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Schmidt guilty on all counts in murder case

Posted: February 9, 2012 - 9:55am  |  Updated: February 10, 2012 - 12:11pm
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Aaron Schmidt and his attorney, Penelope Donkar, listen as Judge Michael Annis provides instructions to the jury.  Valerie Rowell
Valerie Rowell
Aaron Schmidt and his attorney, Penelope Donkar, listen as Judge Michael Annis provides instructions to the jury.

Twitter @ValerieRowell

Aaron Schmidt has been found guilty on all counts in the Jan. 31, 2011, death of his 14-year-old Harlem neighbor, Alana Calahan.

After about three hourse of deliberations, jurors returned to the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Michael Annis and rendered their decision on charges of murder, theft by taking and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime against Schmidt, 15, of Miles Road.

At the request of the defense, sentencing will be delayed to gather mitigating evidence for presentation at the hearing.

Thursday morning, defense attorney Penelope Donkar argued that voluntary or involuntary manslaughter should be considered, but Annis ruled against allowing the jury to consider those lesser charges.

During her closing arguments, Donkar contended that Schmidt is a troubled child with a history of abuse. She said he loved the Calahan family, who treated him like one of their own, and that the shooting of Alana was an accident. She explained that Schmidt initially lied to police because he panicked and wanted to keep the Calahans from being mad at him.

"This is not cold-blooded murder," Donkar said in her closing arguments. "This is an accident ... that should never have happened, and when this accident happened, Aaron lost his mind."

Assistant District Attorney Natalie Paine countered that Alana's shooting was a "cold-blooded murder," and said he has a "depraved, malignant heart."

"Her last breaths of life, (Schmidt) doesn't care," Paine said. "He does not help her. He's more concerned with getting rid of the body."

Wednesday

The defense rested Wednesday afternoon without calling any witnesses, shortly after the judge rejected a motion for a directed acquittal.

Earlier in the day, a videotaped interview of Schmidt reached a dramatic stage when he admitted shooting Alana Calahan in the back of the head as she sat at her computer.

The prosecution of Schmidt began with testimony from another investigator, who set the stage for jurors to begin listening to Schmidt's taped interview.

Brian Jones, a Columbia County Sheriff's Office investigator, was first on the stand for prosecutors, and described Schmidt's initial story of seeing an intruder fleeing Calahan's home, and talked about how the story changed the more Schmidt talked.

When Schmidt again changed his version of events and admitted having a gun during the incident, Jones said Schmidt became a suspect and was then read his Miranda rights.

Jurors began shortly before 10 a.m. viewing the videotaped interview of Schmidt.

In the video, Schmidt first told investigators that he interrupted a black-clad burglar and chased him from the home. His details of the event continued changing, however. He also drew a map for investigators of the layout of the property, including trails in the woods behind the Calahan home.

Schmidt told investigators he took off his shoes before entering the home and finding blood, an overturned chair and drag marks that he followed into the woods where he found Alana's body.

He then changed the story, said he put on his shoes, found Alana's sister and followed her to the body.

When challenged on the details of his story, Schmidt started crying and said he was afraid the intruder would come back for him if he talked.

Under more aggressive questioning, Schmidt eventually admitted holding the 9mm handgun belonging to Alana's father when the gun "went off" in his hand, the bullet striking Alana in the back of the head.

Schmidt claimed Alana wanted to know how to use the gun, and that it accidentally fired when he grabbed it from her. At another point, he said he'd pulled back the hammer on the gun, and that it went off when he tried to uncock it.

On the video, Schmidt stood to show investigators how he was positioned when Alana was shot. He described her falling over in her chair, and said he checked and she wasn't breathing.

"I picked her up by her sleeves and just dragged her out," he told investigators, explaining that he took her body out of the home and into the woods.

While Schmidt continued to maintain the shooting was accidental, he admitted during the interview that he lied about chasing away an intruder.

Tuesday

Evidence presented in the case Tuesday included video footage of the crime scene and images from Calahan's autopsy.

Before the jury was brought into the courtroom, Superior Court Judge Michael Annis reviewed the evidence and excluded some of the photos after objections from the defense that the photos are "gruesome" and don't show Calahan's body the way she was found.

The prosecution's first witness Tuesday was Rachel Huffman, the Columbia County 911 dispatcher who received the frantic call the day of Calahan's death from her sister.

Huffman's testimony was followed by Columbia County Sheriff's Office crime scene technician Sgt. Ken Summers, who showed a video of the room inside the home where Calahan was shot, the trail where she was dragged from the home and the bloody spot in the woods where investigators say Schmidt left her body.

Summers testified that Calahan was uploading photos to her Facebook page when she was shot from behind, and described for jurors the path of the bullet as it passed through her skull, struck her jawbone and landed on the desk by the computer mouse.

The bullet was recovered from the crime scene, and a shell casing was found in a child's project in the dining room of the home, Summers said. A GBI firearms analyst later testified that the bullet fragments and shell casing matched the gun found in the woods behind the Calahan home 12 hours later, partially buried under leaves, by a police tracking dog.

Crime scene technician Tim Burnley also testified, drawing objections from the defense at some of the grisly crime scene photos showing Calahan's body.

Assistant District Attorney Natalie Paine also called to the stand witnesses who know Schmidt personally: Thomas Pittman, Schmidt's cousin and a mutual friend of the Calahan's, and Diane Chitty, Schmidt's sister who has had custody of him since he was 5 years old.

Pittman testified that Schmidt has "anger issues," while Chitty said Schmidt had been sexually abused as a child.

Schmidt's father was not in the picture because he's currently serving time in prison on a rape conviction, Chitty told the court.

Monday

As the trial began Monday afternoon, prosecutors portrayed Schmidt as a cold-blooded killer with an ever-shifting story, while his defense attorney said he should be guilty only of manslaughter in Calahan's death.

Opening statements in Schmidt's trial Monday gave way to witness testimony that included Calahan's parents.

Calahan was shot in the back of the head with a gun belonging to her father. Schmidt, a family friend, had been ordered to stay away from the home after Calahan had found him inside when she came home from school, according to tearful testimony from her mother, BettyJo Calahan.

Prior to that incident, she said, Schmidt was treated like a member of the family - often having meals and taking trips with them.

Paine and Schmidt’s defense attorney Penelope Donkar said they expect testimony and closing arguments to continue into Thursday. Then, the jury of seven women and eight men will begin their deliberations.

Several jurors were excused during questioning, including one who knows the Calahans and two who said they believe the case should be tried in Juvenile Court because of Schmidt’s age.

Authorities allege that Schmidt, 14 at the time, shot the Harlem Middle School eighth-grader as she sat at a computer inside her family dining room. Alana was dragged outside, where Schmidt initially claimed he saw an intruder on the property.

After changing his story several times, Schmidt eventually said he was fumbling with the 9-mm handgun belonging to Alana’s father when it went off, striking Alana as she sat at the computer in the dining room.

Schmidt was arrested later that night.

Authorities found the gun in nearby woods. They also found the gun case and a box of ammunition under a bathroom sink off Schmidt’s bedroom at his home.

The gun’s owner’s manual was found in his dresser drawer, and several items from the Calahan home, including a digital camera and MP3 player, were found in his bedroom.

Schmidt pled not guilty to the charges in May.

The case has attracted national media attention, with CNN’s In Session setting up cameras and recording equipment inside the courtroom for pool coverage of the case.

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