At 2:30 p.m. Friday Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson delivered the unwelcome news to the family and friends of Kenneth Winter that a conviction of second-degree murder for the defendant Michael Hoyt was looking less and less likely and a hung jury was a very real possibility.
Almost 45 minutes later their heartbreak became official.
A Stanislaus County Superior Court jury found Hoyt not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, but after three days of deliberations jurors were unable to reach a verdict on the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter.
“I’m so disappointed with this,” a teary-eyed Jan Knudson, Winter’s sister, said once the verdicts had been read. “They (the jury) did the best they could…I guess. What is so unfair is that I feel we didn’t get to represent Ken as he really was. He wasn’t a maniac or a wild man. He was a very good man.”
Hoyt, 53, was on trial for the death of 67-year-old Winter. The prosecution’s case against Hoyt was built on the theory that Hoyt was so angry over a traffic incident with Winter that he initiated a fight with him by stopping in the middle of Paulson Road and beat him severely enough to cause a fatal injury to Winter’s spleen.
The defense claimed Hoyt stopped alongside Paulson Road to see why Winter was driving so erratically and that it was Winter who was the aggressor in the altercation. From the day of his arrest on Feb. 1, 2010, Hoyt has maintained that he was never in a rage over the traffic dust-up and testified that he was taken aback when Winter swung first at him.
When the jury of seven women and five men returned to the courtroom Friday afternoon they announced they had reached a verdict on some of the charges but had come to an impasse on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. The jury foreperson said they had voted three times and were unable to reach a unanimous decision. Without indicating which way the vote was going, the foreperson said they were split 10 to 2. Individually, each juror told Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira, who was substituting for Judge Ricardo Cordova, that they didn’t believe the court could do anything to help them reach a verdict.
It was at this point that issues became muddled for the jury. One juror spoke up and told the judge that they did have a verdict on a charge below the count of involuntary manslaughter.
“We did reach a verdict on a lesser offense. There seems to be some confusion with this,” the juror told the judge.
After a brief counsel with the attorneys, Silveira instructed the jury that they could not deliver a verdict on a lesser charge without reaching a verdict on the charge above it.
The acquittal on the most serious of the charges and the mistrial on the lower charge was a vindication Hoyt said he had long been waiting for.
“I wept with tears of joy when they read the verdict,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt will return to court on Thursday for a bail refund hearing. It’s expected at that time that the district attorney’s office will announce if they are going to retry Hoyt on the involuntary manslaughter charge.