King’s double murder trial comes to a close
Attorneys deliver closing arguments, await jury deliberation
NEVADA — “Murder is not pretty,” Assistant Attorney General Susan Krisko told the jury Monday as the courtroom’s blue-hued television displayed the bodies of El Dominic and Marion Rhodes on the state medical examiner’s stainless steel table.
Day 12 brought Tanner King’s double murder trial, stemming from the Oct. 22, 2018, shooting of the Rhodes brothers, to a close.
After 11 fraught days of objections, dozens of witnesses, hours of audio recordings and hundreds of pages of interview transcripts — not including the false September start that moved the trial to Story County after reports of jury tampering — the case is in the hands of the jury, who will resume deliberation Tuesday.
The photos the 16-member panel saw, as unpleasant as they may have been, were “cleaned up,” from what the bodies looked like when they were found behind an apartment building near Third Avenue North and Ninth Street, according to Krisko, injecting the grit she said was necessary to convey the gravity of the crimes committed.
Both Krisko and defense attorney Paul Rounds appealed to the jury to use their “common sense” — perhaps something a diverse group of lay people making a legal decision is uniquely qualified to do. But opposing counsel disagree on the conclusions “common sense” should bring jurors to.
After Rounds called the killings “executions” and “tragedies” in his closing argument, the word “murder” is something Krisko was sure to reinforce on rebuttal, attempting to make her final words count to a jury with the option of finding King, of Fort Dodge, guilty of first-degree murder, as charged in both counts, second-degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter.
“If you’re thinking about choosing voluntary manslaughter, you might as well hit not guilty,” Krisko said.
Second-degree murder does not require “specific intent,” or committing the act with a specific purpose in mind. First-degree murder requires one to act “willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly, and with specific intent to kill,” all words which were laid out with their own legal definitions.
Voluntary manslaughter is defined as a killing that was “done solely by reason of sudden, violent, and irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation.”
If the jury finds that King shot and killed the Rhodes brothers, but without premeditation, specific intent or forethought that is a requisite for first-degree murder, jury instructions say they must find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
One of the state’s most heavily utilized witnesses, Detective Larry Hedlund of the Fort Dodge Police Department, said on the witness stand that he believed King didn’t know what he was going to do until he pulled the trigger.
The assistant attorney general said that with five shots at center mass on the victims’ bodies, it had to have been deliberate and with at least some thought.
“When you pull the trigger on a gun aimed at the center of a person’s body that many times, how can it not be with the specific intent to hurt them,” she asked the jury.
Krisko summarized the state’s case on its strongest elements: its eye witness, the ammunition in King’s apartment and the strength of the circumstantial evidence their case has largely relied on.
Jury instructions noted that the law makes no distinction between circumstantial evidence and direct evidence.
“Here we have a lot of circumstantial evidence that’s just as powerful (as eye witnesses),” she said. “Most murder cases are made of circumstantial evidence.”
Besides the crime scene’s proximity to King’s apartment — the Rhodes brothers were found in an alley behind his former apartment building near Ninth Street and Third Avenue North — the state has relied heavily on the ammunition found in King’s apartment as an element of proof.
The Tulammo-brand .40-caliber ammo found in his apartment was a match to the bullets found in the victims’ bodies, though King’s DNA or fingerprints were not on the recovered casings.
Though an entire box of the shells were found in King’s garbage can during execution of a search warrant, the state pinpointed their focus to the two shells authorities didn’t find.
His landlord, while cleaning King’s apartment, found them in a sock, the state pointed out, underscoring that ammunition hidden so intricately in his belongings was not an off-chance item he was discarding for innocent reasons.
Krisko also said in closing that King “had a problem” with El Dominic Rhodes — the missing motive that the defense team has frequently pointed to as a deficit — though she did not go into detail on what that motive was. It was unclear through evidence presented throughout the trial.
“These men were executed by somebody who had a motive. That’s not Tanner,” Rounds said.
After the state concisely summed up the elements of its burden of proof, Rounds took a meandering path through the piece meal evidence, attempting to refute each of the myriad individually.
His biggest targets were the state’s witnesses and Cletio Clark, whom Rounds has asserted as the real killer since day one. Rounds argued that the shooting was a “hit” carried out on Kansas City-based Johnny Young’s orders as a result of long-brooding “bad blood” from a 2008 case of “snitching.”
Rounds finalized his theory’s predication on Clark, reminding the jury that King was not charged until after detectives talked to Clark and girlfriend Meggin White, whose white Lincoln MKS was seen near the crime scene in surveillance footage.
Krisko rebutted that the timing was simply coincidental in writing the warrant after those interviews, and that text messages show the shooting started out as a dispute about “Walmart” quality drugs sold to White — not the makings of a “hit.”
“Once Cletio Clark said it was (King), that’s all (Hedlund) cared about,” Rounds said, reminding the jury of the confirmation bias he passionately believes Fort Dodge Police Department’s detective bore throughout his investigation.
Rounds took shots at eye witness Margaret Seiler, perhaps the state’s biggest star witness, as an “easily malleable teenager,” with close ties to the victims’ family.
Seiler, who called police at the urging of her grandmother, who is a friend of the Rhodes family, said she saw a man running down the street with a gun in one hand and a cell phone in the other moments after the shots.
King acknowledged on the witness stand that she saw him that night, but that he was wearing different clothing, was not running and most importantly — was holding a marijuana blunt, not a gun.
Seiler called detectives to say they had the right man in custody after King’s arrest and mug shot was publicized.
“They had all the time in the world to do a line-up,” Rounds said, with several days before his arrest.
Rounds took issue with Seiler’s description of King out her bedroom window as “between five and six feet tall,” and with a weight slightly lower than King’s.
“(King) admits it was him,” that Seiler saw, Krisko reminded the jury, “so why are we spending all this time trying to figure out whether the (identification) is good?”
White’s and Jaide Wetzel’s descriptions of the color of the gun handles differed, the lead attorney also pointed out.
But a discrepancy he wanted the jury to take seriously was the one that has often separated King from the truth: a history of compulsive lying. Taking advantage of putting the defendant on the stand, Rounds instructed the jury on how to put the testimony of an “unabashed, serial liar,” to some use.
“Tanner took the stand; he did not hide behind his Fifth Amendment right,” Rounds said. “He wasn’t kidding when he lies all the time. He does lie all the time.”
He asked that jurors simply use the testimony as a parallel tool by which to corroborate other evidence — not for the truth of the matter as King asserts it.
Unfazed, Krisko reminded the panel that King has used exactly these tactics as a defense mechanism in prior charges.
“Either Tanner’s the killer or he’s not the killer — it’s that simple,” Rounds concluded. “All that other stuff is a side show.”
That’s a question the jury may answer on Tuesday, as the slowly-turning wheels of justice approach their destination in this case.