By Ed Runyan
In its simplest terms, Friday’s verdict in the trial of Michael S. Burns means he’ll be sentenced Jan. 14 in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court to up to 19 years in prison for being part of a July 12 burglary that resulted in the shooting death of his accomplice.
That’s because a jury found Burns, 34, of Mineral Ridge, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of accomplice Terry Allen and guilty of attempted aggravated burglary in the attempted break-in that led to Allen’s death.
But this case was far from simple, two jurors said as they left the courthouse Friday, and it led to more than three hours of deliberations that focused mostly on one point — whether a crowbar used during the attempted break-in was a deadly weapon.
“The law was complicated, vague. It was hard,” one juror said of deciding Burns was guilty of attempted aggravated burglary.
The jury also decided Burns was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which means he caused Allen’s death as a result of participating in the break-in. It didn’t matter that he didn’t actually pull the trigger, Judge Andrew Logan told the jurors.
Judge Logan gave the jurors instructions on the law that said for Burns to be guilty of the burglary, he or an accomplice had to have a deadly weapon with him.
The instructions also said that to be a deadly weapon, the crowbar had to be “possessed, carried or used in this case as a weapon.”
A second juror said deciding whether Burns, Allen and a third man outside the house, Scott Crislip, 18, were treating the crowbar as a weapon rather than just a break-in tool was hard to do. Eventually they agreed the burglars were treating it as a weapon.
Police found the crowbar leaning against the front door of Roy Hahn’s house on Niles-Cortland Road in Niles after Hahn fired his shotgun through the front door, killing burglar Terry Allen.
The burglars first used the crowbar to unsuccessfully break open the side door. Then Allen tried using it to open the front door, but the shotgun blast sent the two surviving burglars running and left Allen dead.
The second juror said they didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether Burns was guilty of murder — another of the charges Burns faced — because Burns had no intent to see his friend Allen get killed.
Chris Becker, an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor, said the jury’s verdict should send this message: “Defendants who commit felonious acts will be held responsible for the death of their accomplices.”
He said the message a homeowner should receive who faces a situation such as this homeowner did: You have a right to defend yourself.
Becker and Ronald Yarwood, Burns’ defense attorney, told jurors earlier Friday in closing arguments that deciding whether the crowbar was a weapon would play a crucial role in their deliberations.
Becker twice dropped the crowbar on the floor so jurors could hear the loud, solid noise it made.
“Thank God this wasn’t used as a weapon,” Becker said. “If you don’t think this could be a deadly weapon, then by all means, acquit him and give it back to him,” Becker said.
Yarwood, conversely, said, prosecutors provided no evidence that the crowbar had been used as a deadly weapon.
The burglars were attempting to get inside to steal copper, which can take a long time. They never would have tried to do that if they thought someone was inside the house, Yarwood said.
As to the murder charge, Yarwood said: “Reason and common sense tells you, he is not a murderer.”
Becker said he believes Burns’ convictions will persuade the other defendants in the case to accept a plea agreement.
Burns, whose nickname is “Meatball,” admitted during a videotaped interview with Niles police that he, Allen, 37, and Allen’s wife Nichole, 35, of Mineral Ridge; Scott Crislip, 18, of Niles; and Mindy Sierra, 32, of Niles, planned and participated in the attempted break-in.
Nichole Allen and Sierra dropped off the three men but were waiting at a coffee shop and were going to pick them back up when the job was done, Burns said.
Becker said the Allens left their four children alone at home while they participated in the crimes. He said they wanted money so they could attend the Trumbull County Fair the next night.