POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Thomas Evans Jr. cracked a smile as Circuit Court Judge Benjamin F. Lewis read the jury's verdict Thursday night.
The Bellwood, Ill., native had been in custody for 14 months after being charged in the June 2010 shooting of 44-year-old Matthew "Woody" Ervin in Cape Girardeau. A 12-person jury found Evans not guilty of second-degree murder and armed criminal action.
"He finally gets to go back home," said his father, Thomas Evans. "It's been a tough year."
The verdict came after more than two hours of deliberation.
Evans' attorney, Daniel Moore, said the case came down to three key witnesses -- Evans and Cape Girardeau Major Case Squad members Donald Perry and Jeremy Weadon. Perry and Weadon interviewed Evans three times a few days after the shooting, and footage and testimonies about those interviews proved Evans' innocence, Moore said.
"All the other witnesses really didn't matter in this case," Moore said. "It's what they did in those interviews that mattered."
Perry and Weadon interviewed Evans for more than eight hours and heard three different stories from the suspect.
In the first interview, footage showed Evans denying any involvement in the shooting, which took place near the intersection of Park Drive and North Fountain Street. The footage's audio cut in and out throughout the interview, leaving jurors and investigators with roughly 45 minutes of audio.
The two other interviews lacked audio.
During the second interview, Perry and Weadon told Evans DNA evidence and fingerprints in Ervin's car placed him at the crime scene. Weadon testified that in the interview Evans said a fourth party came out of the shadows and shot Ervin. Both Perry and Weadon testified that Evans had denied shooting Ervin at least 40 times.
An affidavit filed by authorities in the case alleges that in a third interview with police, Evans said Ervin made threats and appeared to be retrieving a gun from his vehicle, so he fired two shots at him out of self-defense. The shooting allegedly occurred after Evans and a Charleston, Mo., teen, Armster "Bud" Robinson III, met Ervin at a south-side convenience store in Cape Girardeau.
Moore argued that the confession was coerced because Evans was led to believe that he would be set free if he admitted shooting Ervin in self-defense. During his testimony, Weadon said he and Perry had offered scenarios for Evans to confess to, and the self-defense story was among them.
Evans testified that during the third interview, which lasted more than four hours, he had grown tired and was refused a phone call. The officers said that he could only use the phone if he confessed, he testified.
Once he admitted to shooting Ervin in self-defense, Evans wrote an apology letter to Ervin's family because Perry and Weadon suggested it would help his case, Evans testified.
Moore questioned the Perry and Weadon's interviewing methods and provided two still shots from the interview that show Evans in a corner and the two officers speaking to him and Perry poking Evans' head with his finger. Moore said the tactics persuaded Evans to fabricate the story because he was tired and scared.
"These tactics aren't waterboarding, but they are still damaging psychologically," Moore said.
In addition to questioning the interview tactics and the confession, Moore wanted to have Brandon King and Ollie Welch testify. King, who is in prison for assaulting a police officer, submitted a written statement to police July 1, 2010, alleging Welch shot and killed Ervin that night. Welch was subpoenaed but did not appear in court.
Judge Lewis did not allow King to testify in front of a jury because of Chambers v. Mississippi, a Supreme Court Case that prohibits hearsay evidence alleging someone else committed a crime to be submitted.
"He told me he was a murderer," King testified with no jury present.
Evans plans to go home to Illinois and be with his 1-year-old son, Moore said.
"This is something he'll remember forever," Moore said. "I hope he learns and grows from it."
North Fountain Street and Park Drive, Cape Girardeau, MO