OTTUMWA-Court was back in session Tuesday, February 14th in the State of Iowa v. Christopher Yenger. The trial had been in recess since late Friday morning when the State rested its case.
When Judge Joel Yates asked for the Defense’s first witness, they immediately rested. This not only meant that they will not call any witnesses, but also that Yenger himself was not going to testify.
During voir dire, questioning outside of the jury’s presence, Yenger said that he was given the opportunity to testify but chose not to.
“I don’t feel I need to,” Yenger stated before the court.
The jury recessed for about an hour so that the Judge and Counselors could discuss jury instructions. Once the jury left the room, the Defense team asked again for an immediate judgment of acquittal, stating that the State had not proven Yenger’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, once again, the Judge denied the request.
Closing arguments from the State began with a line they used numerous times throughout the trial. “Stick to the script.” This is what they claim Yenger repeatedly said to Zachary Dye and Kyle Jameson, both with him the night of the fire, about their alibi for that night.
Wapello County Attorney Gary Oldenburger, explained to the jury what 1st Degree murder entails and explained why it makes sense in this case. Mr. Oldenburger reminded jurors that Dye and Jameson’s testimony is consistent with other witness’ who allege that they learned of details of the fire from Yenger directly. This includes Jeramiah Gillespie , who says Yenger told him he “fire-bombed the house.” Also, Christopher Showalter, who says Yenger told him that the only thing Jameson could have seen from his perspective that night was a flash of light. Which is exactly what Jameson claims to have seen.
Mr. Oldenburger completed his portion of the closing argument by using another witness’s description of the fire.
“James Lyon described this fire as being like a hungry monster.” said Mr. Oldenburger. “And when Seth Anderson and Nathan Messer woke up on March 5th, 2006, they couldn’t escape that hungry monster. And the defendant, Christopher Yenger, created that monster.”
Defense Attorney Michael Jones, began his argument explaining that this case is about credibility and possibility. Mr. Jones pointed out that some of the State’s witnesses during the trial were criminals that are currently incarcerated. The Defense questioned the credibility of people they believe are making up their testimony in exchange for making legal deals in their own cases.
“There’s not one ounce of evidence that says Chris Yenger set that fire.” Mr. Jones stated. “In fact, there’s not one ounce saying anyone did.”
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Doug Hammerand, handled the State’s rebuttal to Defense closing arguments. He pointed out some flaws he found. This included their questioning of Jameson’s testimony.
“Kyle Jameson’s testimony is confusing then,” said Mr. Hammerand. “Because why would he say something if it didn’t happen?”
Mr. Hammerand was pointing out that Jameson had nothing to gain by giving his testimony. He was not hoping for a plea deal in exchange for any criminal charge. In fact, he risked being charged with something by admitting he was there and knew of the crime.
In closing, Mr. Hammerand used a term that has been spoken a few times during the trial, in saying the victims were “consumed by the fire.” However, he expanded on that phrase, wanting to make sure the jury felt the significance of what had happened.
“Consumed by fire doesn’t cover it,” declared Mr. Hammerand. “You saw the pictures. Those bodies were charred 100%. And the person who did this is sitting right over there (as he gestured to Yenger).”
At that time the Judge turned the case over to the jury and deliberations began. For a crime that took over a decade to be tried, the jury took just about two and a half hours to reach a verdict.
While Yenger was charged with two counts of 1st Degree Murder, the jury were given instructions that they could convict him of a lesser charge if they felt he was guilty but perhaps not of that charge. However, the verdict for 1st Degree was unanimous. The jury of 12 Wapello County residents found Yenger guilty of both counts of 1st Degree Murder. These are both Class A Felonies, which carry a punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
As the verdict was read, quiet emotion was heard in the court room. Family and friends of both young victims, Anderson and Messer, held one another and cried as they finally saw justice for their sons. The Defendant, Yenger, stood emotionless as he was told he had been found guilty of murder.
Sentencing in this trial will take place at 2:30PM on Monday, April 10th at the Wapello County Courthouse. This will be the same day that Dye will also face sentencing at the Wapello County Courthouse. He is scheduled to appear at 1:30PM that day. Dye had also been charged with two counts of 1st Degree Murder in this case. However, on January 30th he instead plead guilty to 1st Degree Arson, a Class B Felony. This conviction is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
*Watch the video below to see the moment the verdict was read.