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February 21, 2013

Techel murder trial underway

OTTUMWA — Opening arguments Thursday morning marked the start of Seth Techel's trial on charges of murder and non-consensual termination of a human pregnancy.

Techel is accused of shooting his wife, Lisa, in May 2012. She was four months pregnant at the time. The courtroom was crowded, but not packed. Most observers sat on the side used by Lisa Techel's family. Fewer were on the side with Seth Techel's family.

Techel watched prosecutor Andy Prosser as he read the charges to jurors and began his opening arguments, but showed little reaction. Prosser said Techel wanted out of his marriage, but did not want to divorce his wife for fear of alienating her father, a sheriff's deputy, and hurting his career prospects.

According to Prosser, Techel hid his relationship with another woman, which the defense says was not an affair. He used secret phones and meetings. He said he would tell Lisa he wanted out. The day before Lisa died, he said he had in a text: "She got mad, then sad, then I slept on a couch. All she wants from me is for me to be there tonight when she packs."

Lisa was killed by a shotgun blast. Prosser said Techel made no effort to save her after firing. He mocked Techel's pet name of "Mr. Resuscitator," given to him by the woman with whom he had the relationship.

"The defendant lifted not one finger to save the life of his dying wife and child, while he waited 18 minutes to call police," he said.

As Prosser spoke, his phone rang. A timer had gone off. Prosser turned it off, paused and looked at the jury. The timer, he said, was set for 18 minutes.

"I have been talking as long as it took for Seth Techel to call 9-1-1," he said.

Prosser said Techel went to great lengths to continue the affair, hide his communications, and then hide his involvement in his wife's murder. He said the defense claim that an "unknown homicidal maniac," picked the Techel house at random, found a weapon inside and killed Lisa is ridiculous.

Defense attorney Steven Gardner attacked the prosecution's case during his opening statement. He spoke slowly and deliberately, telling jurors the state's opening focused on emotionally loaded content, not the facts of the case.

In fact, said Gardner, prosecutors spent 35 minutes talking about love, lust and jealousy, compared to only "12 minutes talking about what they claim to be the facts."

Gardner called the prosecution's 18-minute time frame "pure speculation." Techel didn't look at a clock when he found his wife's body, so he estimated when he found her.

So prosecutors arrived at 18 minutes "solely based on the outer edges of when Seth Techel said."

Gardner played part of the 9-1-1 call from the Techel home. Techel told the operator, "I need an ambulance, my wife's been shot."

Gardner promised jurors will hear the full call and asked them to consider whether Techel, during that call, sounds like someone who has just committed a cold-blooded murder.

Evidence will show Lisa Techel's death was almost immediate. "You will hear from the state medical examiner that Lisa would have died, probably, in a matter of seconds," Gardner said.

Both sides spent part of their opening statements talking about Techel's first trip back to the home, made with his father, Doug Techel. (Disclosure: Doug Techel is the Courier's circulation director.) Prosecutors say Seth Techel made a beeline for where the shotgun was found in the yard, evidence he wanted to see whether it was found. The defense says Techel was drawn to the site by paint on a tree, which was used by investigators to mark locatons.

The jury panel has nine men and six women. That's more than the 12-member jury, but alternates are not told who they are until the end of testimony, so that they are as focused on the case as the jurors.

Before jurors even got to the courtroom, they were the subject of discussions between the attorneys and the judge. A strong winter storm is forecast to move into the area this afternoon and all sides were concerned about how it might impact the trial.

Brown said it was in everyone's best interests to not have the jurors distracted.

"The last thing we want the jury worrying about is the storm, children issues," he said.

Brown had spoken with the defense and that both felt it would be a good idea to end Thursday's session early and start Friday's late. Wilson agreed.

"I don't like doing that ... but I don't want to put anyone's safety at risk," he said.

Wilson informed jurors of the plans when they entered later.

"I suspect that each of you may have been thinking about that," Wilson said as a couple jurors nodded.

The court plans to resume the trial Friday afternoon.

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