NEOSHO, Mo. — "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" a member of the extended family of Casey Brace and Herb Townsend declared with obvious elation Thursday as she emerged from the courtroom after the reading of the verdicts in the trial of Christopher Paschall.
A jury of 10 women and two men took about four hours to find the 39-year-old defendant from Springdale, Arkansas, guilty of all six counts that he was facing in the double homicide of Brace, 28, and Townsend, her 76-year-old grandfather.
The verdicts returned at the end of the four-day trial — moved to Newton County on a change of venue from Barry County — include two convictions for first-degree murder, which carry mandatory terms of life without parole in Missouri. Paschall, the father of two of Brace's three children, also was found guilty of three counts of armed criminal action and a single count of parental kidnapping.
After dismissing the jury, Circuit Judge Jack Goodman set Paschall's sentencing hearing for Dec. 19.
"Two angels got their justice today," Brace's mother, Cathy Townsend, said after the verdicts.
She lost her father as well as her daughter in the fatal shootings Jan. 5, 2015, at Herb Townsend's residence on Farm Road 1055 northwest of Washburn. Cathy Townsend said she was happiest for her daughter's children.
"They don't have their mother," she said. "They don't have their great-grandfather. But justice was done."
Herb Townsend is believed to have placed a 911 call from the residence after being shot multiple times. The first deputy on the scene found Brace's body lying just inside the back door of her grandfather's house. He heard a moan and spotted Townsend lying on his back in the living room and pointing a rifle at him. The deputy ducked down, heard the rifle drop to the floor and realized Townsend had been shot and severely wounded.
Deputy Billy Watkins went to older victim and asked who shot them.
Steven Kretzer, an assistant attorney general acting as special prosecutor in the case, told jurors during closing arguments Thursday that "the most important piece of evidence" the state had presented was the dying declaration the grandfather made to Watkins and later repeated to an emergency medical technician. Both testified that Townsend spoke Paschall's name.
Defense attorney Andrew Miller called Watkins back to the witness stand Thursday to try to cast doubt on what the deputy may have heard. Watkins acknowledged that he had been given Paschall's name earlier that day when he went to Cathy Townsend's home to field her complaint that Paschall had violated a protection order she had taken out on him. Miller's line of questioning suggested that the deputy may have had the name on his mind to the extent that he simply imagined that was what he heard Townsend say.
Kretzer asked jurors to take the grandfather's dying declaration and other pieces of circumstantial evidence in the state's case and put them together to form a clear picture of the defendant's guilt.
He argued that Cathy Townsend's spotting of him in Washburn that day and photos taken by a motion-detection camera outside her home showing the same make and model of vehicle that he owned driving past her house place the defendant in the vicinity of the crime. The testimony of a neighbor of the grandfather, who saw Paschall that afternoon at a railroad crossing near his home on Farm Road 1050 driving a blue Nissan, further confirms his presence in the area, Kretzer said.
The prosecutor pointed out that yet another piece was Cathy Townsend's knowledge that her granddaughter Alli had gone with her mother to Herb Townsend's home. She later was found at the home of the defendant's parents in Springdale, where investigators believe he fled with the girl after killing Brace and her grandfather.
"It's not your job to put pieces together for (the prosecution)," Miller told jurors.
He said there was no evidence of any prior violence between Paschall and Brace. He emphasized the total lack of physical evidence in the state's case. There was no blood found on the defendant or his daughter, Alli, and no dirt on his vehicle like one might expect had he been driving on dirt roads in the area. Neither did police in Arkansas find any evidence inside his car that would have suggested his involvement in the shooting when they went to his parents' home to locate him and the girl for investigators in Missouri, Miller said.
"If somebody was at this crime scene when this happened, there would be evidence on those people's bodies," Miller said.
The defense attacked the integrity of the Barry County Sheriff's Department's investigation throughout the trial. Investigators did nothing to look for a .38-caliber handgun reported missing from the grandfather's residence in the aftermath of the crime despite the fact that it may well have been the gun used in the shooting, Miller said.
While the sheriff's office had a forensic examination performed on Casey Brace's cellphone, they failed to have four other cellphones seized in the case examined in the same manner, including a phone found in the grass outside the grandfather's residence. A crime lab detected the DNA of two males on that phone. But investigators may have "missed the biggest piece of evidence in this case" by failing to submit samples from anyone involved for comparison with those two DNA profiles, Miller said.
"There's more than reasonable doubt," Miller said. "There's total uncertainty."
Kretzer told the jury in rebuttal that the presence of two males' DNA on the phone — believed to belong to the grandfather — was not surprising since Herb Townsend's son lived with him. Kretzer said the missing .38-caliber gun may well be the murder weapon and suggested it is probably somewhere between Herb Townsend's house and Springdale, where the defendant fled after the shooting. The lack of dust on Paschall's vehicle proves nothing since he could easily have had the car washed, he said.
"Casey chose to leave the defendant," Kretzer told the jury in closing. "She chose to make a better life for her and her children."
The defendant chose to kill her, he said. But Paschall did not count on Brace's grandfather being able to crawl to the phone and call 911, he said. He did not count on him being able to name their killer before dying. And he did not count on investigators being able to come after him so quickly, Kretzer said.
"And now he's not counting on you to do the right thing and find him guilty," he told jurors.
The two children of Chris Paschall and Casey Brace were the subject of a two-state custody battle after their mother's murder. They currently reside with the family of their father's brother.