Neal Zumberge

Neal Zumberge

The New Brighton man who was fatally shot last May by his neighbor was drunk and had a gun case at his side at the time, said an attorney representing the accused killer.

The revelation came early Monday on the first day of jury selection in the trial of Neal Zumberge, who is charged in Ramsey County District Court with one count each of first-degree premeditated murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder with intent and attempted second-degree murder with intent.

Defense attorney William Orth disclosed the information in an attempt to persuade a judge to allow testimony about victim Todd Stevens' past behavior, which he said caused fear and alarm in Zumberge, his wife and their three children. Zumberge, 58, is claiming self-defense in the May 5 shooting.

"It's the central theory of our case, which is Mr. Zumberge was living a nightmare next door to people who were drunk all of the time," Orth said.

Stevens, 46, lived across the street from Zubmerge in the 2500 block of Knollwood Drive. Stevens would pass out drunk on his front lawn, sometimes shirtless, with a handgun in his front pocket, Orth said.

Stevens "urinates in his own yard, urinates in his neighbor's yard and carries a gun around," Orth said. "Your honor, the decedent was drunk the day he died."

Orth added that Stevens also had a carrying case at his side the evening Zumberge fired a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun at him and his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Damerow-Cleven, who was injured. Orth and his co-counsel, Gary Wolf, want to present testimony showing that Stevens had a history of aggressive behavior that factored into Zumberge's actions that evening.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan said that Zumberge could testify to his state of mind and address Stevens' past behavior, but that other witnesses could not.

Wolf told the judge that the defense wanted to corroborate Zumberge's accounts with testimony by family members, neighbors and police.

Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Anna Christie argued that what other people witnessed of Stevens' behavior was irrelevant to Zumberge's state of mind, because their interpretations were not Zumberge's interpretations. Marrinan agreed.

Orth argued that the defense should have some leeway to have family members testify about living across the street from Stevens and Damerow-Cleven.

"It isn't a decision that came out of nowhere," he said of his client shooting Stevens. "Mr. Zumberge saw the threats not just to himself, but to his family."

Marrinan said there could be some relevant information relating to Zumberge's wife, Paula, and one of their sons, and that they would address it when it came up.

"But we are not getting into a 30-year or 20-year history of this neighborhood," the judge said.

Neighbors, police and court documents show that Zumberge and Stevens feuded for several years. At some point, that dispute came to include Zumberge's apparent frustration with Stevens feeding deer in his yard.

Zumberge allegedly circulated a letter in the neighborhood discouraging the practice and claiming that he and his dog had contracted Lyme disease, which is transmitted by deer ticks.

The dispute came to a head last year when Damerow-Cleven ran into one of the Zumberges' son, Jacob, at a restaurant and called the cops. He was wanted by police for threatening Damerow-Cleven and Stevens.

When Damerow-Cleven returned home that evening, Paula Zumberge confronted her verbally from across the street. Stevens stepped out of his house, and Neal Zumberge fired, striking him in the brain, heart and spinal column.

Paula Zumberge was tried and acquitted last year of aiding and abetting the shooting. Her husband's trial is expected to last two to three weeks. Jury selection began Monday, and could continue into Wednesday. Jurors will be not be sequestered during deliberations.

The entire Zumberge family, including Neal, is expected to testify.

"Mr. Zumberge will testify," Orth said Monday. "He has to testify."