BALSAM LAKE, WIS. – The jury deciding the fate of Levi Acre-Kendall reconvened Sunday morning after a long Saturday of hearing impassioned closing arguments and beginning deliberations that may be complicated by a third charge added to the case.
The jurors, selected from Chippewa County for the Polk County trial because of intense publicity around the case, retired without reaching a verdict about 8 p.m. Saturday.
They must decide whether Acre-Kendall acted in self-defense when he fatally stabbed Peter S. Kelly on April 14 after the two men’s fishing groups became embroiled in a verbal dispute along the St. Croix River, or whether his actions were an exaggerated reaction to the perceived threat Kelly posed.
“He’s dancing on Peter Kelly’s grave,” Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen said of Acre-Kendall’s conduct after the stabbing, which he believes shows “consciousness of guilt.”
Defense attorney Eric Nelson countered Steffen’s comments with a plea for jurors to imagine themselves in Acre-Kendall’s place as he was attacked by Kelly.
Steffen announced Saturday morning that he had added a third count to the case — second-degree reckless homicide — after Acre-Kendall testified Friday about the night he fatally stabbed Kelly, a 34-year-old married father of five from St. Croix Falls, Wis. The charge is a class D felony under Wisconsin law and carries a maximum prison term of 25 years.
The two class B counts previously charged against Acre-Kendall — first-degree reckless homicide and second-degree intentional homicide — each carry a maximum term of 60 years in prison.
Steffen did not state a reason for the move, but it could indicate his feelings about the strength of his case against Acre-Kendall, 20, of Cambridge, Minn.
Asking jurors to consider a lesser count after the close of testimony is not unheard of. In Minnesota, attorneys representing defendants charged with first- or second-degree murder occasionally ask a judge to allow jurors to also consider third-degree murder, which carries a significantly lower prison term, if a conviction on a higher count seems likely.
Kelly was stabbed about 9:45 p.m. after he and his best friend, Ross Lechman, became engaged in a dispute with Acre-Kendall and his friends along the river in Interstate Park. Kelly and Lechman, who were fishing on the Minnesota side, grew upset with profanity and marijuana use from Acre-Kendall’s fishing group on the Wisconsin side and drove over to confront them.
Acre-Kendall testified Friday that one of the men pushed him to the ground, prompting him to pull a knife. Kelly followed him as he retreated into a friend’s car, Acre-Kendall said, and dragged him out of the car. He said he stabbed Kelly because he feared for his life.
The prosecution stance
Steffen delivered his closing arguments first Saturday, telling jurors that Acre-Kendall used unreasonable force, that he plotted with his friends to hide from the crime and that he provoked Kelly with smart-aleck, sarcastic retorts that parroted Kelly’s comments.
“This defendant had to get the last word,” Steffen said. “Ultimately, this defendant got the last word.”
Throughout the trial, both the prosecution and defense aggressively raised doubts about the credibility of witnesses in the other’s camp, but both circled back Saturday and tried to assuage any concerns jurors may have about discrepancies in witness testimony and holes in the narrative.
Steffen pieced a photo together on a large screen, as if it were a puzzle, telling jurors that convictions are based on proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” not “all doubt.”
“You can clearly see the picture here,” Steffen said as a close-up picture of Acre-Kendall slowly came together.
The main puzzle piece missing, he said, is Kelly, who can’t tell his side of the story. Steffen replaced the photo of Acre-Kendall with a large photo of Kelly’s family, eliciting tears from the victim’s family.
Steffen again sought to poke holes in Acre-Kendall’s testimony, saying his sarcastic remarks before the stabbing show he wasn’t really frightened of Kelly, and seeking to show that Acre-Kendall was in great physical shape and that Kelly was not noticeably stronger or bigger than him.
Steffen showed jurors an autopsy photo of Kelly, and then a photo of Acre-Kendall, whom he described as “strong, very well-defined.”
“Peter Kelly isn’t some superman,” he said.
He also stressed the fact that Acre-Kendall and his friends fled the scene, passing two police cars without stopping, and accused Acre-Kendall’s father, Travis Kendall, of trying to help his son by asking Levi if anyone took note of license plates and whether they had left anything behind at the scene.
Steffen concluded by saying that Kelly’s death was the result of “a reckless act,” and that self-defense is only protected under the law when someone is facing “great bodily harm” or “imminent death,” which he believed didn’t hold true for the night Acre-Kendall and Kelly struggled.
Acre-Kendall had to face greater harm than pain, stitches or concussion, Steffen said.
The defense’s response
Acre-Kendall teared up and set his head down into his folded arms during Steffen’s remarks, but sat tall in his chair as Nelson delivered his closing arguments.
Nelson began by noting that Kelly was loved and respected by his family and community, who had a right to be angry. But, he said, “The Kelly family’s grief must not be allowed to overshadow the rule of law.”
He asked jurors to examine closely the actions of the victim and his friend, who drove across the river to confront Acre-Kendall and his group, parked 200 yards away to evade detection, hid behind a tree in the dark and then pushed and pursued Acre-Kendall. Lechman had testified that he pushed Acre-Kendall.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Nelson said several times during his arguments.
He tried to deflate Steffen’s theory that Acre-Kendall and his friends plotted to hide from the crime, and that they were more worried for their well-being than Kelly’s because they disposed of two bags of marijuana paraphernalia.
“This is not a master criminal plot. This is panic,” he said of Acre-Kendall’s and his friends’ behavior.
Nelson noted that at no point in the two days between the stabbing and the day Acre-Kendall surrendered to authorities did he dispose of the knife he used to stab Kelly or the clothes he was wearing that night, all of which were turned over to authorities.
Likewise, Nelson said, Acre-Kendall’s three friends surrendered to authorities the day after the incident, were interviewed twice and gave over their cellphones, which included unflattering text messages about the stabbing.
Nelson urged jurors to place themselves in Acre-Kendall’s shoes, not the “the vacuum of the court,” to judge whether he acted in self-defense.
“They menaced Mr. Acre-Kendall,” Nelson said of Kelly and Lechman. “[The stabbing] was the only thing that caused Mr. Kelly to release his grip.”