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Murder trial's jury foreman describes tough decisions

New Richmond police Lt. Veronica Koehler displays a pair of shoes to St. Croix County jurors last month during Cristian Nunez’s homicide trial. Prosecutors said the shoes, found stashed in a dumpster, belonged to Nunez. DNA testing revealed the shoes contained the blood of murder victim Courtney Bradford. An audio recorder containing extensive recordings was also found inside one of the shoes. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Mike Longaecker)

A pair of discarded shoes that contained the blood of a murder victim and a hidden audio recorder doomed Cristian Nunez in the eyes of a St. Croix County jury.

The jury foreman said revelations surrounding those camouflage shoes helped convince fellow jurors that Nunez committed the murders of Courtney Bradford and her 10-year-old daughter, Jasmine.

"If it weren't for those shoes," Roberts resident Dan Jacobs said, "it would have been tough."

Jacobs served as foreman during deliberations after the weeklong trial. The jury convicted Nunez on all counts stemming from the Sept. 2, 2015, New Richmond incident, including two counts of first-degree intentional homicide and arson.

Jacobs said he took an initial vote after the jury received the case. Five people "weren't comfortable" convicting during that vote, he said.

Nunez was convicted in spite of the fact that neither his DNA nor his fingerprints were found on the scene. The murder weapon also was never found.

"Circumstantial evidence trials are hard," Jacobs said, noting he previously served on a St. Croix County burglary-case trial.

The Nunez jury discussed the case more and the doubters were winnowed to three people. Jacobs said their reservations included difficulty seeing how Nunez could have sustained leg burns from setting the fire without any scorching or burns left on his shoes.

That took convincing, Jacobs said, noting how those jurors were reminded how a state arson investigator testified that he had seen flames travel up pant legs many times without burning shoes.

"(That) was the piece of compelling evidence, from a witness standpoint, that we were able to link him to setting the fire," Jacobs said.

The three jurors also wanted a better fix on the timeline established in a series of text messages leading up to the Bradfords' deaths between Nunez and Courtney.

While the court reporter had the unenviable task of reading back the profane messages to the jury, that reading did not include the dates and times each message was sent. But "when they heard the words again" they left an impression, Jacobs said.

Also telling, he said, was the abrupt end to the torrent of texts, which ended the day of the killings.

"You would still be texting her" otherwise, Jacobs said.

The larger timeline showed a three-hour gap from when Courtney Bradford had a Facetime conversation with her son and when Nunez was located in Iowa on his eventual flight to El Paso, Texas.

The jury examined that window of time, Jacobs said, and concluded it could account for the time it took to commit the murders, set the fire, go back to the Hudson Regency Inn to shower, ditch the shoes and to drive to Iowa.

Questions raised by defense attorney Brian Smestad also lingered: Why weren't things like a gasoline can found floating in the basement near Jasmine's body tested for fingerprints or DNA? Jacobs said skeptical jurors were reminded that items like plastic gas cans have porous surfaces, where prints wouldn't easily be left.

And even if prints were found throughout the house, that would have been irrelevant, Jacobs said, since Nunez had lived with the Bradfords just weeks earlier.

"When you've got the murderer that's been at the house at the invitation of the victim, some of the prints are meaningless," he said.

The most poignant moment of the trial for Jacobs — and other jurors, he said — was when New Richmond firefighter Jeffrey Rothmeier broke down on the stand while he recalled discovering Jasmine's body.

"For me, that was the biggest," Jacobs said, "and I think for a lot of jurors it was. That, to me, probably affected me the most."

Jacobs said deliberations never got heated and all jurors were respectful of the subject and the process.

And while he said jury duty isn't something most people look forward to, the Nunez trial reminded him of its importance in the criminal justice system.

"Next to serving in the military, it's your average citizen's best chance to be part of the process," said Jacobs, a retired Army pilot.

He said jury service may offer moments of intrigue and excitement, but "it's a big burden having another person's life in your hands."

Mike Longaecker
Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker
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