After more than three years, numerous suspects, several arrests, and one mistrial, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness on Tuesday asked jurors in the Justin Marshall murder trial a question.
“Why are you here?” Lyness said while making her closing arguments.
“Because John Versypt is not here,” she said. “He died on Oct. 8, 2009, and he should not have. He died because of the actions of Justin Marshall. So hold him accountable and find him guilty of first-degree murder.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were bold in their closing arguments Tuesday, capping the long trial – now in its third week – in dramatic style. Defense attorney Thomas Gaul accused prosecution witnesses of manipulating and lying for their advantage, and he brought race into consideration.
Lyness told jurors, all of whom are white, not to feel guilty if they choose to convict a black man.
“It is just as racist to find someone guilty because of their race as it is to acquit someone because of their race,” she said, “So don’t feel guilty. Don’t feel racist. Look at the evidence.”
For the first time in the trial, Lyness read aloud a confession that Marshall is accused of writing while being held as a suspect in this case in the Muscatine County Jail. Jailhouse witnesses testified that Marshall wanted to try and downgrade his charge from murder to manslaughter and wrote a confession alleging the shooting was an accident.
In his confession, according to Lyness, Marshall said he had been smoking marijuana that afternoon and decided he wanted to sell his gun. So he left his apartment, but on his way out of the building, “Someone stopped me and said, ‘Is that drugs you smoking?’”
“I was startled,” Lyness read from Marshall’s confession. “He went reaching, so I hurried and went for the gun…It was all so fast. I grabbed my gun. It went bang…I didn’t mean it. It was an accident. I promise.”
Lyness said jailhouse witnesses who testified against Marshall never lied on the stand – including when Gaul asked them if they were doing this for some benefit. They all said they would like to have time taken off their sentences.
But they also said they wouldn’t make up information knowing they could face many more years in prison – up to life for two of them.
Gaul told jurors that prosecutors have no physical evidence and their case hangs on testimony from the three hardened criminals who manipulated Marshall into giving them information.
“Don’t let them fool you like they fooled Justin,” he said.
Versypt, 64, of Cordova, Ill., was a landlord for units in the Broadway Condominium complex and was checking on his properties when he was gunned down during an attempted robbery Oct. 8, 2009, according to police.
Marshall was among three people arrested in the killing. Charles Thompson, 20, was the first in February 2010, followed by Marshall, 22, in July 2011 and then Courtney White, 25, in October 2011.
All three men originally were charged with first-degree murder, but Thompson’s case ended in a mistrial and he subsequently pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against Marshall.
Jurors began deliberating about 2 p.m. Tuesday. They left for the day at 4:30 p.m. planning to return at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Marshall faces a life sentence in prison.