Kent funeral home case, involving abuse of a corpse charge, prepares for jury selection, again |

Kent funeral home case, involving abuse of a corpse charge, prepares for jury selection, again

The joint trial of Shannon and Staci Kent is moving towards a jury trial set for May 31. For the third time, both councils will begin searching for qualified jurors — this time from a pool of at least 200 Clear Creek residents.

The Kents are former funeral home owners facing charges in the joint trial related to the mismanagement of a man’s corpse in Summit County. Those charges include criminal attempt to commit tampering with a deceased human body and abuse of a corpse.

Police say Victor Akubuo’s body was found decomposing after after it was dropped off on Aug. 11, 2020 at the now-defunct Kent-Bailey Funeral Home, 561 Blue River Parkway in Silverthorne. Akubuo died in a car crash in Park County on July 30, 2020. The Kents were arrested in February 2021 after the body was discovered.

The couple owned multiple funeral homes across the region, including ones in Leadville and Gypsum. Those locations were shut down following a complaint made regarding the cremains of a stillborn child and a subsequent investigation that reportedly found unsanitary conditions at the Leadville location, according to a release.

A pool of at least 200 jurors has been assembled for the joint trial in Clear Creek County, which has a jury summons turnout rate of about 60%. Each potential juror will fill out a questionnaire and then be evaluated by both councils for their eligibility.

When planning the day of evaluations, Judge Terry Ruckriegle said both councils should meet at 8 a.m. and expect a full day of work.

“A brown bag lunch day for sure,” Judge Terry Ruckriegle said, implying council likely wouldn’t have a minute to spare beyond the scheduled court recess.

The courtroom could not decide exactly how long jury evaluation would take.

“We just really don’t know what turnout’s going to be,” Ruckriegle added.

Mistrials halted the case twice before Tuesday’s pre-trial conference. A witness caught COVID-19 in one instance, and media exposure limited the pool of qualified jurors in Summit County during a subsequent attempt in March.

The hunt for impartial jurors in Summit County yielded little results. Time conflicts, prior knowledge of the case and seasonal residents that didn’t meet court standards complicated the search, causing it to be pushed out of county.

Publicity made prior jury evaluations difficult, too. Many potential jurors had knowledge of the case, according to a court decision made on March 16. During that trial, 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.

As a result, the case was moved to Clear Creek County to avoid prejudice.

“At the request of council we increased the call,” Ruckriegle added.

Ultimately, 12 jurors will be sought with one alternate. The prosecution and defense will have six opportunities to exclude a potential juror without the need for any explanation.

“There was just so much publicity before, and that’s going to be somewhat reduced this time around,” Ruckriegle said.

During the pretrial hearing, Ruckriegle also asked for documentation of a home listed under the Kents’ name in Ohio. In an application for court-appointed council, a home in Ohio is listed under the Kents’ name.

“The court has followed up on this because, in part, we’re not getting complete answers to any of the requests that I’ve made,” Ruckriegle said. He cited Chief Justice Directive 04-04, which regards court-appointed council due to poverty and case law to support his request for more information.

“There was a home in Ohio that had not been paid on in several years — that the Kents do not have any paperwork on with regard to a foreclosure,” Staci Kent’s attorney Thea Reiff responded. “That is not a property that the Kents’ have any liquidity in. … As a result of these cases, they did lose their careers and their livelihoods.”

Seeking documentation of debt, Ruckriegle asked the defense to affirm the market value of the property in Ohio. Shannon Kent’s attorney John Scott said that according to Credit Karma and the Henry County Ohio assessor’s website, the Kents owe more than the property is worth at market value. About $89,500 was owed on the property which had a market value of $77,970, defense lawyers said.

Based on the information provided, Ruckriegle allowed the trial to proceed.

Be he added, “There’s nothing at this point from the court’s investigation that council should take as being any indication of not needing to fully prepare for a trial on (May 31).”

In short, Ruckriegle recommended Kents’ council continue to look into the status of the Ohio property and its value.

The Kents are currently staying at a son’s home in Missouri and attending court virtually.

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