Ariz. inmate defense: No kidnapping DNA evidence

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2011 4:59 PM
Ariz. inmate defense: No kidnapping DNA evidence

A defense lawyer for an Arizona inmate on trial for escaping and hijacking two truck drivers told a jury in Kingman on Wednesday that there's no physical evidence linking the prisoner to the crimes of which he is accused.

No DNA, fingerprints, forensic evidence or surveillance link John McCluskey, 46, to the kidnapping he's charged with, public defender Jason Steffen said.

"You can't find him guilty of any offense unless you decide the state has proved it beyond a reasonable doubt," Steffen said.

And prosecutors can't do that, he said.

The escape last July from Arizona State Prison in Golden Valley sparked a three-week, nationwide manhunt for McCluskey, two other inmates and a woman who acknowledged throwing cutting tools onto the grounds of the medium-security prison to help the men escape. McCluskey, another inmate and Casslyn Welch face separate murder charges in New Mexico, where they are accused of killing an Oklahoma couple while on the lam. The third inmate was caught separately in a shootout in Colorado a day after escaping.

Welch and inmate Tracy Province resolved their Arizona charges without trials.

Deputy County Attorney Victoria Stazio told jurors in her opening statement that McCluskey cut through a perimeter fence, ran into the desert and eventually confronted the drivers as they were pulled over, switching seats in their truck during a journey from California to Georgia.

"They told the drivers, `Don't mess with us, we just escaped from prison,'" Stazio said.

McCluskey, with Welch and another inmate, threatened the truckers with guns and eventually drove them roughly 150 miles to Flagstaff, leaving them at a gas station, Stazio said. McCluskey drove the truck, she said.

Along the way, the group stopped at a gas station to pick up supplies, with surveillance showing Welch buying items that were later found in the truck, Stazio said.

McCluskey also told the drivers, "You guys are lucky, you're alive because of her," Stazio told the jury.

McCluskey had been serving a 15-year prison term for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm when he escaped. He previously did time in Pennsylvania related to a string of armed robberies in the 1990s.

The prosecution called its first witnesses Wednesday in a trial that is expected to last until Friday. The truck drivers, who require interpreters, will likely testify Thursday, Stazio said.

Before the opening statements, public defender John Pecchia told Mohave County Superior Court Judge Steven Conn that jail guards had been aggressive with McCluskey, trying to irritate him in the hallways of the courthouse in between hearings.

"We need to calm everyone down," Pecchia said.

Guards have been extra alert around McCluskey because authorities have found weapons in his cell, including a razor blade and shank on Tuesday, Stazio said.

McCluskey, who wore a greenish-gray shirt, brown pants and black dress shoes in court on Wednesday, is under added security and is required to wear a stun belt during the trial.

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Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia.