With a jury selected, the Stanley Elias Eckard murder trial heard opening arguments and testimony from the state’s witnesses on Tuesday, including the district medical examiner.
Eckard, 24, is charged with the murder of his brother, Sean Eckard, in June 2010.
Eckard admitted to “strangling the victim and eventually causing his death,” and buried him in the backyard, according to a Hernando County Sheriff’s Office arrest affidavit.
During the state’s opening arguments, Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino pointed at Eckard and said “in the early morning hours of June the 19th of 2010 that defendant went into his brother’s, Sean Eckard’s bedroom, placed a plastic wrap around Sean’s throat and took Sean to the ground.”
“As Sean lay on the floor, lifeless, dying, the defendant did not cry out for help,” Magrino continued. “The defendant did not call 911, he watched as Sean Eckard died in his own bedroom.” Eckard checked to make sure Sean was not breathing, then pushed him out of the bedroom window, dug a hole and covered his younger brother with earth.
Magrino said the brothers had “no major concerns during the course of their upbringing,” but had been fighting in the weeks before over a woman. Stanley Eckard felt “slighted” because Sean was dating a woman he had feelings for as well, and was upset over their “blossoming relationship.”
After Sean Eckard’s body was unearthed and Stanley Eckard was in custody, Magrino said he told a detective initially he didn’t know anything, and “woke up to some screaming.” Eckard later said his brother was selling marijuana, and maybe he owed people money and they “did it.” Eckard also said he walked in on his brother attempting to commit suicide, and tried to help his brother, but he fell and died. Ultimately, Eckard said he was “upset” over the woman and placed the elastic cord around his neck.
Magrino also referenced a “revenge” conversation between Mello and the Eckard brothers about three weeks before the murder, and Stanley Eckard said he could hit someone in the back of the head, take them to the ground to kill them and bury the victim in his or her own backyard.
Eckard’s defense attorney, Alan Fanter, focused on a brain injury Sean Eckard had a few years before his death. The encephalitis put Sean Eckard in a coma for a few weeks, Fanter said, and when he eventually recovered, Sean was “moody” — “had higher highs, lower lows” and was “very emotional.”
Others saw the change as well, Fanter said, that Sean was getting increasingly frustrated by his condition. About six months before he died, Eckard got drunk and cut his wrists in a suicide attempt, Fanter said.
The brothers fought physically the night of June 19, but Eckard didn’t commit a crime then, Fanter said. Eckard made a “poor choice” by trying to “cover up,” he said, and made a “split-second decision” to bury his brother, because their mother had recently been released from the hospital, and he did not want to upset her any more.
“Once the cover up starts he can’t stop,” Fanter said.
Fanter implicated Danny Mello in helping Eckard push Sean’s body out of the window and into the backyard.
“This was an accident and a tragedy, not a crime,” Fanter said.
Eckard, wearing a navy suit and black shirt and tie, had both his hands and feet free from shackles during the proceedings.
The first order of business before the 14 jurors were brought in was whether the defendant’s parents could listen in on the proceedings. Assistant State Attorney asked for Donna and Samuel Eckard to be excused. Defense attorney Alan Fanter said the parents are in a “unique position,” being both victims and witnesses in the case.
Tatti granted the request, and the Eckards decided Samuel Eckard would represent the family.
“One of my concerns is much of what you see and hear is very likely to provoke an emotional response,” Tatti said, explaining the rules of procedure. “I don’t expect you not to be human … but it is vitally important if you feel yourself beginning to lose control of your emotions, I ask you to step outside quietly.”
“I think one of you should be in the courtroom given the situation,” Tatti said, explaining the Eckards may not be in the room while the other testifies and may not talk about their testimony during the trial.
Magrino said Eckard might want to consider stepping out before the medical examiner’s testimony, since it often “changes the mental image of their loved one.”
When Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Wolf was called to the stand later in the morning, Eckard stayed in the courtroom for her testimony.
After explaining her credentials and a shortened version of what an autopsy accomplishes, Wolf said Eckard’s body was “mildly decomposed” after being in the ground for four days before excavation.
Wolf said she did not find injuries on the outside of Sean Eckard’s neck, but found bleeding around the clavicle area. The medical examiner said she reviewed Eckard’s medical records, and found the brain condition had been “resolved,” and that “no pre-existing disease … affected his death.”
During the autopsy, Wolf concluded to a “reasonable degree of medical certainty the cause of Sean Eckard’s death was blunt head and neck trauma,” and the manner of death was homicide.
During cross examination, Fanter questioned Wolf on how many millions of dollars the medical examiner office’s contract is with different counties in the 5th District, and asked her how much she charges as an independent consultant.
Fanter questioned why, if Eckard’s body was discovered around noon, the body was not unearthed until the next day.
“Law enforcement made the decision it was late enough in the day not to pursue it.” Wolf said she would have preferred to see the body sooner.
Williams and his then-fiancé, Jennifer Hunter, waited for Donna and Samuel Eckard to get back from church that Sunday morning.
“Sam started digging, I took over … and I found what I found,” Williams said. “The boy’s arm.”
During questioning later that afternoon, Deputy Steven Johnson said when he escorted Stanley Eckard out of the house, Williams pointed at him and screamed “that’s him! That’s the killer!”
Eckard did not respond to the accusation, Johnson said.
Mello said Sean had the “same heart” before and after the coma but was less “energetic” after his illness.
Mello said on the night of Sean’s death, he saw Stanley sitting outside of Sean’s door. Mello explained he was a heavy sleeper and woke up the next morning to learn Sean had left for California.
During cross-examination, Fanter asked Mello multiple times if he was a heavy or light sleeper, drawing upon a deposition in which the witness said he was a light sleeper.
The trial is expected to last through Friday.