MT. PLEASANT — After two days of jury selection, Seth Techel's retrial on charges of murder and non-consensual termination of a human pregnancy began Wednesday.
Opening statements took the entire morning session, with the attorneys laying out sharply different accounts.
Techel is accused of killing his wife, Lisa, in 2012 at the trailer the couple shared near Agency. His first trial ended with a hung jury. The retrial is taking place in Mt. Pleasant, about an hour east of Ottumwa.
Prosecutors say Techel was the only person with the opportunity and motive to kill Lisa. The defense says investigators failed to adequately pursue other leads, including a neighbor with whom Techel had quarreled.
Prosecutors sought during their opening statements to paint Techel as calculating, saying he took 18 minutes to call 911 after shooting his wife. Scott Brown said Techel needed time to hide the murder weapon and wanted to make sure Lisa was dead.
“Someone who is truly in a panic would not take 18 minutes to call for help,” Brown said.
Brown said the only thing that makes sense in the case is that Techel, one of only two people in the couple's trailer, killed his wife.
“Who murdered Lisa Techel? The evidence in this case will show that it was Seth Techel,” said Brown
Defense attorney Steven Gardner worked to undermine the prosecution's timeline. He said the prosecution's timeline requires Techel to shoot Lisa almost as soon as their alarm went off at 5 a.m. But that doesn't work if Techel let the dog out, talked with Lisa, and then was in the shower for about five minutes before hearing the gunshot, as the defense claims.
“For whatever reason the state did not say anything in their opening statement about fact,” Gardner said.
Gardner also focused on Brian Tate, the neighbor with whom Seth Techel had running disagreements. The defense contends law enforcement knew Tate was dangerous and, in fact, had warned deputies to be cautious when dealing with him. Law enforcement delayed talking to Tate, Gardner said, then ignored what the defense views as suspicious statements.
Prosecutors called Ray Schafer, their first witness, after a lunch recess.
Schafer, a retired 911 dispatcher who took Techel's initial call the morning of the murder, said he was in communication with Techel and with law enforcement as events unfolded. Prosecutors played several recordings of 911 calls while Schafer was on the stand. Schafer said he dispatched law enforcement after the initial call.
Paramedic Brian Bennett was one of the first people on the scene. He said he did not immediately see any injuries to Lisa and began CPR on her in the bedroom. Blood and injuries were noticed when he and a deputy moved her to the floor to continue resuscitation efforts.
The defense cross examination touched on several points that may come into play later in the trial. Bennett was asked to describe his vehicle, which Gardner explained as necessary for when the jury sees the video of authorities arriving on the scene.
Gardner also pressed Bennett on the presence of Techel's dog. Prosecutors in Techel's original trial questioned why, when Techel let the dog out the morning of the murder, it showed no sign of anyone trespassing and why Techel never heard the dog barking at an intruder.
“Was that dog aggressive with you?” Gardner asked.“No,” Bennett replied.
Deputy Marty Wonderlin was dispatched to the home by Schafer. He knew Techel. The first introduction came when he was dating Lisa, then got to know him better when Techel was an intern with the department.
Brown asked whether Techel was trying to join the department.
“He was,” Wonderlin replied. “He had been hired. He was scheduled to begin work as a jailer at the Wapello County Jail.”
Prosecutors made a point of Techel's interest in a law enforcement career during their opening arguments, saying divorce could have created opposition from Lisa's father, Todd Caldwell, which could have damaged Techel's prospects of becoming a deputy. Caldwell served as a sheriff's deputy.
Wonderlin said he called for backup after being told by dispatch that the case involved a possible gunshot victim. He said indications of firearms use change how deputies approach situations. Any time someone is shot, law enforcement must act as if the person who did the shooting may remain in the area.
Wonderlin's testimony became a flashpoint between prosecution and defense attorneys when Gardner questioned Wonderlin about whether the recordings of his conversations were complete rather than “selected portions.” Prosecutors countered that the recordings were not selectively culled.
“If Mr. Gardner wants to offer portions of the video, that's fine. But these are the statements of Seth Techel in their entirety,” Brown said.
The sparring ended when the judge allowed prosecutors to play the recording of Techel talking to Wonderlin and ask questions of Wonderlin between segments.
The calls are a touchy area for the defense. The third recording was not brought to the defense's attention until this past spring, well after the murder.