Published: January 16. 2010 1:15AM
Shooter convicted of 3rd-degree murder in Erie slaying
Jury finds murder, not self-defense, in April incident
By LISA THOMPSONlisa.firstname.lastname@example.org
Joel Atkin told jurors he had no choice but to shoot Jayson Sack.
The jury listened to his account of the shooting and the accounts of others who witnessed it.
They found that Atkin fired his .357 Magnum out of recklessness, negligence and malice, not in self-defense.
The jury deliberated about seven hours over two days before finding Atkin guilty of third-degree murder in Sack's April 25 death.
The panel also convicted Atkin of aggravated assault for pointing a loaded handgun at Sack's brother, Vincent Sack, during the dispute, and of reckless endangerment. Atkin was acquitted of possessing an instrument of a crime.
Sentencing is set for March 4 before Erie County Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr. Third-degree murder carries a maximum possible sentence of 40 years in prison.
Atkin, 23, remained calm as the verdict was read. Afterward, Sack's family members and friends, dozens of whom attended the trial daily, quietly hugged one another.
"I always wanted justice. I never wanted anything more than that for my brother," said Vincent Sack, 33.
Assistant District Attorney Erin Connelly said the prosecution was "very, very happy with the verdict."
"We put in everything we had," she said.
Atkin's mother left the courtroom in tears. Jurors were escorted from the building by county sheriff's deputies.
Atkin's lawyer, Jon Pushinsky, of Pittsburgh, called the verdict disappointing. He said Atkin did what he thought was necessary to defend himself. He credited the jury for listening to the evidence carefully.
"They did what the judge told them to do," he said.
Testimony during the trial indicated that Jayson Sack, 30, had left a family picnic to roll up his car windows and that Atkin stopped his car in the street and got out with a handgun, and the two began to argue. One witness testified that Atkin stopped his car after Sack yelled at him to slow down.
Atkin claimed he stopped his car because he thought he had hit something. He said Sack approached him, "deranged" and "screaming," and physically attacked him, putting him in a chokehold.
He said he was forced to fire at Sack in self-defense because he reasonably believed he was in danger of serious injury or death and had no avenue of escape. Pushinsky told jurors the evidence showed Sack was legally drunk and had addictive prescription drugs in his system at the time of the shooting.
"He couldn't turn his back on this man," Pushinsky said.
"The reason you have a right to a firearm, " Pushinsky told the jury, "is to protect yourself."
Connelly told jurors that Atkin was the one who started a dispute with Sack by pointing a gun at him for no reason. She said Atkin, a 2007 graduate of the criminal-justice program at Mercyhurst North East, stopped his car and got out with a gun because he was angry that Sack yelled at him to slow down.
"You don't get to provoke a situation" and then claim self-defense, Connelly said.
Atkin, who was within two feet of his open car door, could have retreated, the prosecution argued, but instead chose to advance on Sack with a gun. He squeezed the trigger twice, once to get past an empty chamber and a second time to fire the gun into Sack, when Sack tried to knock the gun away from Atkin, Connelly said.
Key evidence came from a recording of the 911 call Atkin made as Sack approached him.
Connelly played the recording repeatedly. There was no sound of the struggle Atkin described before the shot was fired.