Bonfire trial jury acquits suspect Self

Friday, October 24, 2003

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- After hearing two days of testimony from 30 witnesses, a jury took less than an hour Thursday to declare Jerry L. Self Jr. not guilty of burning 14 fellow party guests.

As Circuit Court Judge William Syler read the verdict, Self, 23, wore a relieved, wide grin that remained on his face as he left the courtroom.

His family members wept at learning the Millersville, Mo., man no longer faced the 14 felony assault charges that were filed when witnesses accused him of throwing a 5-gallon gasoline container into a bonfire Jan. 17 at a party held at 3901 Cape Girardeau County Road 621. Fourteen people, now 17 to 20 years old, suffered severe burns.

The case was tried in Perry County on a change of venue.

Monroe Richardson, father of Staci Richardson, who suffered the worst burns in the blast, declined to comment on the jury's decision other than to softly say, "I would have been sad with either verdict."

Defense attorney Wayne Keller was jubilant as he said the jury likely found the state's key witnesses hard to believe after he pointed out inconsistencies in their changing stories.

"I believed all along Jerry was innocent," Keller said. "Jerry did a good job testifying. His story has not changed. I'm just very tickled Jerry went home."

Keller said he had a strong feeling the case had gone his way in court when he was called back early from lunch.

"With them coming back that quick with 14 charges, you have a feeling it will be a not guilty verdict," he said.

Self declined to comment.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said he was disappointed for the 14 victims.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "I don't feel justice has been reached."

Swingle said many of the state's witnesses were friends of Self who didn't want to testify against him but were forced to do so. In his closing statement to the jury, Swingle compared the challenges of having that many reluctant witnesses to something Abraham Lincoln once said about sending troops to a particular Union post: "Sending men to that army is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard -- half of them never get there."

Because there were so many witnesses and injured victims to keep straight, the jury was allowed to take notes during the trial. This was a first for Syler and Swingle, although the Supreme Court ruled two years ago it should be allowed, the prosecutor said. The jurors fed their notes through an electric paper shredder as they left the courtroom.

Investigators maintain Self was the culprit in the explosion.

"We put a lot of time and effort into this," said detective Sgt. Eric Friedrich of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department. "It was not just thrown together in a matter of hours. We talked to over 60 people."

The changing testimony of key witnesses was disheartening, he said.

"It's sort of sad the way they regressed, because they showed a lot of resolve then to get him convicted when we first talked to them," he said. "I guess it sort of hurts our case, and I don't know if the jurors saw this or not on their breaks, but when you have one of the victims standing outside smoking a cigarette with the suspect, it doesn't help."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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