MARIPOSA - The jurors filed into the courtroom in silence last Thursday. Accused murderer Christopher Michael McCurdy sat the same way, looking extremely anxious.
McCurdy was set to hear the fate the seven-woman, five-man jury had for him after a week of deliberation. He was charged with the murder of Lonnie Ritter of Greeley Hill on Dec. 16, 2008.
None of the jurors looked at McCurdy as they filled the box. The defendant, however, looked at them as if he were searching for a clue as to what their decision might be.
In just moments, court clerk Corrie Richards had the verdicts in her hands. She methodically read the jury’s decision on each count. The first to be read was the murder charge. The jury’s verdict: not guilty.
Instead, the body went with the “lesser included” charge of voluntary manslaughter. The biggest difference in the two is that McCurdy will not now face a potential life sentence. McCurdy was also found guilty of three counts of grand theft of a firearm, vehicle theft and battery. He could face up to 23 years in state prison.
Judge Robert Ahern polled the jury about their decision, then thanked them for their service. He said in 30 years on the bench, he had never had such a difficult time finding jurors.
“I have never suffered the frustration in finding a panel,” he said, referencing the fiasco of missing jurors when the case began. “People chose not to come. They had excuses.”
To the 12 people who did accept their responsibility, Ahern said, “Some people didn’t step forward to fill their duty. You did.” The judge reminded them that Veterans’ Day was quickly approaching, and its recognition is directly tied to the justice system. “The rights that we have we take for granted,” Ahern said. “Veterans shed blood to ensure you had these rights. Those people sacrificed. I compliment and salute you.”
The jury had heard testimony from dozens of witnesses throughout the trial. Likely the two most influential of which were Kevin Hoke, who has pleaded to being an accessory, and Mc- Curdy himself.
McCurdy’s defense attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum, maintained throughout the trial that his client acted in self-defense. Tenenbaum said to jurors during his opening statement, “Mr. McCurdy was holding the gun. Mr. McCurdy fired the gun,” he continued. “This is not a case of who done it. This is a case of what is it?” He said the shooting was “an accident.”
Tenenbaum went on to describe the nature of the relationship between the defendant and Ritter, as they shared a home in Greeley Hill. “The reality was this was a very loving relationship,” Tenenbaum said. “My client loved him like a father.”
The defense attorney called the victim a “mean, mean nasty drunk” who “liked his guns.”
Days later, Hoke and McCurdy each took the stand. They are the only two people in the world who know what happened right before Ritter was shot to death. Each gave their story to the jury. While pieces of the tales were similar, the details surrounding the moments immediately preceding and following the gunshot varied greatly.
“I heard a gunshot,” Hoke told the jury. “Different things went through my mind.” He went to the living room where he said McCurdy was still holding the gun over Ritter. “What did you do?” Hoke remembered screaming at McCurdy. “What the **** did you do?”
McCurdy responded. “Holy Toledo. Homeboy’s dead,” Hoke recounted McCurdy saying. “I just shot homeboy.”
When McCurdy took the stand, he said Ritter was threatening that night. “I was talking to Lonnie, telling him ‘let’s work this out,'” McCurdy said. Ritter continued to curse him. “I got something for you,” Ritter told Mc- Curdy. He meant it was the 9mm gun.
“He picked up the 9mm, started to get out of the chair and pointed it at me,” McCurdy said in court. “I pushed the barrel away from my face.”
Then there was a struggle, according to McCurdy. “In the struggle, the 9 was getting yanked,” he continued. “My adrenaline rush was going.”
The gun went off. “I don’t remember that split second,” McCurdy said. “All I remember is the sound of the shot. I remember him flying back.” McCurdy said he never had any intention of killing Ritter and reiterated that Hoke witnessed the whole thing.
McCurdy had previously written a letter to Hoke’s attorney that indicated the opposite. “I, Chris McCurdy, want you to know that Kevin Hoke was not involved whatsoever,” in Ritter’s murder, the letter states. “I think he shouldn’t even get charged with accessory of murder after the fact,” McCurdy continued, “when there was nothing he could do about it.”
McCurdy will be sentenced on Dec. 7. Hoke will be sentenced sometime after McCurdy, as noted in his plea deal. He could spend up to four years in prison for his role helping McCurdy after the fact.