CLAYTON — As attorneys and witnesses wrangled in front of the jury that will decide his fate, 15-year-old murder suspect Owen Welty sat straight up in his chair on Wednesday, his face never changing expression.
It was a surprising display of calm for a boy who potentially faces decades in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
Welty's future could be decided Thursday. Attorneys will make closing arguments, then the jury will get the case involving one of the youngest people ever tried as an adult in Missouri.
Welty was just 13 when he was accused in 2006 of killing his 64-year-old rural Stoddard County neighbor, Don McCollough. He has been in jail ever since. The case was moved from Stoddard County in southeast Missouri to St. Louis County on a change of venue.
Ronny Welty, Owen's father, declined an interview request but seemed relieved that closure was at hand.
"It's almost over," he said quietly outside the courtroom. McCollough's relatives declined comment.
McCollough lived in Dexter, where he was a construction foreman, but owned a farm in rural Stoddard, next to the Welty family home. On Nov. 14, 2006, McCollough was working on the property when a bullet pierced his neck. Welty had been hunting nearby.
Welty told authorities he shot at a turkey, but not in the direction of McCollough. Then, about 20 minutes later, Welty said, he heard another shot and heard McCollough yell out, "ouch."
Authorities had no direct evidence tying Welty to the crime, but found some discrepancies in his story. For one thing, the doctor who performed the autopsy said McCollough couldn't have said "ouch" since the bullet severed his vocal cords. Southeast Missouri Major Case Squad Detective Trevor Pulley, who interrogated Welty, testified that the boy at first claimed the shots were fired around 2:30 p.m.; later in the interrogation, he said the shots happened around nightfall.
As for a possible motive, Pulley cited an online chat between Welty and a family friend hours after the shooting. In it, Welty said he thought McCollough had been shot, and said he told his parents. When the friend asked if Welty's mother had alerted authorities, Welty replied, "No, because he's the person who says I shot his bull."
But Scott Rosenblum, one of St. Louis' best-known defense attorneys and Welty's lawyer, painted a picture of police who rushed to judgment even with no evidence indicating Welty committed the crime.
Rosenblum said Welty remained consistent with his story about what he heard in the field, never tried to delete the chat comments from his computer, and always maintained his innocence.
"At any time does he say he shot Mr. McCollough?" Rosenblum asked Pulley.
"No," Pulley said.
Rosenblum called just one witness, St. Louis medical examiner Michael Graham, an expert witness for the defense who reviewed the autopsy results and photos. Graham said one vocal cord was destroyed by the bullet, but not the other, making it possible that McCollough cried out after being shot, as Welty suggested.
Prosecutor Briney Welborn pointed out that in addition to the vocal cord damage, McCollough's dentures were shot out, his jaw shattered, his tongue destroyed. Even if McCollough was still capable of making a noise, saying "ouch," as Welty suggested, was unlikely, Welborn said. Graham agreed forming a word would have been difficult considering the damage.
As for the time discrepancy, Rosenblum said it isn't uncommon for people — especially a 13-year-old boy who wasn't wearing a watch — to become confused about time.
Rosenblum criticized the interrogation process. Shortly after 11 p.m., on the night of the shooting, Welty was questioned by Pulley and another detective for 51 minutes, then taken to the scene of the shooting. At 1:50 a.m., Welty was taken back to the sheriff's office for more questioning. The discussions were not taped.
Pulley said that during the interrogation, Welty said "it's possible" that he shot McCollough. But Rosenblum said the boy had been confused by a hypothetical question, which was: If Welty's bullet was found in McCollough, how would he explain it? Welty's answer: An accident.
A Missouri State Highway Patrol crime lab expert said ballistics tests on the bullet that killed McCollough were inconclusive.
Another detective, Major Case Squad commander Hank Trout, said that at Ronny Welty's suggestion police questioned others who potentially had motives to be angry at McCollough. None of those panned out, Trout said. But Rosenblum said investigators didn't look very hard at anyone but Welty.
During a break in the trial, Judge John Ross called Welty to the bench and asked him if he wanted to testify on his own behalf. Welty said he did not.
Welty, slightly pudgy with close-cropped dark hair and wire-rim glasses, wore a dark suit and a dark blue tie over a light blue shirt that was too big for him. He rarely glanced away from the witness box, rarely made eye contact with his family seated behind him or McCollough's family on the other side of the small courtroom.