Jury acquits man from Oregon County in murder case retrial

Michael Amick (center) poses with his defense attorneys, Adam Woody (right) and Kyle Walsh outside the Butler County Courthouse after he was acquitted on murder and arson charges on Dec. 1, 2016. (photo from Woody's Facebook page)
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POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. – A jury on Thursday acquitted a man from Oregon County who was charged with killing his grandmother-in-law and setting afire the house where the murder occurred eight years ago. The verdict frees Michael Amick after he once was serving a life prison sentence.

The Butler County jury heard testimony and attorneys’ arguments for three days before finding Amick not guilty of first-degree murder and second-degree arson about 4 p.m. Thursday. Amick was charged with killing Leona Vaughan at her daughter’s home in Myrtle in 2008. Vaughan was shot six times in the head before the house burned to the ground. The case was moved from Oregon County to Butler County last year to try to ensure a fair outcome.

An Oregon County jury convicted Amick on July 1, 2011. He then received a life prison sentence (figured at 30 years) with chance of parole for second-degree murder and a seven-year sentence for second-degree arson. The jury chose second-degree murder over first-degree murder.

Amick appealed and the Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial because the trial judge called back an alternate juror during jury deliberations. The alternate juror replaced a juror who developed health problems about five hours into the deliberations. The Supreme Court said that substitution violated Amick’s right to a fair trial because the alternate juror missed some of the jurors’ discussions and the alternate juror may have discussed the case with someone else, even though that juror denied it.

In a news release on Friday, Amick’s attorney, Adam Woody of Springfield, noted that Amick was in custody for nearly eight years.

“He has a wife, Sara, and three children ages 11, 9, and 8. He was reunited with his family last night, December 1, after the jury determined that he was innocent,” Woody said.

Woody says the Butler County jury deliberated for three hours.

“This case is a reminder that the justice system, however flawed it may seemingly be at times, works. The perseverance shown by Mr. Amick and his family is commendable, and an innocent man is back with his wife and children whose lives he has missed so much of,” Wood said in the news release.

From a Missouri Appeals Court opinion upholding the first conviction, here’s more information about the murder and why Amick was charged. Woody says, however, many of the facts from the first trial were refuted in the second trial. His statement about those facts is at the end of the appeals court's synopsis.

On December 2, 2008, Victim was residing with her daughter, Jackie Risner (Jackie), at Jackie’s house in Myrtle, Missouri. Around 10:30 a.m., Jackie left for work. She was accompanied by her son, Josh Lane (Lane). Victim remained at the house alone.

Jackie’s ex-husband, Kent Risner (Kent), spoke with Victim by telephone at 10:56 a.m. That phone call – which Kent described as uncharacteristically short – lasted two minutes. Around 11:00 a.m., Jake Mayberry (Mayberry) left his parents’ house to drive to the local convenience store located six miles away.

Mayberry knew Jackie, who only lived one mile away. As Mayberry drove past Jackie ’s house, he noticed Defendant’s truck was parked out front. Mayberry drove on to the convenience store, where he purchased a few items. He left there at 11:21 a.m.

On the return trip, Mayberry again drove past Jackie’s house and noticed smoke emanating from overlaps in the tin pieces of the roof. Mayberry reported what he had seen to his father, Jackie and Josh. All three rushed to the scene, but they were unable to control the fire or locate Victim.

Police were notified of the fire. After the blaze was extinguished, Victim’s body was found inside the house. An autopsy revealed that she was killed before the fire started. The cause of death was six gunshot wounds to the head. Six bullet fragments were recovered, which were consistent with .22 caliber rounds.

On the same day Victim was killed, Defendant called the Bank of Thayer and asked a bank official if there was credit life insurance on a $20,637.80 car loan Victim had received. Approximately $15,000 of the loan proceeds was supposed to have been used by Victim to purchase a van from Defendant and his wife. Defendant was told that there was credit life insurance on the loan and that the $18,591.99 balance would be paid off.

Records revealed that, although Victim took out the car loan, Defendant had been making the payments. In addition, the loan had been issued by the bank under false pretenses because Defendant never transferred the van’s title to Victim. As a result of Victim’s death, Defendant got to keep the $15,000 loan payment and ownership of the van.

