Trial begins for Knox man accused of shooting friend

Bryant performed CPR in effort to revive victim
By Tanya Mitchell | Aug 07, 2012
Photo by: Tanya Mitchell Luke Bryant, left, and his attorney, Steven Peterson, listen to opening arguments from the Assistant Attorney General, Leanne Zainea, as Bryant's manslaughter trial got under way Tuesday, Aug. 7, in Belfast.

On the night of Feb. 19, 2011, 19-year-old Tyler Seaney died almost instantly as the result of a gunshot wound that came at the hands of his best friend, Luke Bryant.

Both the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Zainea, and Bryant's defense attorney, Steven Peterson, agree those are the facts in this case. The attorneys presented that information as part of opening arguments at Bryant's manslaughter trial, which began at the Waldo County Superior Courthouse in Belfast Tuesday morning.

However, the defense plans to argue that the gun was discharged accidentally, while the prosecution attempts to prove the discharge was caused by recklessness on the part of Bryant.

The call for help

Perhaps the most striking part of the day's testimony and presentation of evidence was the recording of the 9-1-1 call Bryant made on Seaney’s girlfriend Whitney Canfield's cell phone within minutes of the shooting.

On the recording, an emotional Bryant told the dispatcher at the Waldo Regional Communication Center there had been an accidental shooting in his home. The sounds of a female crying and yelling — later identified as Canfield — could be heard in the background.

The dispatcher gave Bryant instructions about how to perform CPR.

"We were just cleaning it," said Bryant, audibly weeping as he spoke with the dispatcher. "... Please, just hurry, please!"

After a few more minutes of speaking with the dispatcher, Bryant could be heard stating, "I don't think he's alive, sir... I don't think he's going to make it. It's my fault."

The court also heard testimony of some of the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene, including Sgt. Dale Brown of the Waldo County Sherriff's Office.

Brown said he was the first to arrive at the scene, and described Bryant's demeanor as "emotional" when he encountered him in the apartment as he attempted to revive Seaney. Brown said he observed various types of ammunition and other gun-related paraphernalia on the kitchen table nearby, and when Zainea asked if the materials on the table included tools used to clean firearms, Brown said he did not see any. When Peterson pressed the issue during his cross examination, Brown said he did not closely inspect the contents of the bags on the table and could not be certain that those materials weren't included as part of the items on the table.

'Not a tragic accident'

During her opening statement, Zainea said Seaney died from a single gunshot wound to the neck, and detailed how Bryant stood "within a few feet of Tyler [Seaney's] lifeless body" after the gun Bryant held in his hands discharged.

Zainea said those were details Seaney would never have had the chance to observe.

"Tyler [Seaney] never noticed, because he died almost instantly," said Zainea. "... This is a case about causing the death of another human being, and the defendant, Luke Bryant, is charged with causing Tyler [Seaney's] death."

Zainea said the weekend began much like that of any other group of teenagers, with Bryant, Seaney and Canfield planning to spend Feb. 19 — a Saturday — hanging out and going to see a movie. Bryant and Seaney, whom both attorneys said shared an interest in guns, planned to go target shooting on Sunday, Feb. 20.

It was school vacation week, Zainea noted, and the threesome had planned to spend time with friends from the Belfast area before Seaney was scheduled to go to boot camp in April of 2011, as he had recently joined the Army.

But those plans changed after the events of the evening unfolded.

Bryant, who was arrested in Belfast on a charge of manslaughter four days after the shooting, reportedly told police he was trying to clear a jam out of a shotgun when it went off accidentally, just as Seaney was exiting the nearby bathroom.

But Zainea asserted the incident was not a tragic accident.

"The defendant knew about the proper handling of firearms," said Zainea, noting that Bryant had used the particular gun involved in Seaney's shooting death — a Mossberg Model 500-A, 12-gauge shotgun — since he was 14 years old.

"This was not the first time the defendant pointed a gun at Tyler [Seaney]," said Zainea. "...And yes, Tyler [Seaney] did this, too."

