Young county prosecutor mulls death penalty in drifter case

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 | 4:26 p.m. CDT; updated 9:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 1, 2010

MEXICO, Mo. — Three years ago, Jacob Shellabarger was just another newly minted graduate of the law school at MU.

Now the 28-year-old Audrain County prosecutor must decide if a northeast Missouri truck driver, his wife and three sons — including two teenagers — deserve to face the death penalty in the case of a 20-year-old Ohio drifter killed in December.

"I've never been one to say I have all the answers," said Shellabarger, who was appointed by the governor as county prosecutor 11 months ago after spending nearly two years as an assistant in the same office. "And I'm not afraid to ask for help."

That help will come from special state prosecutor Kevin Zoellner of the Attorney General's Office, a veteran of numerous death penalty trials. But Shellabarger, an Audrain County native, said he will decide on the severity of possible punishment. He is still reviewing evidence.

"The decision is mine," said the 2007 law school graduate, a former Columbia television reporter who once planned a career in agricultural journalism before deciding on law school.

On Tuesday, Chester "C.J." Harvey Jr. and his wife, Angela, waived preliminary hearings set for Audrain County Circuit Court. C.J. Harvey's 20-year-old son, Chad Harvey, who is also charged with first-degree murder, waived his preliminary hearing last week.

The Harveys, who have pleaded not guilty, are accused of killing 20-year-old James William Boyd McNeely in December 2009. McNeely's body was found in the refrigerated compartment of Harvey's parked rig in Laddonia.

Harvey has previously said that McNeely's death was an act of self-defense after the Ohio man attacked Harvey's wife and three of his five sons. Investigators said C.J. Harvey and his oldest son restrained McNeely on a mattress in the basement of their family home before the father suffocated his victim the next day.

Two of Harvey's other sons, ages 17 and 15, also face charges in McNeely's death. No decision has yet been made whether those two, who were 16 and 14 at the time, will stand trial as adults.

Jason Lamb, Shellabarger's predecessor as Audrain prosecutor, was also 28 years old when he was elected in 2002. Now the executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, Lamb said that young prosecutors are not uncommon in the state's outlying counties, many of which consider the job a part-time position.

"Age doesn't matter, as long as you have the right mindset," he said. "I have the utmost confidence and faith in Jacob."

In DeKalb County, prosecutor Eric Tate was appointed to the job earlier this year at age 30; and Adair County prosecutor Matt Wilson, whom Shellabarger considers a friend, is just 33.

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