BALSAM LAKE, WIS. – Jurors acquitted Levi Acre-Kendall on Monday of all homicide charges in the fatal stabbing of a fellow fisherman along the St. Croix River, but their verdict arrived only after hard-fought talks over 17½ suspenseful hours.
Court records show that jurors hit some serious roadblocks before reaching a unanimous decision.
They were deadlocked nearly all day Sunday in an 11-to-1 not-guilty vote on one of three counts against Acre-Kendall in the April 14 death of Peter S. Kelly.
"It does not seem that even if we had more time we will be able to come to a unanimous decision, as we continue to be stuck on the same point (since 9 a.m. this morning)," read a note the jury foreman wrote to Judge Molly GaleWyrick at 4:50 p.m. Sunday. Jurors hit a wall in their deliberations on second-degree reckless homicide, a class D felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. That charge was added by Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen after Acre-Kendall's testimony on Friday.
Acre-Kendall, 20, of Cambridge, Minn., who was tried in Polk County Circuit Court, also faced one count of first-degree reckless homicide and second-degree intentional homicide, class B felonies each punishable by up to 60 years in prison.
Kelly, 34, of St. Croix Falls, Wis., was killed after he and his best friend, Ross Lechman, drove from the Minnesota side of Interstate Park to the Wisconsin side to confront Acre-Kendall and his three friends for using profanity and smoking marijuana.
Acre-Kendall testified Friday that he feared for his life, so he stabbed Kelly after Kelly pursued him and dragged him out of a parked car.
News of the juror's distressing note sent both sides back into "more earnest" plea negotiations Sunday evening, said Eric Nelson, one of Acre-Kendall's attorneys.
But as he has maintained all along, Acre-Kendall claimed self-defense. He refused to take the state's offer to plead guilty to homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon, a class G felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He previously turned down multiple opportunities to plead guilty to second-degree reckless homicide with no agreed-upon prison term.
"His story, from the day I met [him], has not changed, not at all, not one part of it," Nelson said.
The jury's verdicts came on the third day of deliberations in a case that divided a small river town that lost a well-regarded husband, father and passionate youth sports coach. Deliberations began about 2:15 p.m. Saturday, and that evening jurors hit their first obstacle.
"What is the legal definition of 'unreasonable'?" the jury foreman wrote to GaleWyrick. "This is one of our big sticking points … 'utter disregard' [for human life] and 'unreasonable' … because we are all applying different reason."
Jurors retired to a nearby hotel Saturday night without reaching verdicts.
"They're thinking about it all night … so when they come back that next morning and it still goes into the late afternoon … I start thinking … something's holding us up," Steffen said Monday.
His instincts were spot-on.
Less than an hour into deliberations Sunday morning, jurors asked to see a partial transcript of Acre-Kendall's approximately four-hour testimony, in which he broke down in tears.
"I wish I could take it all back," he had said. "I'm so sorry."
It's that testimony, Nelson and co-counsel Doug Hazelton said Monday, that turned the case in the defense's favor.
"His testimony, in general, was honest," Nelson said. "It was sincere. It was heartfelt …"
Around noon Sunday, talks dissolved to the point that the foreman alerted GaleWyrick again.
"The jury would like to know if there is a possibility of a [lesser] or different charge," said the foreman's note. "We cannot agree on the 2nd element of both 1st degree and 2nd degree reckless homicide: 'the risk of death or great bodily harm was unreasonable and substantial.' "
The foreman underlined "unreasonable" and "substantial."
"We are not confident that additional time will lead to a consensus," the noted ended.
"No, please review instruction #1017 in its entirety," GaleWyrick wrote back at 12:14 p.m. "… Please continue deliberating."
A few hours later, jurors alerted the judge and attorneys to their 11-1 deadlock.
Although Steffen, Nelson and Hazelton said plea negotiations were ongoing before and during trial, Sunday afternoon's note appeared to create a sense of urgency. Nelson said that there were "continuing discussions" Monday morning.
But at 10 a.m. Monday, jurors sent their final note: "We have a unanimous decision."
The three not-guilty verdicts were read about 11:15 a.m. so the victim's and defendant's families could have time to arrive in court.
Acre-Kendall's mother, Lavonne Acre, broke down in tears after the final acquittal was announced, but Acre-Kendall displayed no obvious emotional reaction.
"I think he's in a state of disbelief at this time, because he did not have anything to say," Nelson later said.
There was no noticeable reaction from Kelly's supporters, which included his older brother, Mike Kelly. Peter Kelly's wife, Christie Kelly, was not in court Monday, although she attended testimony last week.
"I thought maybe the first two [charges] we wouldn't get," Mike Kelly said. "I thought the third one [second-degree reckless homicide] was probably a hundred percent, because I mean, I just don't know how you can just kill a man that hasn't done anything to you.
"You can't just stab a man, but maybe you can."
It was a blow to Steffen, who had never worked harder on a case.
"We're disappointed," he said. "We poured our heart and soul into this thing."
Acre-Kendall posted bond Monday in a pending bail-jumping case related to the homicide case, and left the county jail about 1:30 p.m. a free man.