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Caruthers trial continued to April

At a hearing on Friday, Circuit Judge Wendy Wexler Horn granted a short continuance in the trial of the Bonne Terre man charged with the November 2016 murder of local businessman Michael VanStavern.

The motion for continuance was filed after a previous attorney for Anthony Caruthers withdrew and Ramona Gau took over as defense attorney earlier this month. The defense change came five weeks before Caruthers’ scheduled Feb. 8 and 9 jury trial.

At that time, St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Jerrod Mahurin said such defense changes often result in motions for continuance.

At Friday’s hearing, Sara Marler of Anthony Caruthers’ defense team presented three reasons to Judge Horn as to why the legal team was requesting a continuance in the case.

First, Marler said, there had been significant pieces of evidence that the defendant and his defense had not received from the prosecution, including a hard drive.

“He (Caruthers) needs to be part of contributing to his defense,” Marler said. “He hasn’t been able to do that because he hasn’t had all the information.”

Next, Marler said, the defense has been in contact with a psychologist and believes that Caruthers should be psychologically evaluated to ensure he is fit to stand trial.

Third, Marler said, there is a witness essential to the defense’s case who is currently in California, which would require an out-of-state subpoena.

In response, Prosecuting Attorney Jerrod Mahurin said every vital piece of evidence had been turned over to the defense and he had additionally welcomed the defense team to come to his office to get anything they additionally required.

Mahurin said the hard drive that was referenced contains video footage of Caruthers leaving the Red Cedar Lodge, where the murder occurred. He said he did not intend to use the footage as evidence, as he is confident in the amount of other evidence he has.

He also pointed out that Caruthers’ mental competency had not been an issue raised throughout the course of the case to this point, except in an earlier attempt to suppress a recorded confession. In that instance, Caruthers’ previous attorneys had contended that a head injury and emotional duress resulted in Caruthers being unable to understand his Miranda rights.

He said raising the issue now seemed to be an attempt to further delay the trial, since it hadn’t been brought up until less than three weeks before the trial.

Mahurin additionally said that the witness in California is not an “essential” witness, as the person was also in California at the time of the murder.

When asked why the witness is essential to the defense, Marler said the witness had exchanged messages with VanStavern, which could be used to provide testimony about the victim’s state of mind.

Mahurin then introduced Kim VanStavern, the wife of the victim, to the court. She asked that the case not be continued, in order to more quickly put the matter to rest.

Marler said the intent was not to drag the case out or to put anybody through any unnecessary pain, but to ensure the defendant’s rights were protected. She said the fact that not all pertinent evidence had been in the defense’s hands is not Caruthers’ fault.

Hearing both arguments, Judge Horn initially said she was “torn” on the issue. She expressed a desire for the Feb. 8 and 9 trial dates to go as scheduled, but she was concerned with the arguments about Caruthers’ psychological competency.

She referenced a previous case, saying she would not want to have to try the case twice as a result of not ensuring Caruthers’ psychological ability to proceed with the trial the first time.

After a brief discussion with both attorneys, the judge sustained the motion for continuance while saying she did not intend to let the trial be put off for a long period of time. Caruthers’ jury trial was continued to April 23 and 24.

As previously reported, Caruthers was arrested on Nov. 3, 2016 following a police pursuit of an SUV on U.S. 67. A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper attempted to pull the vehicle over for a traffic violation but the driver of the vehicle refused to pull over and a chase ensued.

The SUV, later identified as a Porsche that belonged to Michael VanStavern, crashed in Desloge. Jeremy Reed, 37, of Farmington was a passenger in the vehicle and was quickly apprehended while the driver fled on foot.

VanStavern’s body was discovered in the back of the SUV, which prompted the beginning of the homicide investigation.

Several hours later, Caruthers was arrested not far from where the accident occurred. Caruthers confessed on video to killing VanStavern on Nov. 2 by strangling him.

Caruthers told authorities that he had picked up Reed after the murder to help him dispose of the body. The two also allegedly went to VanStavern’s Farmington apartment and took items including watches and clothing, which they unsuccessfully attempted to pawn.

Caruthers was charged with first degree murder, armed criminal action, second degree burglary, tampering with a motor vehicle, tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution and resisting arrest.

Weeks later, in Dec. 2016, Caruthers was charged for allegedly attempting to escape from the St. Francois County Jail. A deputy with the sheriff’s department reported seeing Caruthers and his cellmate, Frederick Beckett Hall, who was being held on a controlled substance charge, attempting to remove a section of the jail wall in order to escape.

Caruthers was additionally charged with attempted escape from custody while under arrest for a felony.

At a July 2017 hearing, Caruthers’ defense attempted to suppress the video evidence of his confession to the crime. At that hearing, the hour and a half confession video was played for the court and the officers involved were questioned.

The defense reasoned that Caruthers had sustained a head injury and was under severe emotional duress, rendering him incapable of understanding his Miranda rights. Judge Horn denied the request to suppress Caruthers’ recorded statements.

At the same hearing, Mahurin extended a plea deal to Caruthers on behalf of Vanstavern’s family, in order to avoid going through the lengthy trial process. Caruthers would have been charged with second degree murder rather than first degree, carrying the penalty of life in prison with the possibility of parole. The other various charges would have carried a combined 37 year prison sentence.

Caruthers refused the plea deal, opting instead to go to trial before a jury. He currently faces charges of first degree murder, armed criminal action, second degree burglary, two counts of first degree tampering with a motor vehicle, tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution, resisting arrest, attempted escape from custody, second degree burglary and theft of $500 or more.

Anthony Caruthers

Anthony Caruthers

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at jscott@dailyjournalonline.com.

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