By Jeff Lehr
Globe Staff Writer
STOCKTON, Mo. - A Cedar County jury took a little more than an hour Thursday to find Jim Edward Ryan guilty of first-degree murder in the death of John Kullie of rural Lamar.
The verdict came after Ryan, 43, took the witness stand in his own defense Thursday and told the jury that he was provoked into swinging a bumper jack at Kullie, 38, on May 25, 2005, in the bedroom of a trailer home just outside Lamar.
Kullie died of massive trauma to his head and neck inflicted by seven to 14 blows of the bumper jack, according to witnesses called by the state prosecutor on the first day of the trial Wednesday.
Upon return of the verdict by the jury, Circuit Judge James Bickel set July 17 as the date for formal sentencing of Ryan. Under Missouri law, a first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life without parole.
Ryan had come to Missouri from Oklahoma to assist Kullie and Ryan's brother by adoption, Johnny Ray, on a home-remodeling job they were doing. Ryan, Kullie and Kullie's wife, Rebecca Kullie, who is Ryan's sister by adoption, were among several people drinking and partying at the trailer home the night in question. Testimony of various witnesses established that John Kullie had gone to bed around 10 p.m.
Ryan told the court that he entered the trailer a short time later to go to the bathroom and spotted John Kullie in the bedroom harming Ryan's wife's pet Chihuahua. He said Kullie had the dog by its neck and was grinding its head into the carpet.
The defendant told the jury that he asked Kullie to stop, but Kullie merely cursed him and would not let go of the dog.
Ryan said he stepped back out of the trailer, where he spotted the bumper jack and grabbed it, intending to try to get Kullie to stop harming the dog by threatening him with it. He said Kullie threw the dog at him and jumped him when he returned to the bedroom.
The defendant gave the court a blow-by-blow account of what happened next, claiming that Kullie kicked him in the groin and hit him in the head. He testified that he began swinging the jack to get Kullie off him.
Ryan also said that he thought he had hit Kullie just twice, but he acknowledged under cross-examination that he was not sure how many times he had struck him with the jack. He said he didn't know how bad he had hurt Kullie when he left the bedroom, and that he fled the scene only because he thought Kullie was coming after him.
The defendant claimed he suffered injuries to his foot, groin and head during the struggle. But, Robert Ahsens, an assistant attorney general who prosecuted the case, called the Barton County sheriff and a deputy to testify that they saw no evidence of injuries to Ryan when he was taken to the Sheriff's Department after his arrest the night of the killing.
The jury, chosen in Cedar County on a change of venue from Barton County, had the choices of finding Ryan innocent, or finding him guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter.
"I was surprised they found him guilty of first-degree (murder)," public defender Joe Zuzul said after the trial. "I would not have been as surprised if they'd found him guilty of second-degree or involuntary manslaughter."
But Ahsens said the jury's verdict was the correct verdict.
"When you procure a weapon and go into a man's bedroom and threaten him with it, that alone makes you the initial aggressor," Ahsens said after the trial. "And you have no right to claim the legal protection of self-defense against the counterattack that you provoked, assuming there was one."
The prosecution maintained in the presentation of its case that Ryan attacked Kullie with the bumper jack while Kullie was lying in bed, asleep or nearly asleep.
Ahsens said the murder was not a crime of sudden passion. Ryan left the trailer and could have kept going, he said. Instead, he picked up a weapon and entered the bedroom, he said.
"It's kind of hard not to find deliberation, given the facts," Ahsens said.
By Jeff Lehr
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