Goat Trial Ends With Acquittal
Hartland Man Found Not Guilty of Charges
White River Junction — A jury acquitted Hartland resident Nick Ashline on all five charges Friday of paying another man to kill a Vermont game warden’s goats out of revenge nearly 21 months ago.
Ashline was acquitted on three counts of accessory to a crime and two counts of obstructing justice in Windsor Superior Court. If he had been convicted on all counts, Ashline could have faced a maximum of 29 years in prison.
As a juror read out the five not guilty verdicts in the courtroom Friday afternoon, Ashline sat rigidly in his chair, revealing no emotion. But behind him, his 12-year-old daughter placed a hand over her mouth while his wife rubbed the back of her 9-year-old son.
Minutes later, Ashline, walked out of the courthouse a free man with his family.
“Peter, thank you very much,” Ashline said to his defense attorney, Peter Decato, from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck outside the courthouse in Windsor as he drove his family away.
After two and a half days of listening to witness testimonies, the 12 jurors — nine men and three women — spent three hours and 15 minutes deliberating before announcing the verdict.
Two jurors declined to comment and the rest could not be reached for comment.
According to court documents and witness accounts, Ashline, 35 of Hartland, was alleged to have offered to pay Daniel Parry, of Windsor, to kill game warden Stephen Majeski’s goats on Oct. 29, 2011.
Throughout the week, four men who were with Ashline that night testified.
But the stories of the men and family members of Ashline varied, with some testifying that they overheard Ashline offer Parry money, while others said they heard no such conversations.
The testimonies essentially boiled down to one man’s story against the others.
Parry, who took the stand on Wednesday, said he was paid $160 by Ashline. But Ashline testified that he never paid Parry to kill Majeski’s goats.
In his closing argument, Decato urged jurors to look for a lack of clarity and lying in the witnesses’ testimony.
“In the last couple days, there has been lying in this courtroom,” Decato said. He reminded the jury that they could only reach a guilty verdict if they believed the evidence and testimony against his client was “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Emphasizing an either/or outcome, Decato told the jury that they could chose to believe Parry, who acknowledged that he took 10, 30-milligram oxycontin pills and drank numerous beers the night of the goat attacks, or they could believe Ashline.
“This case is really quite simple,” Decato told the jury. “Are you satisfied in your hearts and minds that there is significant evidence that Nick paid Dan Parry to do it?”
But in the state’s closing argument, Assistant Attorney General Cathy Norman posed the question why Parry attacked the goats on Oct. 29. Parry, who previously pleaded guilty to two charges of animal cruelty, admitted he sliced the goats’ throats — killing one and seriously injuring another — because he wanted money for drugs. Parry never knew Majeski, Norman argued, nor did he know where he lived.
Footprints found by police that night showed that Parry approached the Majeski’s property and walked along the treeline and directly into the barn where the goats were kept.
“Ask yourselves this: How could Parry possibly have known where to go if the defendant didn’t tell him?” Norman said.
Norman argued that Ashline wanted to kill the goats because he had a “festering grudge” against Majeski for investigating him for allegedly illegally killing deer. (No charges were ever filed).
“He wanted to retaliate against the warden,” Norman told the jury.
Norman and Assistant Attorney General Evan Meenan declined to comment after the verdict was announced.
After a little more than an hour of deliberation, the jurors sent a note to Judge Robert Gerety asking to rehear the testimony of Colby Bowen about what he heard in Ashline’s garage the night of the killing.
Bowen, one of the men who rode in the truck on Oct. 29 when Parry was dropped off near Majeski’s house, testified he overheard Ashline telling Parry that he would pay him to kill Majeski’s goats.
Going into the trial, Decato said he didn’t know if Ashline would testify, but afterward he said he was proud of him for doing so.
“I felt and he felt that the jury wanted to see him,” Decato said outside the courthouse following the trial on Friday. “He is a pretty blunt guy. He was willing to answer as many questions as possible and frankly wished he could have answered more questions.”
Ashline’s first defense attorney, Matthew Harnett, died in November. Decato only recently picked up Ashline’s case.
As Decato spoke in front of the courthouse, a juror drove by with his car window rolled down, waved at Decato and said, “Attorney Decato, nice job!”
When the verdict was announced inside the courthouse a few minutes earlier, Ashline stood up and looked at his family with no expression. But as his family wrapped him in a group hug, he tucked his head down and smiled.
As the Ashline’s celebrated, Majeski and his wife, Carolanne, locked hands and walked quietly out of the courtroom.
“Today was a tremendous miscarriage of justice, I believe all parties involved on both sides know that is true,” Majeski wrote in an email. “However, a case is only as good as its investigation, so although I am disappointed, I am not surprised.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.