Guilty

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Just a few hours after going in for deliberation, the jury in the Risinger murder trial returned with their verdict Friday evening: guilty, but mentally ill on the charges of murder and felony murder, and guilty of arson.

Before deliberation, attorneys for the prosecution and defense made their closing arguments.

Prosecuting attorney Tara Hunt outlined the steps to finding guilt on the three charges: murder, felony murder and arson.

She showed video of when Risinger admitted to having killed Jefferey Givan, 62, recounted Southway Villa manager Charles Humphrey’s testimony that he had seen Risinger walking away from the trailer park with a wheeled suitcase and that then-Salem Police Officer Alex Bilbrey found him on the highway, still heading away from the park, with a hood up and drawn tight around his face. She repeated what Tyler Davidson, a friend of Risinger’s who had taken him home from the Salem Tattoo Shop the night of March 14, 2017. He told the court as Risinger had been acting strangely and had asked him if he should call the police to get the victim out of his trailer or if he should kill him and/or burn the trailer. Davidson stayed parked next to the trailer after they arrived and watched as Risinger looked in the windows of the trailer before going inside. When he heard a crash, Davidson got out of his car and approached the trailer, asking Risinger through an open door if everything was all right. Risinger replied everything was fine and he and Givan were just hanging out. He told Davidson he could go, so Davidson did. Minutes later, the 9-1-1 call came in.

Hunt reminded the jury of what Risinger eventually told investigators, that he’d used Givan’s lighter to set fire to some papers Givan had, that he’d taken Givan’s cane and broken Givan’s phone so he couldn’t move or call for help.

“You lit him on fire to kill him,” ISP Detective Matt Busick said in an interview with Risinger.

“Yep,” Risinger replied. “You’re correct … He died in flames.”

“He was an elderly man, who’d had a stroke in the past, had a limp, couldn’t walk without a cane and he died on the floor of that trailer,” said Hunt. “Mr. Risinger said the victim was crippled, homeless, looked like he needed somewhere to stay, so ‘I offered it to him.’ He sounds like a nice guy. I’m sure Jeffrey Givan thought that, too.”

Hunt reminded the jury Givan’s body was so burnt, they had to identify him through dental records and his respiratory tract was “caked in soot.”

She showed a clip of an interview Risinger had with investigators.

“Who killed him?” Busick asked.

“I did,” Risinger replied.

“The state has charged Mr. Risinger with murder, felony murder and arson,” said Hunt. “The facts are simple. The circumstances are horrendous, but the facts are simple … I ask you hold the defendant accountable for each crime.”

Smith claimed Risinger was heading toward town when he was found by Bilbrey, possibly heading toward the jail. He said the lies are a part of Risinger’s illness.

“If this was planned or done knowingly or intentionally, it was a bad plan,” Smith said. “This was done by somewhere psychotic, with nowhere to go after burning down his home, no car to get there … If he came up with some grand scheme, it was poorly planned … It was clear he was in a psychotic state … If I just committed a murder, I wouldn’t be heading toward where I’m more likely to be picked up … If I started a fire to kill someone, I wouldn’t carry that man’s identification papers with me in my pocket. The notion that his has been thought-through falls in the face of common sense.”

Smith criticized how investigators continued to question him despite Risinger saying multiple times he didn’t want to talk anymore.

“They weren’t going to stop asking questions,” Smith said. “… He’d asked to not be questioned and the police pushed him anyway … The state is relying on a statement from a psychotic person for their case.”

He pointed out that Davidson had told police Risinger had been acting strangely that day and it had scared him. He questioned how a fire could fully engulf a trailer in such a short time.

“I’m not suggesting what happened to Mr. Givan was OK,” Smith said. “It’s a terrible tragedy, but the state still has to do its job. They could have used experts to make their case, but they used statements from a psychotic person because it was easier … What was going on with Josh was going on within Josh.”

Smith said the state didn’t have much proof for things “they want you to take for granted.”

Smith claimed the opinions of Dr. Heather Henderson-Galligan and Dr. George Parker, the psychologist and psychiatrist, respectively, who evaluated Risinger, were similar. Both found evidence of psychosis.

He said jurors needed to look at the substance of Henderson-Galligan’s report, not how she conducted her evaluation. Houchin spent much time Friday morning explaining the deficiencies he saw in how Henderson-Galligan conducted her evaluation, including the lack of specifically written analysis of whether Risinger appreciated what he was doing was wrong.

Thursday afternoon, Parker said he found Risinger to have been delusional before, during and after the fire and diagnosed him with delusional disorder, persecutory type, meaning Risinger believed he was being persecuted or conspired against. Parker said Risinger was competent to stand trial and met the criteria for mental disease, but that “despite his psychosis, he did appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions at the time.”

“I think Dr. Parker means well and did his best, … but you have to look at it through the lens of [Risinger] being sick when he made these statements,” said Smith. “The question is when are you sick enough to be mentally ill, but well enough to be responsible for your own actions? … The gist of it is, he’s psychotic. You have to parse out if he’s able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.”

Smith explained the jury had four options for their verdict: guilty, guilty but mentally ill, not guilty, and not guilty by mental disease or defect. He said the presence of a mental illness makes a straight guilty verdict impossible. Should the jury have decided Risinger was not guilty by mental disease or defect, the criminal case would be closed and the case would move to civil court, where the judge would decide what kind of treatment the accused should receive.