Zainea said Bryant and Seaney regularly engaged in such a practice, "to get a reaction from each other."

But Zainea also informed the jury that the state is not charging Bryant with killing his friend intentionally or knowingly, but rather, with having done so in a way that could be characterized as either reckless or negligent.

"He was trying to scare Tyler [Seaney], just like he had done on other occasions," said Zainea.

'He did not know the gun was loaded'

Peterson reminded jurors that the state has the burden of proof in the case, and Bryant is considered innocent unless the evidence presented in the case is sufficient for the jury to find otherwise.

"Don't close your minds until you hear all the evidence," said Peterson.

When further discussing the degree to which the state must prove its case, Peterson said some might feel it's unfair to place that entire burden on the prosecution. Peterson disagreed with that sentiment, stating that the Maine Attorney General's Office has access to local and state law enforcement officials, forensic experts and other professionals who can help pull together all the necessary evidence. And if the state can't prove its case with all of those resources at its disposal, it's not because the burden is unfair.

"It's because Luke Bryant is not guilty," said Peterson.

Peterson said there is no dispute about the fact that it was Bryant who caused Seaney's death, but added, "that doesn't mean he was criminally reckless."

Bryant's reaction to seeing his friend lying lifeless on the floor before him was "horror."

"He did not know the gun was loaded," said Peterson of his client. "... Then he does CPR on Tyler [Seaney]."

Peterson said that because police had heard the story of how the young men "had played games with guns" after speaking with Canfield, investigators chose not to believe Bryant's story about the shooting's being an accident.

"He finally just said what they wanted to hear," said Peterson. "That it was a scare game."

Bryant, dressed in a dark suit and white button-up shirt, sat facing the front of the courtroom with his eyes to the floor for much of the day's proceedings. He looked over at his attorney occasionally.

Peterson said his client would likely never forget the day Seaney died on the floor of his apartment.

"There's nobody in the world who has more remorse for that than him," said Peterson of Bryant.

Gun games

Jurors also heard testimony from Canfield, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident.

Canfield stated in her testimony that Bryant often pointed firearms at Seaney, but that she never witnessed her boyfriend doing the same with Bryant. She said there was one instance when Bryant came into the bedroom in his apartment where she and Seaney were sleeping one morning and "poked" Tyler with the barrel of a gun to wake him up.

That behavior, Canfield said, was not unusual for Bryant.

"[Bryant] would point it at [Seaney] and pretend as if he were shooting him, but just joking around," said Canfield.

Canfield appeared to be composed and calm as she spoke, but on two occasions, she requested the court take a brief recess because she wasn't feeling well.

After the second break the court took at Canfield's request, the jury did not return to the courtroom, because the attorneys were debating the merits of presenting details of an incident that allegedly occurred the weekend prior to Seaney's death.

At one point that weekend, Canfield said, Bryant pointed a gun at her, and when she asked him to stop he swung the firearm toward a window and pulled the trigger, at which time she said the gun accidentally discharged and the bullet flew out the window. Canfield testified that she told Bryant, "That could have been me."

Bryant then took the stand briefly and said he never pointed the gun at Canfield.

Zainea argued that the information about the prior incident over the weekend of Feb. 12, 2011, was relevant to the case because it demonstrated "the absence of a mistake" where Bryant knew from experience that guns discharge by accident.

Peterson said there was no clear evidence that Bryant was the one who brought the gun to the tree house, that it wasn't the same gun used in Seaney's shooting death and "it has nothing to do with the evidence that is in front of the jury for this case."

After jurors returned to the courtroom, Justice Robert Murray offered a few instructions. He told the jurors that, while they could not use the testimony to infer that the defendant had a propensity "to act in a similar way," they could use the information to consider the defendant's knowledge regarding accidental discharge of firearms.

The trial is expected to last through much of this week.

If convicted, Bryant faces up to 30 years in prison, the maximum sentence for Class A manslaughter.

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