A Jasper County jury deliberated about 25 minutes Wednesday before finding Ricky Marchbanks guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the 2016 fatal shooting of his next door neighbor, Jeremy Neeper.
The defense called just one witness Wednesday in support of its claim that Marchbanks, 62, shot Neeper, 38, in self-defense.
April Clements testified that she saw someone running from the scene of the shooting as she was looking out from her house after hearing a shot fired and a woman screaming. Clements acknowledged that she could not see from her vantage point what was going on in the front yard of Neeper's residence on Valley Street in Carthage, where the shooting took place, nor tell whom it was she saw running away.
"I can't recall," Clements said. "I barely remember it now."
Defense attorney Angela Acree told the jury — both during opening statements and closing arguments — that her client thought Neeper was armed with a gun, which he fired at Marchbanks' truck and was pointing at Marchbanks when he stopped the vehicle and got out to see what hit it.
"In that moment, Ricky was faced with: 'This guy's about to shoot me,'" Acree told jurors of her client's reason for shooting Neeper.
Marchbanks chose not to take the witness stand Wednesday.
Prosecutors emphasized to jurors that police found no gun at the scene of the shooting and had no reason to think — as the defense wanted them to believe — that Neeper shot at the defendant's truck and that someone removed the gun from the scene.
"There was no gun," Prosecutor Theresa Kenney said in her rebuttal of the defense. "There was no threat, and this is not a case of self-defense."
She suggested that Marchbanks' claim that Neeper was armed was a revision of the truth that the defendant came up with in the aftermath "so he can live with himself" rather than admit that he killed someone in cold blood.
She argued that some proof of his guilt lies in two messages that he left on the cellphone of his wife's cousin after the shooting. In the first message, Marchbanks admitted having shot his neighbor because the neighbor had tipped his lawn mower over on its side. He said in that message he was not about to take that.
It was not until 10 minutes later, when he left a second message on the same phone, that he first mentioned Neeper purportedly having a gun, Kenney pointed out to the jury.
Assistant Prosecutor Nate Dally told jurors that there were other indicators that this was not a matter of self-defense, including the defendant's flight from the scene of the crime, evidence that he turned off his cellphone and told the acquaintance to whose house he fled that no one knew where he was.
"He was in hiding," Dally said.
There also was evidence of deliberation on the defendant's part, Dally argued. He told a neighbor three hours before the shooting that he was going to have to kill Neeper and made a similar statement to the friend who was with him when he finally did just that, Dally reminded jurors.
The jury was given the verdict options of finding the defendant guilty of the lesser offenses of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter if they did not believe there had been any deliberation in what Marchbanks did.
Kenney argued in rebuttal that the defendant displayed deliberation in at least five more acts after having made the statements he made to friends. He retrieved his rifle and put it in his truck, he stopped the truck when Neeper came running out of his house and yelling at him, he got out and walked to the back of the vehicle, he aimed his rifle and he shot it, she said.
First-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence in Missouri of life without parole. After the reading of the verdict and a polling of jurors, Circuit Judge David Mouton set Marchbanks' sentencing hearing for March 9.