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Published October 06 2011

Breckenridge jury finds man guilty in ex-girlfriend's slaying

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. – The man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend two years ago in her Doran home was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole Thursday.

Jeffrey Silvernail was found guilty after four and a half hours of deliberation capping a seven-day trial for the murder of Lori Roberts, said Wilkin County Attorney Tim Fox.

The jury of seven women and five men received the case against the 46-year-old early Thursday afternoon, after attorneys gave their closing arguments lasting more than three hours.

Because a conviction for first-degree carries by state law a mandatory prison term of life without parole, Wilkin County District Court Judge Gerald Siebel immediately pronounced the sentence.

Fox said he was happy for the Roberts family, who waited two years to see the estranged boyfriend they immediately suspected in the killing convicted.

“It’s been a long time for them,” Fox said.

Silvernail was the last person known to see Roberts alive, and he was also the one to call 911 to report her death in the home the couple shared. Roberts died from fatal gunshots to her chest and chin after she got home from work in the early hours of Oct. 2, 2009.

In their closing argument, prosecutors argued Silvernail’s guilt was proven by his motive and opportunity.

“There’s no single piece of forensic evidence that ties this case together (because Silvernail) controlled and manipulated the crime scene,” argued Eric Schieferdecker of the Attorney General’s Office.

Silvernail also owned the same type of handgun that likely killed Roberts: a 9 mm Hi-Point that Silvernail claimed was stolen.

Schieferdecker showed jurors text messages between Silvernail and Roberts sent in the days and hours before the murder.

The texts, he argued, illustrate Silvernail’s volatile emotions for Roberts, as well as her growing distance to him as she moved on to another man.

The couple had been dating since 2005 but broke up just days before the murder. Silvernail was in the process of moving out.

Schieferdecker said the impassioned text messages and diary entries by Silvernail contrast his statements to investigators, in which he seemed detached and rehearsed except when asked questions he hadn’t anticipated.

After Schieferdecker spent an hour reviewing the evidence, defense attorney James Austad gave his own remarks for nearly two hours.

Austad stressed Silvernail’s innocence and criticized prosecutors and investigators for targeting Silvernail without looking at other suspects.

“This (prosecution) is a reversal of everything that’s logical,” he said. “The state’s case is a rush to judgment, only based on assumptions, speculation, rumors and innuendo.”

Austad pointed to DNA evidence, which neither clears nor implicates Silvernail, but reveals the possibility that someone else was with Roberts before Silvernail returned home the mid-morning of Oct. 2 and found her dead.

Samples taken from Roberts’ pajamas, in particular, show a mixture of DNA that came from at least two men.

Silvernail was matched to a sample, but one or more males who also contributed to the mixture were unidentified, he said.

“It does not make sense that this occurred the way the state says it did,” Austad said. “Lori Roberts deserves justice, but it’s not justice to convict an innocent man. There are many reasonable doubts, and that’s because he didn’t do it.”

Forum reporters Dave Roepke and Wendy Reuer contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporterKristen Daum at (701) 241-5541