Durgin guilty of manslaughter, not guilty of negligent homicide

  • Published in Local News

LACONIA – Jason Durgin, the Laconia resident accused of beating Leo LaPierre, a homeless man, so severely he died a week later, was acquitted of manslaughter Thursday afternoon. But the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of negligent homicide.

The jury of eight women and four men returned their split verdict after 2 1/2 hours of deliberations in Belknap County Superior Court.

The jury did find Durgin, 37, guilty second-degree assault – a lesser included ...

LACONIA – Jason Durgin, the Laconia resident accused of beating Leo LaPierre, a homeless man, so severely he died a week later, was acquitted of manslaughter Thursday afternoon. But the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of negligent homicide.

The jury of eight women and four men returned their split verdict after 2 1/2 hours of deliberations in Belknap County Superior Court.

The jury did find Durgin, 37, guilty second-degree assault – a lesser included offense of manslaughter. But it acquitted him of charges of witness tampering, false imprisonment and simple assault, all stemming from events which occurred at Durgin’s house trailer at 399 South Main St. the night of May 2, 2011, and the morning of May 3.

Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Agati said he was pleased the jury took the time it did to consider the facts of the case. “They clearly found some credibility with some witnesses,” he said.

For his part, defense attorney Tim Landry said he was pleased with the not guilty verdict on the manslaughter charge which carried a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. “But we were hoping for acquittal on all the charges,” he added.

Agati said prosecutors would need to look at the applicable laws closely before deciding whether to ask that Durgin be sentenced on both the second-degree assault and negligent homicide charges or on just one of the charges.

Negligent homicide is potentially punishable by 7½ to 15 years in prison. Second-degree assault – a Class B felony – carries a 3½-to-seven-year prison term.

Dressed in dark slacks, a long-sleeve blue dress shirt and wearing a dark tie, Durgin showed no visible emotion as he stood facing the jurors while the verdicts were announced by the jury foreperson.

The case went to the jury after the prosecution and defense presented two hours of closing arguments Thursday morning.

After two hours of deliberations the jury signaled they had a question. They returned to the courtroom with their verdicts a half hour later.

In his closing argument Landry argued that the case against Durgin was based entirely on the testimony of prosecution’s only eyewitness, Tracy Hebert, who he described as “completely uncredible.”

Noting that Hebert, who, at the time, shared the house trailer with Durgin, LaPierre and Gary Fields on May 2, 2011, had been convicted for forgery and is currently serving time for shoplifting, he asked the jury, “Would you trust her to walk your dog, or baby-sit, or with your checkbook? So can you trust her beyond a reasonable doubt with a charge as serious as manslaughter?”

But Agati, who gave the prosecution’s closing argument, countered that Hebert had nothing to gain by lying about what she allegedly saw the night that prosecutors charge Durgin punched a drunk LaPierre in the face and then kicked him in the head before having a Fields evict him from the trailer sometime on the night of May 2-3, 2011, “with the other garbage (piled outside the trailer and) left to die in the cold.”

Agati further argued that elements of Hebert’s testimony were supported by the testimony of other witnesses, including police officers and the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on the 54-year-old LaPierre, who succumbed to his injuries on May 10, 2011, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

“She cannot possibly know that what she saw is corroborated by other evidence,” Agati said. “She has no motivation to lie. She humbled herself and sat before you,” he added, a reference to Hebert’s history of alcoholism, drug abuse and memory loss which was brought out during her testimony last Thursday and Friday.

But Landry cited what he said were eight obstacles to the state being able to prove Durgin’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In addition to the issue of Hebert’s credibility, he said Hebert’s account of Durgin’s alleged brutal assault of LaPierre was contradicted by Field’s testimony. Also, that police found nothing unusual when they went to Durgin’s trailer just after 11 p.m. meant that LaPierre had left the area, and so could not have been as critically injured as the prosecution alleged. Further, there was no physical evidence of blood on Durgin’s clothes or the floor of the kitchen where the assault allegedly occurred. And Landry asked the jury to bear in mind that the victim was “a stumbling drunk” in bad health which could explain how he became injured between 10:30 or 11 p.m. when he was told to leave the trailer and 11 a.m. the following day when he was found lying in the trailer’s small front yard.

Agati charged that the evidence showed that Durgin savagely attacked LaPierre without any concern for the consequences.

“He chose to escort this poor alcoholic man out of the bathroom and cold-cocked him. He kicked him in the head and ricocheted his brain in his skull,” and then threw him out of the residence, Agati said.

Landry argued that for there to be so little blood given the seriousness of LaPierre’s injuries and the alleged brutality of his beating defied common sense. He said that part of the prosecution case was based on “voodoo science.” But Agati said that state Deputy Medical Examiner Jennie Duval had been able to offer a reasonable explanation of how LaPierre could have suffered little external bleeding despite the severity of his injuries.

“You must consider the medical facts presented in the trial,” Agati said.

But Landry noted that the contradictions between Hebert’s initial and later statements to police were further evidence of her lack of credibility.

Agati, however, said the only reason that Hebert initially lied to police was because as police responded to the report of the injured LaPierre, Durgin was inside the trailer holding Hebert against her will and threatening to harm her, her children and her mother if she told police what she knew.

“Would he hunt her family down?” the prosecutor asked rhetorically.

He said that rather than characterize Hebert as a pathological liar because of her sordid past the jury needed to see that it was Durgin who was trying to prevent the truth from coming out.

Looking directly at the jury and with dramatic pause, Agati said, “We ask that you show him (Durgin) and tell him his attempts to silence the truth have failed.”

The closing arguments marked the end of the seven-day trial. The prosecution case against Durgin took up 3 1/2 days of testimony. The defense called just four witnesses, who altogether were on the stand for two hours. Durgin did not take the stand in his own defense.

Superior Court Justice James O’Neill took 45 minutes instructing the jury regarding the five charges against Durgin.

In his instructions, O’Neill explained that for them to convict Durgin of manslaughter that would have to be convinced that the defendant attacked LaPierre, knowing there was a substantial risk to victim and that Durgin, nevertheless disregarded that risk, and that his actions were the substantial cause of LaPierre’s death. In the matter of negligent homicide, O’Neill explained, the jury needed to conclude that Durgin negligently disregarded the risk his actions against LaPierre could cause.

After the verdicts were announced Durgin was ordered held without bail in the Belknap County Jail pending his sentencing which O’Neill said would be scheduled for some time in early May.