Fate of ex-Fort Carson soldier accused in deadly marijuana theft in jury's hands
By LANCE BENZEL | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 22, 2017
Is a former Army soldier facing a murder rap for his association with a shady friend — or is he a killer whose baseball bat struck the first blows in a brutal assault?
An El Paso County jury on Wednesday began mulling that question as Michael Durante's three-week trial approached its conclusion.
Depending on what the panel decides, Durante, a 28-year-old ex-Fort Carson soldier, could become a free man or be locked up in anticipation of a life sentence without parole in the April 12 death of Kyle Scott Sullivan.
Prosecutors say Durante's co-defendant, Daniel Newell — who served in Iraq alongside Durante — allegedly divulged details of the assault to a girlfriend, Jamie Reinesto. Both joined the Army in 2009 and left as privates. Durante was separated in 2012, and Newell received an administrative discharge in April 2014, records show.
Newell has since pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, admitting that he cut Sullivan's throat. He faces 45-60 years when he is sentenced later this year.
After roughly two hours of closing arguments before 4th Judicial District Judge Marla Prudek, the five-man, seven-woman panel began deliberating at roughly 12:30 p.m., adjourning about five hours later without reaching a verdict. Deliberations will resume at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
During closing statements, prosecutors asked jurors to convict him for his role in helping plot a deadly marijuana raid after learning through Facebook that a west side couple were on vacation in Puerto Rico.
They say Durante and his accomplice entered their apartment and wound up surprising a sleeping roommate before launching a vicious attack that left Sullivan dead in the doorway of his bedroom. He suffered stab wounds and blunt force trauma consistent with a beating involving a bat, a knife and a pry tool.
A defense attorney for Durante says "mountains of evidence" put on by the prosecution did little to indicate his client's guilt, confirming only that Durante and Newell — both stationed at nearby Fort Carson — were close friends.
No fingerprints and no DNA were found inside, said attorney Phil Dubois.
Instead of physical evidence, the prosecution is relying on the dubious claims of two informants, including Newell's girlfriend, who pleaded guilty to theft after she was caught pawning items stolen in the burglary, Dubois said.
The second informant is a former cellmate of Durante who claims Durante shared a detailed account of the killing, complete with diagrams of the house and a map of a spot in Fountain where he burned a pair of shoes he wore during the raid.
Those details - dismissed by the defense as the work of a fabulist - could only have come from the killer, prosecutors say.
Durante, who took the stand in his defense, was forced to confront incriminating text messages he exchanged with Newell in the wake of the slaying in which they talked about splitting up cash, allegedly from the sale of drugs that were taken in the raid.
"We're in the money, homie," Newell wrote his friend in one message.
"Dope!" Durante responded.
The defendant claimed that stolen items he had received from Newell were given as birthday gifts and that cash they discussed splitting was from the men's shared drug business.
"We talked like that all the time," said Durante, looking unfazed.
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