Thursday, April 20, 2000

S. Lebanon man found guilty of reckless homicide in death

BY Sheila McLaughlin and Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — A Warren County jury found a South Lebanon man guilty of a lesser charge of reckless homicide late Wednesday in the killing of his neighbor and acquitted him of wounding his landlord, who was struck by the same bullet.

        James Roark, 61, an unemployed contractor, now faces four to eight years in prison for the death of of Jacqueline Sue Burns, who was shot Oct. 16.

        He had been indicted on a charge of aggravated murder, but Judge P. Daniel Fedders instructed jurors Wednesday to consider less serious charges of murder and reckless homicide in addition to the aggravated murder charge.

        Jurors began deliberating at midafternoon, and six hours later returned to the courtroom with procedural questions.

        Minutes later, they announced their verdict.

        Judge Fedders ordered a presentence investigation, and Mr. Roark remained in custody Wednesday night.

        “Obviously, this is a victory for us,” said Mr. Roark's attorney, Rupert Ruppert. “We never felt from the beginning that he intentionally shot this woman. He was extremely intoxicated on alcohol and pills. It was just a matter of horseplay.”

        He said Mr. Roark had been willing to plead guilty to the reckless homicide charge, but that was rejected by prosecutors.

        James Beaton, assistant prosecutor, said the hope was for at least a murder conviction.

        “I'm sure it wasn't an easy case for the jury,” he said. “I respect their decision even if I don't agree with it.”

        Members of Mr. Roark's family sobbed and hugged after the verdict was announced.

        Mr. Roark had testified that he did not remember the killing after consuming at least 22 beers and taking two or three nerve pills.

        “Jim Roark is not an evil man. He was reckless,” Mr. Ruppert said in closing arguments. “He was stupid, and he's going to pay the price. Never did we ask you to let him off the hook — just to convict him of the right offense.”

        However, prosecutors claimed that Mr. Roark shot Mrs. Burns, 48, in the head with a .38 Special revolver after she lost $200 to him in a card game, then couldn't pay the debt. They said Mr. Roark was agitated by a series of events throughout the day, and the card game was the last straw after a night of drinking and partying at the Morrow Road apartment complex where they were neighbors.

        Earlier Wednesday, a toxicologist for the prosecution disputed Mr. Roark's contention that he blacked out from a combination of alcohol and Valium at the time of the killing and was not responsible for his actions.

        Harry B. Plotnick said he thought Mr. Roark lied about the number of beers he consumed before he shot Mrs. Burns at 11 p.m. A breath test conducted three hours after the slaying showed that Mr. Roark's blood alcohol content was 0.149. But Mr. Plotnick said the test results would have been much higher — close to lethal levels — if Mr. Roark, who weighs 160 lbs., actually drank 22 beers in about nine hours.

        However, a toxicologist for the defense testified that the combination of alcohol and Valium could have caused Mr. Roark to experience a blackout that allowed him to remain conscious without knowing what he was doing.


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