Man guilty of manslaughter in fatal shooting of neighbor — (Mobile Register)

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Mobile Register (AL)

August 24, 2000

Author: GARY McELROY; Staff Reporter

Man guilty of manslaughter in fatal shooting of neighbor By GARY McELROY, Staff Reporter

54-year-old Vernon Chestang Jr. faces 10 to 20 years in prison.    A Mobile County jury convicted Vernon Chestang Jr. of manslaughter Wednesday in the 1999 shooting death of his East Nottingham Drive neighbor, 63-year-old Donald Edward Eckhoff Sr.

Chestang, 54, against whom prosecutors had sought a murder conviction during the two-day trial, now faces 10 to 20 years in prison.  If he had been convicted of murder, he would have faced a maximum sentence of life.   Circuit Judge Herman Thomas set sentencing for Oct. 6.

Assistant district attorney Edmond Naman asked Thomas to order Chestang into custody. The defendant has been out on bond since shortly after the Aug. 7, 1999, shooting.

Naman told Thomas that with the two families continuing to live next door to each other, the defendant’s incarceration would assure “his safety as well as others.”

But defense attorney Dennis Knizley said the families had given each other no trouble since the shooting and there was no indication they would now.

Thomas allowed Chestang to remain free on bond.

Jurors deliberated Tuesday afternoon for nearly three hours without agreeing on a verdict, then returned to the courthouse at Government Plaza and conferred another hour and 45 minutes on Wednesday before announcing their decision.

More than two dozen court police officers were spread throughout the courtroom when the verdict was delivered.   But families of both victim and defendant took the news of Chestang’s conviction quietly.

Throughout the trial, Eckhoff’s large family endured derogatory comments about the victim from both the defense and the prosecution, who described him as an obnoxious reactionary with an acid tongue.

After the verdict, some members of the Eckhoff family smiled for the first time since the trial began. Others, who frequently wept during the trial, continued to do so.

Eckhoff’s widow and her numerous sons and daughters hugged each other with relief as they stood crowded in a tiny conference room.   Chestang’s family members appeared stunned as they emerged from Thomas’ court.

Naman, in a passionate closing statement on Tuesday, told jurors that despite the victim’s aggressive personality, Eckhoff “did not deserve to die” and Chestang “did not deserve to kill him.”

He said he felt no glee upon hearing the verdict.

“Poor Mr. Eckhoff cannot be brought back from the dead,” Naman said. “But his family was able to see some manner of justice.”

He said the defendant’s loved-ones displayed “a great amount of dignity and showed themselves to be a fine family.”    “This didn’t have to happen,” he said.

Defense attorney Dan Mims agreed, but contended outside court that the state failed to prove his client did not act in self-defense.

“That is their burden,” he said. “The evidence is clear in this case, as clear as I will ever see it, that this man, the deceased, was undoubtedly the aggressor, and not only the aggressor against Vernon Chestang, but the aggressor for years against numerous other people.”

According to a half-dozen witnesses, Eckhoff baited, threatened, cursed, insulted and physically attacked neighbors and co-workers over many years in various neighborhoods and work sites. His police records included arrests for menacing, witnesses testified.  When he died, an autopsy revealed, he had traces of five different anti-depressants in his system.

Witnesses testified they feared him and went out of their way to avoid encountering him.

One of Eckhoff’s sons said outside court that although his father had a heart condition, he was the kind of man who would never back down or away from a fight or argument. That fierceness, the son said, translated into a fierce loyalty to his family.

Another Eckhoff son wore a big tattoo on the back of his neck that said: “In Memory of Pops.”

Chestang’s and Eckhoff’s last bitter encounter – after many such encounters over the previous year – ended when Chestang, armed with a .22-caliber pistol, and Eckhoff, unarmed, spat insults and challenges to each other as they stood on the edges of their respective properties.

Police testified Chestang told them he thought Eckhoff was reaching for a gun and out of fear he fired a single slug into the victim’s chest.   It was Chestang who called 911.

Copyright 2000, Mobile Register. All Rights Reserved. Used by NewsBank with Permission.
Record Number:  MERLIN_471610