BOUNTIFUL More than seven years after Matthew John Whicker was shot to death during his night shift at a Woods Cross motel, a man who was a teenager at the time has been found guilty of killing him.
David Valken-Leduc, 24, was convicted Thursday of first-degree murder in connection with the Oct. 29, 1996, death of Whicker, a father of two who was 30 when he was shot multiple times and died in the motel lobby.
Valken-Leduc was to be held in jail overnight pending a hearing planned for this morning. At that hearing, 2nd District Judge Glen R. Dawson will decide whether Valken-Leduc will be held in jail as he awaits his sentencing date, which will also be set at this morning's hearing. Valken-Leduc could face five years to life in prison.
Valken-Leduc was convicted after taking the stand in his own defense Thursday morning. He was the defense's only witness in the weeklong testimony, and he continued to insist he is innocent.
"I did not kill Matthew Whicker," Valken-Leduc testified. "No, I was not at the motel that night."
But the one-man, seven-woman jury, after deliberating for four hours and 10 minutes, decided the state's evidence was compelling enough to convict Valken-Leduc, despite defense attorneys' insistence that the state's key witness cannot be believed.
Valken-Leduc stood with his attorneys, head bowed, as the verdict was read. A short recess was called after the verdict as the judge and attorneys studied a legal question regarding Valken-Leduc's detention. During that recess, Valken-Leduc broke down in tears as he hugged his sobbing half-brother, mother and a family friend, who attended the entire trial. "I know you didn't do it," they repeatedly told Valken-Leduc.
Whicker's family, including his mother, Rea, father, Ben, and widow, Katrina, sat silently wiping tears as another phase in their seven-year, three-month ordeal came to a close.
"I'm glad it's over for a while," Ben Whicker said after court adjourned. "It's just too bad that somebody else had to lose a son today."
Katrina Whicker also expressed relief, saying she supported the jury's finding.
"He was judged by a panel of his peers, and they came to a verdict," she said. "It was up to them. Justice has been served."
Valken-Leduc is the second person to be convicted in Whicker's death. The first, Todd Rettenberger, was the state's major witness in Valken-Leduc's trial. He testified Wednesday that he drove Valken-Leduc and Elliot Rashad Harper, who is also charged with murder and will face trial in July, to the Motel 6 with plans to rob it.
As he stood outside watching Valken-Leduc and Harper confront Whicker inside, he said, something went wrong, resulting in a scuffle and then gunshots.
But defense attorneys have maintained that Rettenberger, who has twice pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Whicker's death, cannot be trusted. They charged that he told prosecutors what they wanted to hear in exchange for release from jail after spending 63 months there.
Rettenberger first pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a second-degree felony, in January 2002. The plea was an Alford plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged the state had substantial evidence against him.
In March 2002, Rettenberger changed his plea to a straight guilty plea without maintaining his innocence through Alford. He said he had been silent for five years for fear of being labeled a "snitch." The plea agreement called for him to testify against Valken-Leduc and Harper and won his release from jail.
But the defense said Rettenberger never mentioned Valken-Leduc as having had any part in the murder until a bloody fingerprint found at the motel was mistakenly identified as Valken-Leduc's.
After the criminalist who had analyzed it was shot and killed by a rifle he was inspecting in a crime lab, the fingerprint was re-examined and was found to be Whicker's.
Valken-Leduc testified that he had once had a loose friendship with Rettenberger, but that he cut contact after Rettenberger let a mutual friend take the blame for something Rettenberger had done.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Aric Cramer urged the jury not to convict Valken-Leduc simply because they feel sympathy for the Whicker family.
"You don't do that (achieve justice) by just grabbing some guy and saying, 'You look close enough to me,' " he said. "This isn't the South in the '50s. You've got to have some evidence."
Valken-Leduc's other attorney, Bill Morrison, told the jury that 14 of the state's witnesses gave testimony that suggested no link between Valken-Leduc and the crime. He suggested it all hinged on Rettenberger's credibility.
But prosecutors said the state's case was stronger than that.
"That isn't where the state's case is," prosecutor William K. McGuire said in closing arguments. "That isn't all we are relying upon."
McGuire pointed to seven witnesses, including Valken-Leduc himself, who he said pointed to Valken-Leduc's guilt.
After the verdict, Cramer said he was disappointed but not surprised. He said the "horrid" nature of the crime was a tough hurdle for the defense to overcome.
"But our jury system is the best system in the world," he said. "We respect their decision even though we don't agree with it."He said he plans to appeal.