After two trials and almost four years behind bars, Leslie Roy Simpkins is - almost - a free man.
A jury took only two hours to find Simpkins not guilty of aggravated murder in Clatsop County Circuit Court Wednesday afternoon.
The 12 jurors did not accept the prosecution argument that Simpkins aided and abetted Anthony Scott Garner in murdering Dana Ann Bailey on board the motorboat Foxy Lady at the Warrenton mooring basin Aug. 8, 1998.
Simpkins, who has been in jail since his arrest the night of the murder, was ordered held overnight by Judge Paula Brownhill until a hearing scheduled for 11 a.m. today on an old probation violation charge. Defense attorney Peter Fahy said he expected that matter to be cleared up and Simpkins released today.
"We are very gratified by the jury decision," he said. "I feel strongly, as a former prosecutor, that there was never adequate evidence to charge Mr. Simpkins, let alone convict him."
District Attorney Josh Marquis said he was "bitterly disappointed" in the decision.
"I obviously failed to persuade the jury," he said.
Wednesday's quick verdict stood in stark contrast to the deadlock that left Simpkins' first trial with a hung jury after more than three days of deliberations last December.
The second trial featured much of the same evidence and witness testimony about the events before, during and after the crime, including Simpkins' own testimony from the stand about watching Garner, strung out from a day-long drug and drinking binge, plunge a knife into Bailey's head as the three sat inside the boat's tiny cabin.
Garner was found guilty last October of aggravated murder, for killing Bailey in the mistaken belief she was informing police about his drug activity, and arson, for setting the boat on fire. The jury in his trial spared him the death penalty but sentenced him to life in prison without parole. Garner maintained he was innocent and that it was Simpkins who murdered Bailey.
Fahy said the case was "recklessly charged and prosecuted," and strongly criticized Marquis for pursuing the death penalty against Simpkins, even after the jury in Garner's trial spared his life. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, the defense approached the district attorney's office about a possible plea bargain that would have had Simpkins accept a lesser charge and three or four more years behind bars, but the offer was "rejected out of hand," he said.
Marquis said he consulted Dana Bailey's family about a possible plea agreement after the first trial, and they opposed a deal.
"This was not a case to plea-bargain," he said.
Marquis did elect not to seek the death penalty against Simpkins in the second trial as he had in the first, and dropped one of the two aggravated murder charges. But Simpkins could have received the same sentence as Garner, life without parole, if convicted.
The prosecution always acknowledged that Simpkins was the "junior partner" in the crime, but maintained that the defendant took an active role in helping Garner kill Bailey, by keeping her on the boat while Garner went to buy liquor and cocaine, by helping Garner remove his blood-stained clothes, and by providing the knife he used in the murder.
"This is Les Simpkins' knife, this is the murder weapon," Marquis said, displaying the knife to the jury during his closing statement. "This murder wouldn't have happened without Les Simpkins."
But Fahy told the jury the prosecution achieved "complete and utter failure" in trying to prove its case, and ridiculed the notion that his client would have had anything to do with any plan to kill Bailey, arguing that he was merely an innocent bystander to a "drunken, coke-fueled, spontaneous act of rage" by his co-defendant.
Both sides focused on events that occurred at The Club, the tavern where Simpkins fled after the murder. Marquis pointed to testimony that Simpkins attempted to wash off his blood-stained knife in the restroom and asked another patron for money to leave town. Fahy noted Simpkins told a bartender about the killing the minute he entered the building, and remained there until police arrived. Without the information he provided, the murder might never have been discovered, he said.
"If he was involved, why in God's name did he go straight to The Club and start yelling to everyone what he saw?" Fahy told the jury. "We wouldn't he just disappear?"
The defense also called several friends and acquaintances of Simpkins who testified to his gentle nature, to counter the list of fights and assault charges, including one that earned him six years in prison for an attempted jail-break in Colorado.
"He's a rough-hewn guy, but he's a decent man," Fahy told the jury.
Fahy said in the second trial the defense was better able to focus attention on inconsistencies in the accounts of the various police officers who handled the case. "There was not a high degree of professionism in the investigation," he said.
The two defendants' trials were originally scheduled for August 1999, one year after the crime, but a defense request for access to the list of potential jurors - to ensure that the jury would represent a true cross-section of the community, the attorneys argued - resulted in legal arguments that went all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court.
After Simpkins' first trial, the defense filed several more motions, including an unsuccessful request for a change of venue for which it conducted a survey of local citizens about their knowledge of the case.