Judge declares 2nd mistrial in funeral home case involving abuse of a corpse in Summit County | SummitDaily.com

Judge declares 2nd mistrial in funeral home case involving abuse of a corpse in Summit County

Lack of qualified jurors, media exposure force mistrial, according to 5th Judicial District judge

Judge Terry Ruckriegle called a second mistrial in the joint case against Shannon and Staci Kent, who are the former operators of the Bailey-Kent Funeral Home. The Kents have been charged with crimes relating to the abuse of a corpse.
Taylor Sienkiewicz/Summit Daily News archive

After three days of jury selection delays in a trial involving abuse of a corpse charges, a judge declared what is now the second mistrial in the case.

The joint trial of Shannon and Staci Kent, former funeral home owners facing charges related to the mismanagement of a man’s body, was brought to a halt Wednesday after 5th Judicial District Judge Terry Ruckriegle cited a lack of jurors who could serve impartially.

Multiple potential jurors were dismissed since the trial began Monday, March 14, because they had prior knowledge of the case. On Wednesday, March 16, Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan said he saw one of the jury candidates reading that day’s edition of the Summit Daily News outside of the courtroom, which had coverage about the trial on the front page, despite court orders to refrain from consuming media until the trial ended.

Ruckriegle also cited a statute as a reason for the mistrial. That law requires jurors to live in the county at least six months of the year in order to serve on a jury, he said.

Because some Summit County residents are seasonal, a considerable amount of time Wednesday was spent discussing who would legally be able to serve, resulting in multiple disqualifications. One potential juror was dismissed after the court discovered that he only lives in the county for five months each year even though he owns RV space in the county and his vehicle is registered in Summit County.

Others had legitimate time conflicts, so two more were dismissed before typical jury selection questioning could begin.

Each party in the trial has the right to dismiss five potential jurors if they show bias during general questioning. On Monday, only 14 potential jurors showed up to serve, pushing the court to call in more to build a larger pool. On Wednesday, the court was left with 25 after initial disqualifications. Ruckriegle said if each of the three parties were to use their five dismissals, then they would be left with 10 jurors.

“It’s not realistic (to continue),” Ruckriegle said.

Ruckriegle said it was a “difficult decision” given that this case has faced a mistrial before in December, after a key witness was exposed to COVID-19.

The Kents were arrested in February 2021 in connection with a body that was found in their now-defunct funeral home in Silverthorne.

Police say the body was badly decomposed after being left for months. According to a probable cause affidavit in support of Shannon Kent’s arrest, paperwork for the body included a notarized statement of embalming, but prosecutors say there was no date or location of when and where the embalming occurred.

Later, the body was identified as Victor Akubuo, a Nigerian man who died in a car crash in Park County on July 30, 2020.

The couple has pleaded not guilty to all charges. According to the affidavit, the Kents said they could not send Akubuo’s body to Nigeria because of complications with air travel due to COVID-19 and that the Nigerian government had not authorized the body to be shipped.

Both the prosecution and the defense agreed that hosting the trial in Summit County was problematic due to the large amount of media attention that the case had acquired over the past year. Ruckriegle agreed and said that finding a venue even in a nearby county such as Eagle would be “equally difficult.”

John Scott, the attorney representing Shannon Kent, said he plans to file a motion to change the venue of the trial to a court outside of the 5th Judicial District of Colorado, which includes Summit, Eagle, Lake and Clear Creek counties. Because the Kents operated funeral homes and other operations in all of those counties, trying them fairly and impartially in the 5th District would be difficult, Scott argued.

“The entire district is likely problematic,” Thea Reiff, one of Staci Kent’s attorneys, said Wednesday.

Scott also requested that the court consider calling in double the amount of jurors it did in its Summit County proceedings in order to avoid not having enough after the selection process, and Ruckriegle said he would look into show rates in Clear Creek County, where the trial is most likely to be if it stays within the district. He told Scott that he had also never seen a trial change venues to outside of its own district.

Because the Kents are being tried for crimes in other counties, as well, a date for when the couple will attend their joint trial in connection to charges in Summit County will not happen until at least April or May. The prosecution and the defense said they needed to confirm with their respective witnesses about what dates they are available before committing to a specific date.

Counsel will meet again Thursday, March 17, to decide when the Kents will have a new trial.

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