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CARROLLTON -- A stillness hung over the courtroom as the judge read the verdict: Not guilty of murder.
Kenneth L. Blanchard, 69, was acquitted Monday afternoon in the August shooting death of 35-year-old Michael Fairchild at a mobile home in the 300 block of Valley Street in Minerva.
Sobbing immediately broke out from a relative of Fairchild's in the gallery in Carroll County Common Pleas Court.
Blanchard, seated between his attorneys, was silent but closed his eyes tightly and clenched his mouth in apparent relief, avoiding a prison sentence of 15 years to life.
Jurors sat with solemn expressions, their verdict following several hours of deliberations spanning Friday afternoon and early Monday.
Moments after the verdict, Blanchard was free to walk out of the courthouse, first stopping to embrace his wife and then defense attorney Jeff Jakmides. Other family members gathered around. Relatives and supportes of Fairchild had already departed the courthouse.
Blanchard declined to comment, but his wife, Nancy, her eyes moist with emotion, said, "My heart goes out to the Fairchilds. I feel their loss tremendously."
During last week's testimony, the prosecution and defense offered contrasting arguments as to what happened inside the mobile home on Aug. 31.
Jakmides and co-counsel Stephen Kandel argued that Blanchard acted in self-defense when he fired four shots from a handgun at Fairchild.
Fairchild and Kenzi Blanchard, the defendant's late daughter, had an on-and-off relationship for several years, according to investigators. Police had said that Fairchild had been staying at the mobile home at the time of the shooting.
Jakmides said the mobile home was a vacant rental property owned by Kenneth Blanchard. Blanchard was routinely armed for his own safety when he inspected any of his vacant rental properties, the attorney said.
Witnesses and Kenneth Blanchard told police that he and his wife had driven by the trailer and noticed windows or a door open, Minerva Police Chief Chris Miller said at the time.
"He went in, he looked around ... (and) someone came out of the back bedroom immediately toward him and he fired four times," Jakmides said following his client's acquittal.
Blanchard's "immediate comments to police were, 'I've shot someone,' and the first thing he tried to do was he called the Minerva Police Department," Jakmides said.
The shooting occurred about 5:30 p.m., he said. No lights were on inside the mobile home, which didn't have electricity, said Jakmides, who emphasized that his client had no prior criminal record.
Two gunshots hit Fairchild's chest, one struck his wrist and another pierced his arm, the attorney said.
"This happened in a flash," Jakmides said. "There was no dispute that this was a very sudden thing (and) that he didn't have time to think (but) just react."
"I told the jury this was a drug addict that had trespassed in this trailer because it was vacant," he said.
Carroll County Prosecutor Steven Barnett said after the verdict that there was no conclusive evidence heroin use was a factor in the shooting.
After reading the verdict, Carroll County Common Pleas Court Judge Dominick Olivito Jr. addressed those in the courtroom, noting that Fairchild had been depicted as a heroin addict during the trial.
"We cannot fix death," Olivito said. "... Life is precious."
Reflecting on the verdict, the judge also said that jurors were "very conscientious" and reviewed all of the evidence presented.
Barnett and co-counsel Paul Scarsella, of the Ohio attorney general's office, told jurors that Blanchard committed murder.
"We didn't think that self defense was reasonable under the circumstances given that the defendant shot someone who was unarmed," Barnett said.
He also noted that the only evidence of Fairchild lunging toward Blanchard came from the defendant's statements to police.
Blanchard did not testify during his trial.
"The defendant's story (was) the victim was laying on the bed and he lunged at him and therefore he had (to shoot him)," Barnett said.
The prosecutor said there was "no evidence (Blanchard) was presented with deadly force." He added that "this was a case that had to be tried and the jury had to (hear the evidence and make a decision).
"We respect the jury's decision."
Turning down plea offers
Jakmides said he staunchly believed in his client's innocence. He also credited James Pritchard, former Stark County coroner, who testified for the defense as well as private investigator Dana Yerkey.
Blanchard rejected two plea offers, one for voluntary manslaughter made before the trial and another for reckless homicide presented during deliberations, Jakmides said. The offers were made with input from Fairchild's family, Barnett said.
Citing his client's health problems, including cardiac issues following a heart attack in 2004, two knee replacements and spinal surgery, Jakmides said he believed Blanchard would have died in prison, even if he had served a few years.
But "I never thought for a minute he'd be found guilty."