BELFAST, Maine — A few hours after he fatally shot his best friend in the neck, Luke Bryant kept telling police detectives that he had been clearing his shotgun and talking to Tyler Seaney in his Knox apartment when he accidentally hit the trigger.
Seaney, Bryant and Seaney’s girlfriend, Whitney Canfield, were at the apartment the evening of Feb. 19, 2011, before heading to the movies when the gun went off.
Bryant, now 20, told the detectives all this in a lengthy interview that was audiotaped and played Wednesday for the jury in his manslaughter trial at Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast.
Maine Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea is arguing that Bryant acted with criminal negligence when he fired the Mossberg Model A shotgun at Seaney, who died almost instantly. She said in opening arguments Tuesday that Bryant should have known how to safely operate a weapon and made reference to a “scare game” that he allegedly played with Seaney. Police have said that Bryant eventually admitted he had aimed the gun at Seaney and dry-fired it to scare his friend.
Bryant’s court-appointed defense attorney, Steven Peterson of Rockport, said during his opening arguments that Seaney’s death was a tragic accident and that when his client admitted to dry-firing the weapon he did so under pressure after several hours of police questioning.
“He told them what they wanted all along to hear,” Peterson said Tuesday.
Seaney, 19, who was living in Glenburn with his grandmother, had just a few weeks left in Maine before he headed to basic training for the U.S. Army. He and Canfield had been visiting Bryant for the weekend. Seaney and Bryant had planned to go to Maine Military Supply in Brewer the following day, get a gun for Seaney and then go target shooting, Bryant told the detectives in the tape recording heard by jurors Wednesday. He had several guns in his apartment.
When Seaney went to the bathroom, Bryant said he was clearing the shotgun in the kitchen. The gun had a pistol grip and not a slide.
“I was talking to him. I was kind of distracted,” he told detectives Jason Andrews and Jason Bosco. “It was locked already like it had been cocked. So I hit the release, and I went to pull it back, and I guess I must have hit the trigger while I was talking.”
Bryant denied at several points during that interview that he and Seaney had played the “scare game” with each other, during which they would point a gun at each other to try to get a reaction.
Andrews asked Bryant if he was a prankster, and Bryant said that at times he would jump out from behind a corner to scare Seaney, but that was “about it.”
“You guys ever point guns at one another or something?” Andrews asked.
“No, not besides the Airsoft,” Bryant replied, referring to a replica gun that fires nonlethal plastic pellets.
But Canfield had told police that Bryant and Seaney would commonly point guns at each other, the detectives said in the interview.
“Seems like a perfect opportunity — Tyler’s in the bathroom with the door closed and you’re just outside the bathroom, he opens up the door and it’s the perfect time to play the fooling around game,” Bosco said to Bryant.
“That’s not what I was doing. I’m not going to be able to stress that enough,” Bryant said.
Bosco also mentioned that Canfield had told him the previous weekend a semi-automatic 22-caliber gun had accidentally discharged while the trio was camping in a hunting stand near Bryant’s rural apartment.
“What’s the likelihood of having an accident two weekends in a row?” he asked Bryant.
Bryant stressed that the first gun-related accident was due to mechanical failure. The second, which killed Seaney, was incomprehensible to him, he said.
“Yeah, we fool around, but we don’t fool around with guns that we have ammo for,” he said.
Bryant said he knew goofing around with guns with Seaney was reckless.
“Yeah, it is reckless, but we trust each other with it, and that’s something that’s been developed over quite a while,” he said.
After they heard the tape recorded interview, the jurors also heard testimony from Dr. Michael Ference, Maine’s deputy chief medical examiner, who did an autopsy on Seaney.
He said the shotgun blast entered the left side of Seaney’s neck and cut his carotid artery and spinal cord in half before ripping open a gaping wound on the other side of his neck. Some of Seaney’s family members left the courtroom during the graphic testimony.
The manslaughter trial, presided by Justice Robert Murray, is expected to last through the rest of the week.
If the jury convicts Bryant of the Class A manslaughter charge, he could face up to 30 years in prison.