Risinger found guilty of murder, felony murder and arson

George Browning

After hearing final instructions and getting the case at around 3:30 p.m. Thursday, the jury in the Joshua Risinger murder trial issued verdicts of guilty on murder, felony murder and arson just six hours later at 9:46 p.m.

Risinger was found guilty for the second time of killing Jeffery Givan in a March 14, 2017, trailer fire at 221 Teresa St. in Southway Villa. The first conviction was overturned by the state court of appeals due to what that court deemed a violation of Risinger’s Miranda Rights when officers continued to question him after he told them he was finished talking.

That interview was shown to the jury in the first trial and the court of appeals ruled that it should not have been.

Washington County Prosecutor Dustin Houchin said outside of that interview, the state presented the same case and the result was the same.

Houchin admitted as the clock ticked by on Thursday, he was nervous, but he felt like the state’s case was solid.

“You always want the deliberation to be shorter for peace of mind,” he said. “In a case like this with such serious subject matter, the juries take it all into consideration and want to look at everything and that usually leads to a lengthy deliberation.”

Houchin admitted without Risinger’s interview with police, the case was made more difficult because it limited the amount of evidence.

That limited evidence is what Risinger’s defense attorney Ethan Bartanen focused on in his closing arguments Thursday afternoon.

He told jurors the state’s evidence was so limited it was built on a house of cards.

“They opened their case on the words of Tyler Davidson and built their case on that,” Bartanen said. “The words of someone who admittedly lied under oath.” He also pointed out that Givan didn’t show any signs of blunt force trauma and with that being the case, the evidence called into question, why Givan didn’t get up and leave the trailer on his own.

Earlier in the day, as the state’s final witness Kentucky Medical Examiner Dr. Donna Stewart testified that upon examining Givan’s brain it was clear that he had previously had significant strokes.

She said strokes affect everyone differently.

The jury asked her if she felt the strokes could have played a role in him being unable to exit the house once it was on fire. She said that she felt like they most certainly would have played a role.

“It’s likely he had vision impairments and his motor skills were diminished, which are common in these type of strokes,” she said.

On cross examination Bartanen drove home the fact that she wasn’t sure of the strokes’ affects on Givan and strokes affect everyone differently and she agreed with that.

That was a point Bartanen would continue to drive home in his closing arguments.

Another point of contention that played into the house of cards argument was a phone call Risinger had with his mother. It appears Risinger is telling his mom about a book he read, but the plot of the book is eerily similar to the details of what happened in Salem on March 14, 2017.

On the recorded call, the main character of the book’s name is Jacob and in telling his mom details, Risinger occasionally replaces “Jacob” with “I” and tells the story in first person language.

Bartanen fought to keep those calls out of the trial, but Washington Circuit Court Judge Larry Medlock allowed them in. Bartanen said they do not prove guilt and further show the state’s case on a house of cards.

“We ask that you hold them to their burden to prove our client’s guilt,” Bartanen told the jury. “Do not round up!”

Houchin had an opportunity to address some of Bartanen’s claims made during his final arguments to the jury a final time before deliberations.

Houchin encouraged them to look at everything, including a taped interview Davidson made just four hours after the fire and Givan’s body was discovered.

Davidson told officers he gave Risinger a ride home that night and Risinger asked “Should I kill him?” of Givan who was staying at his house “Should I set the house on fire?”

Houchin also told them to look at the statement Risinger made to Salem Police Officer Alex Bilbrey. Bilbrey stopped Risinger on Highway 60 and asked him “Do you know your house is on fire?” and Risinger responded, “Yeah, that’s why I left.”

Then Houchin focused on the phone calls and encouraged the jury to listen to those calls and follow the transcripts where Risinger replaced the character’s name with his own.

“He is not talking about Jacob, he is talking about Josh, what Josh did,” Houchin said. “Listen to it. Take it all into consideration.”

Another key witness was a neighbor. A neighbor sees him leave the trailer pulling a duffle bag and a few minutes later flames are visible.

“Take it all into consideration,” Houchin said. “Risinger is at the trailer one minute and the next minute it’s on fire. So if he didn’t do it, he is playing the SODDI defense -- that’s ‘some other dude did it!’

“...We believe when you take it all into consideration, there is enough to convict him for murder, felony murder and arson.”

Bartanen said he was disappointed in the outcome, but he doesn’t think that Risinger has exhausted all his options. He said he felt like there was evidence allowed in the trial that shouldn’t have been and he plans to file another appeal.

A sentencing date for Joshua Risinger has not been set.


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