“The state put far too much weight on statements made by someone in a psychotic episode,” said Smith. “He was sick when he made the statements and he was sick when the events occurred … No one without a serious mental illness would want this to happen. … The civil side of the docket is where Josh belongs.”

Washington County Prosecutor Dustin Houchin returned for rebuttal, repeating what he said during opening statements on Tuesday: “He left and he lied.”

He said despite Smith’s protestations of how police continued to question Risinger despite his saying he didn’t want to talk anymore, police didn’t use violence, abuse or duress.

“If you want to throw the statements he made on video out, throw it out,” said Houchin. “Then he loses his insanity defense. If the video is out and that’s all Dr. Henderson-Galligan relied on for her evaluation, then they lose that … He’s still guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”

Houchin cited testimony from Davidson and Humphrey as to proving guilt regardless of mental illness. He repeated that Parker found a delusional disorder, but said Risinger did know what he was doing was wrong, so the defense can’t rely on them for an insanity defense, but the state could because of the way he conducted his evaluation. Houchin called Henderson-Galligan’s testimony “a disaster,” and broke down the reasons he found her evaluation to be flawed and ultimately unusable for the defense to use for their argument.

“She never did the analysis [on whether Risinger appreciated the wrongfulness of his actions],” said Houchin. “She never even thought about it until Mr. Smith rehabilitated her … She tried to bluff her way through it and she failed.”

Houchin said it didn’t matter where Risinger was walking; he didn’t stay to tell firefighters someone was inside and unable to get out.

“Is he honestly saying he was walking somewhere to get help?” Houchin asked. “He left with a bag of important items and his hood up to hide his face.”

He repeated the lies he said Risinger told, starting with his telling the police he was walking on the highway for no reason at all when Bilbrey found him to his not knowing how the fire started or if anyone was inside the trailer.

“He was lying to police in the beginning to stay out of trouble,” said Houchin. “It happens all the time. He didn’t know what police knew, so he lied. He did what all the others do.”

He reiterated it was possible to be mentally ill and appreciate the wrongfulness of one’s conduct.

Risinger asked at various points if he was going to jail or “If you gotta send me to the electric chair, let’s go” while being interviewed by police.

“Why would you say you understand there’s a punishment for what you did if you didn’t know you’d done something wrong?” Houchin asked.

Houchin said of the four options for a verdict, guilty or guilty but insane were the only viable options. He said Risinger hadn’t pled “not guilty,” so that wasn’t viable and one mental health professional opined Risinger knew what he did was wrong and the other didn’t conduct the evaluation correctly.

Houchin asked the jury to find Risinger guilty, but if they couldn’t agree on a straight guilty verdict, to charge him with being guilty or mentally ill.

“Mr. Givan made an advance on him, the defendant didn’t like that, so he killed him,” said Houchin. “It didn’t have anything to do with him being mentally ill … You have to pick one of the guilty options and you must all agree.”

Around 5:15 p.m., the jury came back with their verdicts. Either of the guilty verdict options grants the court the ability to sentence Risinger to a set period of time with the Department of Corrections and because the jury found him guilty but mentally ill for the murder and felony murder charges, the judge will order treatment for Risinger’s condition. Judge Larry Medlock will decide whether to merge the murder counts for the purpose of sentencing.

During closing arguments and the verdict a woman who hadn’t been at the trial all week came into the courtroom: Annette Givan, Jefferey Givan’s wife of more than 20 years.

She said she and Givan had been living separately for a few months. He was living in Pekin and she had moved to Salem for a time to take care of her ailing mother. She and her mother returned to Pekin to stay in their apartment for a brief time before her mother’s health deteriorated to the point where they had to place her in professional care. She was staying with a friend in Salem and her husband was staying with another friend, but they were planning to get a trailer together at Southway Villa at the time of his death.

“Jeff was a mild-mannered, gentle, giving person,” said Annette.

She said Givan would have received his disability payment that night and would have been able to access $1,200. She said she believes the reason Risinger had her husband’s birth certificate and other information was to access that money.

“Jeff probably told him he was going to be paid,” she said. “He was trusting.”

Annette said she and Jeff liked to travel when they were younger and would go to bluegrass festivals together and she eventually helped him develop a love for hiking at national parks and camping.

“I’m glad they found him guilty,” she said. “He took a lot away from me and my family. He had two grown step-sons, some grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will never really know Jeff. I’ve never been alone since marrying him. I have to start life all over again. It’s left me heartbroken. He was not a well person, but we weren’t expecting him to die so soon or so unexpected. I’ll never know why … He had so much he could have passed on to his sons and grandchildren. I’m happy this man will never have the chance to do this to another family again.”

Annette said Givan was a wonderful, gentle soul she still loved. Despite her grief, she said she has forgiven Risinger.

“As a Christian, I have to or I won’t be forgiven for my own sins,” she said. “I’m at peace. After antidepressants, a lot of sleepless nights and cries, I’m at peace. I’ll never forget what happened, but I believe I have forgiven him.”  

 

You can read reports of previous testimonies here, here, here, and here.

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