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Michael Amick

Other Missouri Exonerations
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On December 2, 2008, firefighters were summoned to a home in Myrtle, Missouri after a passerby noticed smoke coming from the roof. The home was destroyed, and in the rubble, firefighters discovered the body of 67-year-old Leona Vaughn. She had been shot six times in the head.

Suspicion quickly fell upon 32-year-old Michael Amick, who was married to Vaughn’s granddaughter, Sara. Nineteen-year-old Jake Mayberry told Oregon County sheriff’s investigators that sometime around 11 a.m., he drove to Myrtle to purchase gasoline for his father. When he passed by Vaughn’s home, he saw Amick’s truck parked in the driveway.

Mayberry said that on his way home from the store less than 30 minutes later, he saw smoke coming from the roof and that Amick’s truck was no longer there. Mayberry said he realized there was nothing he could do, so he drove home and told his father, who called the fire department and drove to the scene of the fire.

Investigators determined that earlier in the year, Vaughn got a $20,000 loan, and used Amick’s camper as collateral. Amick got $15,000, and the remaining $5,000 went to Vaughn to pay off an unrelated debt. Although Vaughn got the loan in her name, Amick had been paying it off. However, records showed he was two months behind in making the $412 monthly payments.

Investigators concluded that the crime was committed between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. They determined that Vaughn was alive at about 11 a.m. because that’s when she spoke on the telephone to another family member. Additionally, the receipt for Mayberry’s purchase at the store was time-stamped at 11:20:52 a.m., and Mayberry said the drive from the store to Vaughn’s home took about 10 minutes. Investigators concluded that Vaughn was murdered during that 30-minute time span.

Based upon Mayberry’s identification of Amick’s truck in the driveway of Vaughn’s home, Amick was arrested on December 5, 2008 and charged with arson and murder.

He went to trial in Oregon County Circuit Court in June 2011. Mayberry testified that he was driving about 45 miles per hour when he passed the house and saw Amick’s truck for “a couple of seconds.” He said it was a two-door vehicle with an “extended cab.” When presented with evidence that Amick’s truck had four doors and a “crew cab,” he nevertheless insisted it was Amick’s truck.

Oregon County Chief Deputy Sheriff Eric King testified that he interviewed Amick, who denied involvement in the crime. According to King, Amick said that from 9:55 a.m. until 10:35 a.m. he was at the home of his mother, Linda Amick, and that he called his sister from there. A check of the sister’s cell phone showed that she received a call at 10:25 a.m. from Linda’s home phone.

Amick said he then went to the Myrtle post office to get his mail. From there, he went home where he changed a tire and checked his email. Amick told King he then drove back to his mother’s house to get a chainsaw. After getting the chainsaw, he was driving near the Arkansas-Missouri border at about 11 a.m. when he saw his brother, Chris, who was driving with a friend, Nathan Roberts.

King testified that Amick said both vehicles pulled to the side of the road. They chatted for about 10 minutes and agreed to meet for lunch. Amick told King he met Chris and Roberts at a café where they remained until about 12:20 p.m. or 12:25 p.m.

Deputy King admitted during cross-examination that if Amick’s account was truthful, there was no way he could have committed the crime.

Investigators searched Amick’s house and seized weapons and his computer, but found nothing linking him to the crime. Not far from Amick’s home, investigators found a burned spot in the grass and parts of a revolver in a pond. The gun, which was a .22-caliber—the same caliber as the bullets removed from Vaughn’s head—appeared to have been cut up with a torch. A deputy testified that he had seen a torch in the back of Amick’s truck. However, there was no evidence linking the gun parts to Amick or to the crime.

The prosecution argued that Amick killed Vaughn because he knew that Vaughn had taken out loan insurance, which would pay the remaining balance on the loan if she died. An official of the bank that made the $20,000 loan testified that shortly after Vaughn’s death, Amick called to ask whether there was insurance on the loan. The official testified that Amick was informed that Vaughn did indeed take out such a policy and that it would cover the loan balance of $18,591.

The prosecution also called Wayne Seelye, who had been in the jail with Amick prior to Amick’s trial. Seelye, who was facing his fifth drunk driving charge, testified that Amick told him, “They’re accusing me of killing that crazy bitch. And (obscenity) her, she owes me anyway. She owed me for it anyway…and they ain’t going to prove it.”