Two days after Victim’s death, Defendant failed to show up for a scheduled interview with police. Sheriff Tim Ward went to Defendant’s house, but he was not there. Defendant’s truck, however, was present. Sheriff Ward observed that the bed of Defendant’s truck contained a chainsaw, a cutting torch, an oxygen tank and an acetylene tank.

The following day, Sheriff Ward returned to Defendant’s house, accompanied by other law enforcement personnel, with a search warrant. During the search of Defendant’s house, officers recovered .22-caliber ammunition. While searching an adjacent field, Sheriff Ward also observed a burned spot on the ground which contained metal drippings and a hammer spur from a revolver.

Officers searched a nearby pond using a magnet and some rope. They retrieved a revolver frame, a cylinder and a portion of the barrel, which had been cut lengthwise. Later analysis revealed that the recovered revolver pieces were each consistent with a .22 caliber firearm. The revolver appeared to have been cut apart with a cutting torch.

Defendant was eventually arrested. While in jail, Defendant made various incriminating statements to another inmate. These included: (1) Victim owed Defendant money, which should have been paid a long time ago; (2) “the bitch” [Victim] had it coming for a long time; and (3) Defendant threw a gun in a pond.

End of Appeals Court synopsis

Statement from defense attorney Adam Woody:

Evidence at trial showed that, while tending to a fire on Dec. 2, 2008, a witness told law enforcement that he had seen Michael Amick's vehicle at the scene of the fire approximately 15 minutes prior to the reported fire. The body of Maxine Vaughn was ultimately discovered.

Law enforcement immediately focused their investigation around Mr. Amick, the husband of the victim's granddaughter. Four law enforcement officers questioned him the night of the fire at his home and nothing suspicious was gleaned from the interview.

On Dec. 3, 2008, the cause of death was determined to be homicide. Again, because of the initial witness, law enforcement immediately suspected Mr. Amick. He was interrogated again on Dec. 4, 2008, and again, he did not act suspicious and nothing of evidentiary value was obtained.

However, both the day of the fire and two days later, on Dec. 4, Amick gave a statement regarding where he had been during the time of the fire and which people may have seen him. His account of his whereabouts put him at other locations than the victim's residence at the time of the crime.

The lead investigator on the case was the chief deputy of the Oregon County Sheriff's Department, who had never investigated a homicide throughout his 14-year career. The five-person sheriff's department investigated the case rather than calling in the Highway Patrol or other agencies to help with the investigation.

On Dec. 5, 2008 a warrant was served on the family home of Mr. Amick. In his home and vehicle, nothing of evidentiary value was found, nothing linking Mr. Amick to a crime was found.

In a pond on his land, approximately a mile from his home and half a mile for a main highway in Oregon County, three gun pieces that had been cut with a cutting torch were found. Those gun pieces were described as a .22 caliber revolver, which matched the caliber of bullet that killed the victim. There was no connection other than caliber between the bullets that caused the death of Ms. Vaughn and the gun pieces in the pond. The pond was openly accessible to the public through an unlocked gate.

Ultimately at trial, it was discovered that the initial witness who said he had seen Mr. Amick's vehicle at the crime scene just before the fire had given several different descriptions of the truck he believes he saw, which ultimately did not match the description of Mr. Amick's truck. He also admitted he had marijuana in his system at the time he claims to have observed a truck.

Evidence was admitted showing Mr. Amick had received approximately $260,000 in a worker's compensation settlement against BNSF railroad in the year leading up to the homicide, which dispelled any alleged motive that the state tried to show Mr. Amick had.

The state's theory was that his motive for murder was to keep from having to repay a $15,000 loan that Mr. Amick and his wife were repaying for the victim. The loan was initially taken out at Bank of Thayer under the victim's name, paying off a $5,000 loan the victim had at the bank. Mr. Amick and his wife were repaying the loan, however, because they got the remaining money on the loan.

There was a credit life insurance policy on the loan, which paid it off in the event of the victim's death. Although Mr. Amick called to inquire about the insurance the day after the incident, it was apparent throughout the course of trial that he had no knowledge of the insurance policy prior to her death.

No other evidence, physical or scientific, connected Mr. Amick to the murder.

Ultimately, the jury of seven men and five women determined after three hours of deliberation that the defendant was not the person who committed the murder, as there was no physical or scientific evidence tying him to the offense.

End of Adam Woody's synopsis