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Reduced Murder Plea Stuns Victim's Family in Sturdevant Slaying

Is it another case of someone getting away with murder because the victim is regarded as the bad guy, an unsympathetic figure? Or is the Bradford County District Attorney's plea agreement with Thomas L. MacKechnie in the shooting homicide of Dean Sturdevant justice?

MacKechnie last week pleaded guilty to the third-degree murder of his former son-in-law and father of his two grandchildren, which, if accepted by the court, could mean serving as few as six years in jail for the 60-year-old defendant.

The victim's family and friends are unhappy with the news of the plea, and it fans the flames of previous complaints to The Rocket-Courier that "our District Attorney doesn't seem to believe this case is worth his time." Regardless of the scenario and family dynamics surrounding the fatal shooting of Sturdevant, 34, in Warren Township last October, the state police investigation concluded that Sturdevant was shot in cold blood, at virtual point-blank range and with what appears to be premeditation. There have been rumblings since the beginning of the summer that, as one family member put it, the DA's office was "working a deal" with MacKechnie.

In early June, a Wyalusing area resident, Mary Butler, contended that in a conference months ago with Sturdevant's surviving family members, District Attorney Stephen Downs treated them with disregard and allegedly "screamed at them" in frustration.

"Does the District Attorney empathize with them? It doesn't appear so," Butler speculated then. "He seems to be full of excuses for why he isn't pursuing a proper investigation." She went on to state that "the District Attorney's office has the ability, but not the desire, to give this case the attention it deserves."

Other family members, including the widow, Billie-Jo Zurn Sturdevant and her stepmother, Colleen Zurn, who were alleged eyewitnesses to the shooting, have already voiced their displeasure over the news of the plea to the news media since news of the plea was released to the public recently along with a list of recent pleas and sentencings.

It should be noted that a judge in the Bradford County Court of Common Pleas has to formally accept that plea and then sentence MacKechnie. The Pennsylvania Crimes Code generally regards first-degree murder, a capital offense, as an intentional, premeditated killing and second-degree murder usually applies to accomplices or other principals in criminal homicides. Murder of the third degree applies "to all other kinds of murder," and with its 20-year maximum sentence as a first-degree felony is often a tool in plea agreements to avoid taking a case to trial.

The Rocket-Courier has learned that even though the physical evidence and witness testimony seems strong, the victim, Sturdevant, would likely be portrayed as an unsympathetic figure by the defense. Sturdevant's alleged criminal history and allegations of physical abuse and threatening behavior toward his first wife, MacKechnie's daughter, may have made it more difficult, in the eyes of the prosecutors, to get a jury to bring forth a verdict of first-degree murder. The victim's family, of course, wanted the case to go to trial, a jury of MacKechnie's peers to hear the facts and then to issue a verdict based on the evidence.

Physical evidence aside, the eyewitnesses for the Commonwealth would have been Zurn-Sturdevant and Zurn, who were both alleged victims on Oct. 24. They say they sat in a nearby truck and watched Sturdevant go to the front door of his former mother-in-law and the defendant's ex-wife, Katherine MacKechnie's, on Roy Jones Road to pick up his two daughters.

It was then that they say they saw the door open after Sturdevant had knocked from the doorstep and MacKechnie lean forward with a pistol in his hand, pointing it at Sturdevant. They reported hearing "five or six shots" and seeing Sturdevant, apparently wounded, lurch away as if trying to escape before falling to the ground nearby. MacKechnie, the two women told police, then raised his pistol and fired at them in the truck. In what may be the most chilling part of the account, Zurn told state police investigators that as her stepdaughter drove the vehicle from the scene, he looked back and saw MacKechnie approach Sturdevant, who appeared to be lying face down. It was then, she told Trooper Robert McKee, that she saw MacKechnie stand over the top of the prone Sturdevant and "fired several more shots into him."

McKee, in his criminal complaint, estimated that MacKechnie may have fired as many as 14 shots at the victim. Sturdevant died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to the autopsy. About three and a half hours after the 8 p.m. incident MacKechnie turned himself in to Bradford County Sheriff's Deputy Michael VanKuren, a neighbor, telling him that his son-in-law was dead. VanKuren was one of the two deputies slain this spring and, of course, would not have been able to testify to any incriminating statements MacKechnie made to him. The affidavit of probable cause attached to the criminal complaint only states that MacKechnie, sweating, nervous and upset, told VanKuren that he knew his son-in-law was dead and that "he had done something and I should probably handcuff him."

Butler and family members feel that there are many unanswered questions in this case leading up to the homicide. Sturdevant had recently been awarded visitation rights to his daughters, something apparently contested by his ex-wife and her family. Prior to the events of Oct. 24 in Warren Township, the family notes that a call was placed to Sturdevant's attorney stating that his client could pick up his daughters at the Katherine MacKechnie residence at 8 p.m. that evening. They contend that Thomas MacKechnie was the only one waiting inside when Dean Sturdevant came to the front door at the appointed time, raising questions about who knew what besides the defendant. There was also hard feelings that the children were not allowed to attend their father's funeral.

"Does the victim's family deserve justice?" Butler asked two months ago. "How can they have peace of mind, knowing that at least one person suspected of involvement in the murder is still out there and will likely get off without any investigation?"

There are numerous reasons prosecutors pursue plea agreements, even with strong cases. First, there is the cost of such a trial to the taxpayers, and if the Commonwealth can get the defendant to plea to an offense similar to what they think he might receive after an expensive trial, they'll take the plea. The subjective part is how much each side is willing to give up. If the defense can show that the killer was acting out of passion or fear for his own life or those of his loved ones, it could end up as manslaughter, possibly even a justifiable homicide.

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