Jury finds man guilty of criminal recklessness in shooting death of best friend

Luke Bryant sits at the defendant's table Tuesday morning, Aug. 7, 2012 during the opening day of his manslaughter trial for the 2011 gunshot death of his 19-year-old friend Tyler Seaney.
Luke Bryant sits at the defendant's table Tuesday morning, Aug. 7, 2012 during the opening day of his manslaughter trial for the 2011 gunshot death of his 19-year-old friend Tyler Seaney.
Posted Aug. 10, 2012, at 12:44 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 10, 2012, at 5:51 p.m.
Tyler Seaney
Tyler Seaney

BELFAST, Maine — After more than five hours of deliberation, a Waldo County jury late Friday afternoon found Luke Bryant guilty of criminal recklessness in the shooting death of his best friend, Tyler Seaney, in a Knox farmhouse in 2011.

He is being held without bail pending sentencing and faces up to 30 years in prison. The minimum sentence for the crime is four years.

“On behalf of the state of Maine, we’re very pleased with the verdict,” Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, who prosecuted the case, said outside the courthouse. “The family of Tyler Seaney is very satisfied with the verdict in this case.”

Both Seaney’s friends and family, and supporters of Bryant dissolved into quiet sobs in the courthouse after a court officer read the unanimous guilty verdict.

“There were two lives lost in this situation,” Bryant’s cousin, Jasmine Sawyer, said outside the courthouse later.

She and members of his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Belfast, had been sitting behind the 20 year old, who continued to look straight ahead when the verdict was read.

“He’s a good person,” said Pamela Thomas of Morrill, who belongs to Bryant’s church. “He made a mistake. This is not who he really is.”

Defense attorney Steven Peterson of Rockport said he was “very disappointed” in the outcome and will be looking at the possibility of appealing the verdict.

Peterson said that although Bryant has not shown a lot of remorse or emotion during the trial, it is because he is a private person who keeps his emotions to himself.

“The loss of a friend is a huge loss to Luke,” the attorney said. “He did break down in this case for a long time after the shooting but you will not see it publicly.”

After the verdict was handed down, Zainea argued before Superior Court Justice Robert Murray that Bryant posed a flight risk and should be held without bail pending sentencing. During the trial and since March 2011, Bryant has been free on $100,000 surety bail. His father, Malcolm Bryant, lives in the Philippines and reportedly had encouraged his son to leave the country after he was arrested, according to the prosecutor.

“He’s not employed, and has very limited ties to this area,” Zainea said.

But Peterson countered that his client has been responsible with his bail conditions throughout the legal process and does not even have a passport.

“For the last year and a half, he’s been on bail conditions and has not had any problem during that entire period of time,” he said, adding that there’s no substantial risk that Bryant will pose a danger to himself or the community.

Murray said that because Bryant has now been convicted of a significant crime he would be held without bail.

As Bryant was hustled into a waiting law enforcement vehicle to be taken to Waldo County Jail in Belfast, his supporters gathered on the sidewalk, crying and telling him they loved him.

“He’s not a flight risk,” one young woman said. “His church members are family, too … he’s a beautiful person.”

Peterson had asserted in his closing statement Friday that his 20-year-old client had essentially been pressured by police into admitting that he had been playing the “scare game” with Seaney, 19, when he shot him on Feb. 19, 2011, with a Mossberg Model A shotgun.

Seaney’s girlfriend, Whitney Canfield, told police the night of the shooting that Bryant and Seaney used to play the scare game, pointing and dry-firing guns at each other in order to startle the other person. Bryant did eventually tell police during a long interview a couple days after the fatal shooting that he hadn’t known the shotgun was loaded when he dry-fired it at his friend.

But during the 911 call made just after the shooting, which jurors heard Tuesday morning, an emotional and distraught Bryant didn’t mention the game when he told the dispatcher what had happened, Peterson said.

“Luke’s statements are consistent throughout. He didn’t mention any games,” Peterson said.

Instead, Bryant told them he had been clearing, or opening the shotgun in the kitchen in preparation for cleaning it and loading it for use the next day while talking to Seaney, the attorney said. At first, Bryant told police detectives that he did not know exactly how the gun went off, killing Seaney with a shotgun blast to the neck. Peterson said his story remained consistent during hours of police interviews.

“The thing [Bryant] really cares about is the loss of his best friend. He wasn’t making things up,” the attorney said.

But at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour-long interrogation at the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office days after the shooting, Bryant did eventually crack, according to his attorney.

He told them whatever they wanted him to say, he would say it, “just to get this over with,” Peterson said.

The scare game is an integral part of the decision the jury has to make, the attorney said, adding that to find Bryant guilty they must find him criminally reckless, and not simply reckless.

“Both Tyler and Luke used firearms recreationally. They used them in a way that almost any of us in here would consider reckless,” Peterson said. “I submit to you that it was reckless — but not criminal.”

Zainea said in her own closing remarks that police gave Bryant ample opportunity to tell them he had lied when he told them that he had been playing the scare game when he shot Seaney, but he did not. She said the 911 tape made after the shooting was difficult to listen to “because of this defendant’s conduct.”

“It was his decision to pull the trigger, not knowing whether that gun was loaded or not,” Zainea said. “It was his choice … he was trying to scare Tyler, because Tyler had gotten him with an Airsoft [pellet] gun earlier in the day.”

Peterson told jurors there are no winners in this case.

“We are surrounded in this society with guns,” the defense attorney said. “In a society that elevates gun use and gun rights almost to the point of religion, you are going to have accidents.”

But Zainea used a much stronger word in her own summation of the case.

“That conduct was criminally negligent,” she said of Bryant’s actions. “That conduct was manslaughter.”

Justice Murray instructed the jurors on the law they needed to decide, telling them that in order to find Bryant guilty they had to find evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed reckless or criminally negligent manslaughter.

Criminal recklessness in this case required that the nature and purpose of Bryant’s conduct grossly deviate from reasonable standards of conduct, Murray said.

The jury began to deliberate the case at about 10:15 a.m. Friday and issued its decision shortly before 4 p.m.

Bryant’s sentencing hearing has been scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, at Waldo County Superior Court.

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