Jury Acquits Mo. Teen Of Murder Charge

By: Jim Salter
Associated Press Writer, February 12, 2009)

CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — His mom raised a hand to God. His dad put his face in his hands and sobbed. Tears streamed down his little sister’s face.

But 15-year-old Owen Welty simply looked straight ahead, offering only a faint smile and a handshake to his attorneys, as he was pronounced not guilty late Thursday of second-degree murder and armed criminal action.

Welty was 13 in 2006 when he was accused in the fatal shooting of 64-year-old Don McCollough, his neighbor in southeast Missouri’s Stoddard County. Welty became one of the youngest people ever charged with murder in the state, and he has spent the last two years and three months behind bars.

On Thursday, he went home.

"I couldn’t be any happier," Owen’s father, Ronny Welty, said after the jury’s verdict was announced in a courtroom in St. Louis County, where the case was moved on a change of venue. "I’m just glad we finally got some justice after 800 and some-odd days."

In fact, Welty was jailed 819 days, a point his attorney, Scott Rosenblum, made during closing arguments.

In the hallway of the courtroom after the verdict, Rosenblum glanced over as Welty’s family hugged, his sister jumping for joy.

"Hearing them like that makes it all worthwhile," Rosenblum said. "It’s over. The kid’s going home where he belongs."

McCollough’s family left the courthouse without talking to reporters.

Stoddard County prosecutor Briney Welborn declined comment. Assistant prosecutor Rance Butler called the verdict disappointing, if not completely unexpected.

"We knew going in it was a tough case," Butler said. "It was a circumstantial case. Those cases are hard to make. And on top of that we’re talking about a now 15-year-old defendant."

McCollough was a popular figure in Stoddard County, known by some as "Fuzzy" because of his long, white beard. He was a construction foreman in Dexter but spent a lot of time on his farm next to the Welty home.

On Nov. 14, 2006, McCollough was working on the roof of a farm building and Welty — an avid hunter — was in the woods behind the property, hunting for deer.

Welty, who did not testify at his trial, said in statements to police that he saw a turkey and shot at it, even though turkey was out of season. He missed, and said the shot was not in the direction of McCollough, who was about 350 feet away.

Welty told authorities he heard another shot, from someone else, some 20 minutes later. He told police he heard McCollough yell out, "ouch."

Welty told his parents what he heard. He then got on the computer and told a family friend during an online chat.

"I think my neighbor just got shot," he wrote.

That online chat also revealed a motive, Welborn said. When the friend asked if Welty’s mother had alerted authorities, Welty replied, "No, because he’s the person who says I shot his bull."

Several weeks earlier, McCollough had confronted the Weltys about that shooting. Owen Welty denied shooting the bull. Butler said there was ongoing tension between the families, though Welty relatives said they got along well.

McCollough’s body was found late on the night of Nov. 14. A bullet had ripped through his neck and mouth.

The doctor who performed the autopsy determined McCollough couldn’t have yelled out "ouch" because the bullet severed his vocal cords. But Rosenblum called an expert witness, St. Louis medical examiner Michael Green, who said only one vocal cord was severed. Green said it would have been unlikely McCollough could have formed words given the damage to his vocal cord, tongue, jaw and dentures, but he could have screamed out a noise.

Rosenblum said Welty never changed his story, never tried to delete the chat, cooperated with police at every step, even gave them the spent shell he used to shoot at the turkey. But he said police were determined from the start to pin the crime on the boy. And he blamed detectives for a litany of mistakes — overlooked evidence, failure to record the interrogation of Welty, failure to pursue leads of other potential suspects.

"Does it ever dawn on them that, hey, maybe the kid didn’t do it? That doesn’t fit their theory," Rosenblum said.

Butler said there was some discussion of offering a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter during the 7 1/2 hours the jury deliberated. In the end, both sides decided to let the four-man, eight-woman jury decide the case.

"I think everybody involved in this case from Nov. 14, 2006, is convinced Owen Welty committed this crime," Butler said.