Seaney] was behind," said Zainea.
That move, said Zainea, was an attempt on Bryant's part to "even the score" after Seaney shot Bryant with the AirSoft gun.
"[Bryant] pointed that shotgun at the bathroom door and when Tyler [Seaney] stepped out he pulled the trigger," said Zainea. "It's true, he didn't know it was loaded, and he thought when he pulled the trigger, 'Now is my opportunity to even the score.'"
Defense claims state based case on gun-game theory
In his closing argument, Peterson reminded jurors that the burden was on the state to prove his client's guilt, and that they had to find the facts the state presented to be "almost certainly true" before arriving at a decision to find Bryant guilty.
The defense attorney said in order to find Bryant guilty of manslaughter, they had to find that Seaney was dead, that Bryant caused the death, and thirdly, that Bryant did so in either a criminally reckless or negligent fashion.
"Don't forget he never knew the gun was loaded," said Peterson.
Peterson brought jurors back to the recorded 9-1-1 call Bryant made within minutes of shooting Seaney through the neck, and reminded them about how Bryant told the dispatcher he was clearing the gun when it accidentally discharged.
Peterson said Bryant said nothing at that time about trying to scare Seaney for a good reason.
"He didn't say that in the 9-1-1 call because that is not what happened," he said. "...He was clearly not in a state of mind to fabricate or make things up."
Peterson said that after police learned Bryant and Seaney had been known to use guns to scare each other from Seaney's girlfriend, Whitney Canfield, law enforcement took that theory and ran with it.
"In that moment was born the theory of the state's case," said Peterson. "...Now every other possibility is excluded."
Peterson described the Feb. 22 interview as an interrogation, and as an exchange that would not have ceased until Bryant deviated from his original story and told them what Peterson said they wanted to hear.
Bryant cooperated with police in the days before his arrest, Peterson said, allowing police to search his apartment on the night of the shooting and willingly participating in police interviews.
"The thing he really cares about is the loss of his best friend," said Peterson of Bryant, noting that in the police interview Bryant stated that he didn't care about what happened to him as a result of his involvement with Seaney's death.
"There are no winners in this case," said Peterson. "Luke lost his best friend, and the Seaney family lost a loved one."
In a country where gun rights are advocated so fiercely, Peterson concluded, gun-related accidents can and will happen, particularly "amongst our young people."
"And that's what this case is all about, a tragic accident," said Peterson.
Testimony on Thursday, Aug. 9
Bryant told jurors Thursday, Aug. 9, that he only told police he was planning to scare Seaney with his shotgun on the night of Feb. 19 2011 because he thought it was what they wanted to hear.
Bryant was the lone witness that Peterson called to testify after Zainea wrapped up the state's case early Thursday afternoon.
In Bryant's own words
During his testimony, Bryant spoke about a Feb. 22, 2011, interview at the Waldo County Sheriff's Office that involved himself, Maine State Police Detective Jason Andrews and WCSO Detective Jason Bosco. That interview, which spanned more than three hours, was captured on video and it was the final piece of evidence Zainea presented in the state's case.
The taped interview, which jurors watched in its entirety Thursday morning, depicted Bryant repeatedly denying that he was engaged in a gun game with Seaney on the night Seaney died. On several occasions, Andrews could be heard telling Bryant the evidence collected at the scene and the autopsy report suggested Bryant's original story wasn't accurate, and encouraging Bryant to "tell the truth."
"You guys have a history of playing these games, and that's what this looks like," the detective told Bryant.
At the start of the interview and at one point during the interview, Andrews reminded Bryant that he was not under arrest and was free to leave at any time, but Bryant remained seated for the entire interview.
When Peterson asked Bryant why he opted instead to change his story toward the end of the interview — telling the officers he was trying to scare Seaney with the gun because Seaney had shot him with an AirSoft gun earlier in the day — Bryant said he felt it was his only option.
"I felt like they would have come back the next day and the next day until I told them what they wanted," said Bryant.
Bryant said he started learning about guns through his father at age 12 and took a hunter's safety course when he was 14 years old. Bryant said he and Seaney shared an interest in guns by the time the two were seniors at Belfast Area High School.
