TAMA — A 6th Judicial District judge overturned the first-degree murder conviction of Tait Purk on Monday, ruling the verdict was contrary to the evidence and based on a lack of evidence presented at trial.
Judge Mitchell Turner granted a new trial to Purk, 50, who is accused of killing his fiancee, Cora Okonski, 23, of Tama, on April 16, 2000. Although Okonski’s body was never found, prosecutors argued, based on witness testimony, that she and Purk argued about their upcoming wedding and during a struggle he killed her by breaking her neck. One witness said Purk confessed that he buried the body.
The defense argued at trial there was no evidence to suggest Okonski is even dead, since a body was never found. Purk also testified that Okonski left the house on April 16, 2000, to get cigarettes and never came back. He denied killing her.
An Iowa County jury of seven women and five men found Purk guilty in early May following the weeklong trial. The trial was moved to Iowa County based on pretrial publicity. Purk was facing life in prison without parole.
Turner said in his ruling that he didn’t find the witnesses, who had been in prison and at a halfway house with Purk, credible. They testified that Purk told them he killed Okonski by “choke slamming” her and breaking her neck. One of the witnesses said Purk also told him about burying the body in a deep hole. Both were expecting a reduced sentence or some kind of leniency for their testimonies, the judge said.
The prosecutors “exclusively” relied on circumstantial evidence without a “shred of forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony or other direct evidence that Purk killed her,” Turner said in the ruling. There were multiple searches by authorities for Okonski’s body, which was never found. And there is no evidence to establish the location of an alleged struggle, “much less a death by homicide,” he added.
Turner also cited the testimony of a retired Tama police officer who said four people identified Okonski after April 16, 2000. Turner said the issue isn’t whether Okonski is now dead. Given the evidence presented regarding her history and lifestyle, it’s possible she died long ago, he said, but there’s credible evidence she didn’t die on April 16, as the prosecution alleges and is necessary for Purk to be found guilty.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan said Tuesday she and Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren are reviewing the court’s ruling and considering all options, including any legal challenges that may be available.
“We are disheartened that a jury verdict was not allowed to stand in this case,” she said.
Aaron Siebrecht, one of Purk’s lawyers, declined to comment Tuesday.
First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said it is “rare” that a judge in this district overturns a jury verdict. He had a sex abuse conviction back in 2008 that was overturned by a district judge based on the judge giving the jury wrong instructions. Maybanks appealed to the Iowa Courts of Appeals, but it confirmed the district judge’s decision. There also were two misdemeanor cases overturned by judges in 2011 but those also were based on giving wrong instructions to a jury. He wasn’t aware of any murder convictions being overturned at the district level.
Purk’s sentencing for Friday is canceled and Turner will set another hearing to select a retrial date.
For years, Okonski’s disappearance was treated as a missing person case until investigators took another look in 2015 and ultimately charged Purk with first-degree murder in December 2016.
Before being charged in this case, Purk already was serving time in a federal prison in Kansas for manufacturing methamphetamine and a firearms violation.
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