Piatt County murder trial: 'I think we observed, not spied'


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MONTICELLO — A Hammond man summoned as a possible juror in a murder trial spent a night in the Piatt County jail over the weekend after failing to show up for jury duty last week.

On Friday, Judge Karle Koritz admonished the potential juror — one of about 80 called for possible duty in the Gregory Houser murder trial — for failing to return to the courthouse after a lunch break during jury selection Wednesday.

It was the second day of the three days that it took to choose 12 jurors and two alternates to hear the case against the Mansfield man, a trial expected to take all of this week as well.

"The court finds that your failure to appear after lunch was an overt act meant to embarrass the court, meant to disrespect the court," said Koritz, finding the man guilty of contempt.

"Your empty chair means something," Koritz continued. "I don't suppose you've read 'A Christmas Carol,' but Tiny Tim's empty chair at the Christmas feast sent a message that meant something. Your empty chair meant something: that you didn't respect the court, you didn't respect counsel, and that you didn't respect the defendant that sits there accused of a very serious crime."

Koritz also said he felt the prospective juror's answers to questions asked of him that morning to be "a blatant attempt on your part to get out of jury selection."

Responding to the tongue-lashing, the man, who appeared in shackles, said he overslept during the 90-minute lunch break.

"I didn't mean no disrespect. I'm sorry," he told the judge, shortly before the murder trial continued Friday afternoon.

Although he could have been jailed for up to six months and fined $500, Koritz accepted the man's apology and sentenced him only to a single night in jail.

When the testimony continued Friday afternoon, jurors heard from a prosecution witness who said he became friends with Houser in 1985, when the two met as volunteer firefighters.

Timothy Byrd admitted that he and Houser watched the Houser home after dark on an evening in 1990. They were dropped off between the house and U.S. 150 by another friend, Lester Shores, and watched the home from an adjacent cornfield.

Asked by special prosecutor Tammy Wagoner if they "spied" on Sheryl Houser that night, Byrd replied, "I think we observed, not spied."

Wagoner asked Byrd if he remembered telling an investigator in 2016 that the cornfield incident took place the night before Sheryl Houser said she was sexually assaulted by her husband, which was Sept. 20, 1990.

"No, I didn't say that, because I didn't know," Byrd said.

He was also unable to recall how he had earlier answered other questions from authorities, including whether he had said in 1993 that Gregory Houser was the first to leave a going-away party held for Byrd the evening of Oct. 4, 1990.

"I don't recall that. It was a long time ago," Byrd responded.

Also testifying was forensic reconstructionist and former Los Angeles police officer Rod Englert, who was asked in January 1991 by then-Piatt County State's Attorney Roger Simpson to review photos and written reports of the case.

After noting from photos that a tag from Mrs. Houser's gown was wrapped within the rope around her neck and observing the tightness of the rope and knot and wounds he felt were consistent with a struggle, Englert opined that all those variables were "consistent with a homicide. It was murder."

Englert also gave his opinion that a drop of blood on her nightgown seen in autopsy photos but not on ones taken at the crime scene was likely due to contamination at the morgue.

Defense attorney Todd Ringel asked how Englert could have formed that opinion, because he had not visited the morgue, nor was he familiar with its protocols.

The defense also noted that Englert was a paid consultant who received $1,200 for the 1991 report and about $20,000 so far for the current prosecution of the case.

Asked by Wagoner whether his opinion had changed due to the rising cost of his services, Englert said he thought it was murder in 1991 and that he still does.

Steve Hoffman is editor of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit journal-republican.com.