Peterson asked Bryant if he and Seaney ever engaged in any games that involved pointing guns at each other for the purposes of scaring one another, and Bryant said when they did such things it was meant more for laughs than to cause fear.
"It was just joking around," said Bryant, noting that they had used all of the guns in his home for that purpose at one time or another.
"Were precautions taken before to make sure the gun was not loaded?" asked Peterson.
"Yes," said Bryant, adding that the gun horseplay between him and Seaney was not a common occurrence.
On the day of the shooting, Bryant testified that he brought his guns out to the kitchen table to clean them because he and Seaney planned to go target shooting the following day. When asked to identify a few of the items in a photograph of the kitchen table that police snapped the night of Seaney's death, Bryant said a closed satchel on the far left side of the table contained a collapsible rod used for cleaning long guns such as rifles, and identified another item on the table as a degreaser and lubricant used for cleaning guns.
Then he described what occurred in the moments that led up to his accidentally shooting and killing Seaney.
"When I picked [the shotgun] up, I noticed the slide was locked... I looked down into the slide to make sure nothing was caught in there," Bryant said.
Seaney then exited the bathroom and began to speak, but Bryant said he wasn't able to hear what Seaney was saying because the gun went off at that time, striking Seaney in the neck.
Bryant told Peterson he didn't recall pulling the trigger, and does not remember his finger being anywhere near the trigger.
"Were you playing a scare game?" asked Peterson.
"No I was not," said Bryant.
'I wanted to get out of there'
Zainea asked Bryant why, if he has knowledge about gun safety, he would have cleared the shotgun while pointing it in the direction of the bathroom, where he knew Seaney had gone minutes before.
"You'd never point it down at the ground because there's a family down below you, is that right?" she said.
"That's correct," said Bryant.
Then Zainea asked Bryant if he cleared his first two guns while seated on his couch, and Bryant said that was what happened. Bryant said he pointed one of the rifles straight upward, and the second out the window.
"The only gun you got up from the couch for was the 12-gauge shotgun?" she said.
"Yes," replied Bryant.
"Why didn't you go back to the couch?" asked Zainea.
"There was no need to," said Bryant.
"Your friend Tyler [Seaney] was in the bathroom," said Zainea.
"Yes," said Bryant.
Zainea reminded Bryant that he had experienced a malfunction with a firearm just a week prior to Seaney's death, when he, Seaney and Canfield were camping in a tree house near Bryant's apartment. Then, Zainea asked Bryant why he did not point the shotgun in a safe direction on the night of Feb. 19.
"I didn't think to," said Bryant.
Zainea also questioned why Bryant had waited until the Feb. 22 interview with police to tell authorities he and Seaney used all three of his firearms when engaging in the gun games. Bryant had previously told police they never used the shotgun for those purposes.
"I'm not sure," said Bryant.
Then Zainea asked Bryant why his posture and speech changed so much when he started telling detectives he was trying to scare Seaney during the taped interview. Zainea noted that instead of sitting up straight and maintaining his composure, as he had for much of the interview, Bryant leaned forward, hung his head, cried and spoke in a whisper.
"It was only at that time you were telling the officers that yes, you were trying to scare Tyler [Seaney]," said Zainea. "If it wasn't true, why were you crying and sniveling?"
"I was very worn down emotionally," said Bryant.
When Zainea pressed him on the issue, Bryant said he changed his story because he thought it was the only way out of the interview.
"I wanted to get out of there, and I thought it was the quickest way to end it," he said.
Testimony on Wednesday, Aug. 8
In a recorded interview with two detectives the prosecution played for the jury Wednesday morning, Aug. 8, Bryant repeatedly stated that he was not engaged in horseplay when he accidentally shot and killed Seaney.
Bryant's manslaughter trial moved into its second day Wednesday, during which time Zainea played an audio recording of an interview between Bryant, Bosco and Andrews. The detectives conducted the interview on the night of the shooting.
Accident vs. prank gone wrong
During the interview, which police conducted in a cruiser outside his apartment house, Bryant told the officers he, Seaney and Canfield woke up late that Saturday morning. The three ate breakfast, and then he and Seaney played video games while Canfield was lying down in another room. They made plans to see a movie later that night.