Seelye quoted Amick as saying Vaughn “had it coming a long time ago,” but he also admitted that Amick denied having anything to do with her murder.

Numerous witnesses testified about Amick’s whereabouts on the morning of the crime and provided an almost a minute-by-minute account of his movements. Postmaster Fredona Riley testified that Amick came to the post office to get his mail between 10:49 a.m. and 11:05 a.m. She knew the time because she had been on the phone with a customer and had a record of the call.

George Cue, who was doing remodeling for Amick’s sister, testified that he saw Amick in his truck around 11:00 to 11:05 a.m., and then again at around 11:15 a.m. when Amick went to his mother’s home to borrow a chain saw.

Amick’s brother, Chris, and Chris’s friend, Nathan Roberts, testified they stopped to talk to Amick on the side of the road near the Missouri-Arkansas border sometime after 11 a.m. They both testified that they agreed to meet Amick for lunch.

Tim Garrison, an employee of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, testified that he saw Amick talking to Chris Amick and Nathan Roberts on the side of the road about four miles from Myrtle at about 11:18 a.m.

Donna Hall, a waitress at Janie’s Café in Myrtle, testified that Chris Amick and Nathan Roberts arrived at the diner around 11:10 or 11:15 a.m., and that Amick arrived about five minutes later. All three left about 11:45 a.m., Hall testified. Max Huffman, co-owner of the restaurant, and Phyllis Crowder, a customer, also testified that Amick, his brother and Roberts were there at that time.

Before the jury began to deliberate, an alternate juror was excused. After five hours of deliberation, the jury reported that one juror who was a diabetic was feeling ill. The jury was brought into the courtroom and the complaining juror said he was dizzy and felt like he was going to pass out. “I don’t feel like I can make a decision either way, really,” the juror said.

The judge sent the jury back to resume deliberating, and the alternate was summoned to the courthouse. She said she had not discussed the facts of the case with anyone, but had told some people that it was “a relief” to be done with the case. The jurors were called back to the courtroom where the ailing juror said he was feeling no better and was unable to focus. Over the objection of Amick’s defense attorney, the judge dismissed the ailing juror and sent the jury, including alternate juror, back to the jury room.

The judge then commented to the prosecution and Amick’s lawyer, “I don’t know how to instruct 11 jurors to tell one juror what they’ve discussed for…five and a half hours, give or take 30 minutes. I don’t know that an instruction is even available to say to 11 people: ‘You go back there and tell her everything that’s happened. Ma’am, you pay attention.’”

Barely 10 minutes later, the jury announced it had reached a verdict. Amick was found guilty of arson and second-degree murder. Weeks later, at the sentencing hearing, Amick’s lawyer sought leniency, arguing that there was no financial motive for Amick to commit the crime. Beginning in 2004, the lawyer said, Amick had received payments from a $275,000 worker’s compensation award. The judge said that evidence should have been presented at the trial and sentenced Amick to life in prison.

In June 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that when an alternate juror is excused and a jury begins deliberating, the alternate is considered “discharged” and cannot be brought back to join in the deliberations. The court held that the judge should have granted the defense motion to declare a mistrial.

Prior to a retrial, James Higdon, an inmate at South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri, claimed that another inmate, David Youngblood, had confessed to killing Vaughn with the help of a teenager.

In October 2016, Judge James Pritchett ruled that Higdon’s testimony would not be allowed at the retrial. Based on Higdon’s testimony at a pretrial hearing, the judge believed Higdon was hoping to gain financially by coming forward.

Youngblood was subpoenaed to testify at the hearing, but refused and invoked his constitutional protection against self-incrimination. Youngblood is serving a sentence of life without parole for the murders of four people. In two separate incidents, Youngblood shot his victims and set fire to the premises in an attempt to cover up the murders. Both incidents occurred in 2010—two years after Vaughn was killed—and within a 30-minute drive of where Vaughn was killed.

At the defense’s request, the case was transferred to Butler County, and Amick went to trial a second time in November 2016. The defense presented a certified copy of the worker’s compensation award and Amick’s wife, Sara, testified about the financial settlement. On December 1, 2016, the jury, after three hours of deliberation, acquitted Amick and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/10/2016
State:Missouri
County:Oregon
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:2008
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:32
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No