Jurors 'confused' by judge's decision to throw out verdict in Tait Purk first-degree murder trial

Foreman: 'There's no words to describe how I feel'

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Jurors are “perplexed and confused” over a judge’s decision last month to throw out their guilty verdict in the first-degree murder trial of Tait Purk in Iowa County District Court.

“I’m dumbfounded, to be honest with you,” Ben Macumber, an Amana school principal who served as jury foreman in the May trial, said this week. “I’m frustrated. ... There’s no words to describe how I feel. But I have no doubt about our verdict.”

Two other jurors, who were willing to go on the record, echoed Macumber’s sentiments. They said they were shocked and confused by 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner’s ruling that grants Purk — accused of killing his fiancee Cora Okonski, 23, on April 16, 2000 ­— a new trial.

The prosecution charged that Purk killed Okonski after the two argued about their upcoming wedding that Purk wanted to postpone due to money issues. Two witnesses testified in the May trial that Purk confessed to killing his girlfriend — not knowing her name — and one witness testified Purk killed Okonski by “choke slamming” her and breaking her neck that day.

For years, Okonski’s disappearance was treated as a missing person case until Tama County investigators took another look in 2015 and ultimately charged Purk with first-degree murder in December 2016.

The trial, moved from Tama County due to pretrial publicity, started May 2 in Iowa County District Court in Marengo. The jury of seven women and five men delivered its verdict May 10.

Curt Ritchie, a juror who is a school administrator in Williamsburg, said Turner’s ruling makes him question the judicial system.

“I believe in the decision we made,” he said. “I don’t understand this.”

Juror Lydia Martin of Parnell said after all the evidence came in she believes Purk is guilty.

“I thought the witnesses were credible,” Martin said.

Other jurors contacted by The Gazette this week said they didn’t know about the judge’s ruling and declined to comment. Others were aware of it but decided not to comment.

Three Linn County prosecutors said it is rare in the 6th Judicial District that a jury verdict involving a felony charge is overturned by the trial judge. Other attorneys agreed, saying they seldom see it in Iowa.

JUDGE TURNER’S RULING

Turner, in his Aug. 14 ruling, said the jury’s verdict is contrary to the evidence and based on a lack of evidence presented at trial. The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence without a “shred of forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony or other direct evidence that Purk killed her,” the judge said.

Turner said witnesses Sean Ward and Chad Rogers, who testified Purk confessed to them, were not credible. Ward was in a federal prison with Purk, while Purk was serving time for manufacturing methamphetamine and a firearms violation. Rogers met Purk in a halfway house before the two worked together at a meat processing plant in Tama County. Both men were expecting a reduced sentence or some kind of leniency in exchange for their testimonies, the judge said.

Another witness, Ricki Jo Sanchez, a neighbor and friend of Okonski, also was found by Turner to not be credible. Sanchez testified Okonski told her on the day she disappeared that Purk had threatened to kill her.

Turner also questioned if Okonski died April 16, 2000. There were multiple searches by authorities for Okonski’s body, but it was never found. The judge pointed out that a retired Tama police officer said four people identified Okonski after April 16, 2000. At least two of the witnesses made a positive identification of Okonski from a photo.

Turner declined to comment for this article, saying he isn’t “permitted to do so.”

view of the evidence

The three jurors who spoke to The Gazette said they disagree with Turner’s assessment of the witnesses.

“That was our job. We got to decide if they are credible or not,” said Macumber, who read the entire 14-page ruling and said those points also were part of the jury instructions Turner gave at trial.

“Their stories matched up,” Macumber said. “Of course, we knew who they were and out to get a deal, but they also had details of what happened and how. Besides, they didn’t get a deal.”

According to testimony, neither Ward nor Rogers had received a written deal for lesser sentences.

Before trial, the defense challenged the testimony of the pair, but Turner allowed it, based on the prosecutions’ claims that they could provide corroborating evidence for motive and malice.

However, Turner stated in his ruling that allowing these witnesses was based on a different and less strict legal standard than one he relied on in issuing his ruling to throw out the verdict.

Both Ritchie and Martin said they, too, believed the witness accounts. Martin said the fact that some of the witnesses feared Purk added to their credibility for her.

The three jurors also said they have no doubt that Okonski is dead, adding they didn’t believe the witnesses who identified her from the photo and said they saw her after April 16, 2000.

Macumber said they didn’t consider those sources credible because there is evidence a truck driver from Tama who knew Purk was pointing an investigator to those who identified Okonski in the photo.

Careful deliberations

Macumber and Ritchie acknowledged the members of the jury didn’t believe much of Purk’s testimony.

“We thought he was his own worst witness,” Macumber said.

But the jurors said they carefully went over everything, considered all the evidence and went over the jury instructions and elements of first-degree murder. They also considered incidents of alleged domestic abuse, including witnesses who said they had seen Purk “choke out” his fiancee before, as a pattern of behavior and possibly showing motive and intent.

The three said they stand by their verdict and don’t understand how the judge, after the trial was over, told them, “Our verdict is our verdict” and reassured them they did their job.

Both the prosecution and defense declined to comment on the judge’s ruling after it was issued.

A new trial for Purk is set for Nov. 11 in Tama County District Court.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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