Because he and Seaney planned to go target shooting the following day, Bryant said they retrieved Bryant's guns out of a storage room to clean the weapons. Bryant said he brought the firearms out to the kitchen table between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.
"Do you store your guns unloaded?" asked Andrews.
"I do," said Bryant, adding that he's been using guns since he was 14 years old.
Then the officers asked Bryant about a separate incident that had occurred the weekend prior to Seaney's death, one that Canfield testified took place in a small tree house near Bryant's apartment. Canfield said Bryant pointed a gun at her, and when she asked him to stop he swung the firearm toward a window and the gun accidentally discharged. Bryant denied pointing the gun at Canfield when he took the stand briefly on Tuesday.
When the detectives asked about the tree house incident, Bryant said when he went to move the weapon "it went off."
The detectives then asked Bryant if he and Seaney ever played pranks on one another with guns. During the interview, Bryant initially denied that he and Seaney engaged in that activity with any weapons other than AirSoft guns, which are replica guns that fire plastic pellets, but later he said the two would do so using smaller unloaded firearms but "not with the shotgun."
Then the officers confronted Bryant with Canfield's statements to police about how he and Seaney routinely played games that involved pointing guns at each other. Andrews said that information gave police reason to believe Bryant wasn't being completely truthful about what happened.
Bosco said Seaney's trip to the bathroom appeared to be a "perfect opportunity" for Bryant to pull a gun-related prank.
"We're trying to figure out how, if you're so familiar with the gun, and if you weren't playing the fooling around game, how it accidentally went off," said Bosco.
Andrews later commented that gun horseplay appeared to be a likely factor in the incident.
"It makes more sense than you were trying to clear a gun with your finger on the trigger," he said.
But Bryant continually denied he was playing a game on the day Seaney died.
"That's not what I was doing, I'm not going to be able to stress that enough," said Bryant.
The officers told Bryant two accidents with firearms over the course of two weekends was cause for concern, and that there were inconsistencies between his story and the account Canfield offered police.
Later in the interview, Andrews noted that he didn't "see much emotion" from Bryant, and Bryant stated that he is not usually an emotional person because of experiences he had as a child, including time he spent with abusive birth parents and in foster care prior to his adoption at age 6.
"I've had my fair share of, of stuff going on, so I've learned to block out a lot," Bryant said. Bryant added, "I was bawling my eyes out" when police first arrived at his apartment.
When police asked Bryant to go back to the apartment and show them where he was standing and how Seaney was positioned when the shooting occurred, Bryant initially said he preferred not to go inside the residence.
"I don't even know how I'll ever go in there again," he said.
Eventually, police convinced Bryant to return to the apartment after they stated that Seaney's body was no longer in the building.
After the conclusion of the taped interview, Zainea asked Bosco if Bryant expressed apprehension about entering the apartment when officers first arrived on the scene, while Seaney's body was still inside.
"No," said Bosco.
During the afternoon session, Zainea presented a video showing Bryant's return to the apartment with Bosco and Andrews, during which Bryant repeated his account of what occurred and told police he'd never had a problem with his shotgun and did not believe the firearm malfunctioned at the time of Seaney's death. During the walk-through of the apartment, Bryant again stated that he was not playing a joke on Seaney when the gun discharged.
"I'm telling you, it wasn't a prank," said Bryant.
A fatal injury and a functioning gun
The jurors also heard from several experts Tuesday, including Maine Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Ference, who conducted the autopsy on Seaney's body two days after the shooting.
Ference said he determined that Seaney died as the result of the gunshot wound to his neck, and that the slug from the shotgun caused an entrance wound of more than an inch in diameter and an exit wound that was more than two inches across. Ference said Seaney's voice box was damaged as a result of the wound, as were his jugular vein and his sixth and seventh vertebrae.
"It cut his spinal chord in half," said Ference, adding that Seaney likely collapsed where he stood at the time of the impact, because the spinal chord injury would have rendered his legs nearly useless.
Maine State Police Dual Forensic Specialist Robert Burns, an expert in processing fingerprints and examining firearms, also took the stand Tuesday. While Burns said he was unable to lift any usable fingerprints from the shotgun, he was able to conduct a series of tests to conclude the shotgun was in good working condition.
"It was functioning normally," said Burns.