Jury was 'manure-qualified'

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

WAYNESVILLE, Mo. -- It's common for attorneys to ask prospective jurors in murder trials whether they could impose capital punishment, a query lawyers call "death qualification."

The responses can provide insights about a citizen's philosophies, leanings and life experiences, about whether they might decide a certain way. Jurors may be kept or dropped based upon their replies.

But defense attorney Robert Haar had a different type of question for possible jurors assembled last Monday at the Pulaski County Courthouse:

"How many of you have worked with manure?"

Most of the jury prospects raised their hands.

"I must say, I never heard of manure-qualifying a jury," said Steve Easton, a former federal prosecutor who teaches trial practice and criminal law at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.

But it became an important qualification in the trial of Charles Robert Patchin, 34, a leader of Heartland Christian Academy in northeast Missouri.

Patchin faced three felony charges of "cruel and inhuman punishment" for directing boys to wade into the school dairy farm's manure pit in Lewis County and turn several shovels full as punishment for misbehaving.

Prosecutors called the manure experiences degrading, dehumanizing and dirty. "The message we are sending by that is, the value of that child is waste," declared Assistant Attorney General Tim Anderson.

The defense called the manure assignments farm work -- dirty and smelly, to be sure, but in Haar's words, "a chore that has gone on for centuries."

The manure-qualifying question to prospective jurors offered a clue about Patchin's acquittal on Thursday. He was cleared following 18 minutes of deliberations by the seven-man, five-woman jury.

Eleven of the 12 jurors had specifically told Haar during the selection process of their own familiarity with manure since childhood.

Toys made of manure

Juror No. 1, for example, said she grew up with goats, horses and cows.

"We had to deal with the manure," she said with a shrug.

Juror No. 3 said manure handling "was real life" growing up on a farm.

"I've shoveled manure all my life," Juror No. 10 told Haar. "Still a-doin' it."

"Cow manure?" Haar asked.

"Yep," said No. 10.

And so it went, including Juror No. 9's revelation that as a girl she had fashioned dried cow chips into "some of my favorite toys," such as dollhouse furnishings.

The questioning might have gone the same anywhere except courthouses in downtown St. Louis or Kansas City, and perhaps not even in those places would jurors be unfamiliar with animal waste.

The 1999 state agriculture census indicated Missouri had 4.4 million cattle and 3.3 million swine, all abundant manure sources. The same census showed Pulaski County had even more cattle and swine than Lewis County.

The manure question helped the defense in a couple of ways.

It established that most prospective jurors weren't shocked by the notion of encountering manure. And the discussion, over time, helped dull any shock or squeamishness about making manure a subject of courtroom discussion.

Lewis County Prosecutor Jules DeCoster has child abuse charges pending against four other Heartland defendants who allegedly had roles in manure pit punishment. After the acquittal, he called the state's case against Patchin the "weakest" of the lot.

But DeCoster said he would review the remaining charges in view of Patchin's acquittal, to see whether they might be altered -- or dropped.

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