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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald, Published November 03 2012

Jury Acquits Samshal of attempted murder

Travis Samshal, 27, was found not guilty of attempted murder by a jury of six women and six men in Grand Forks Friday night.

But the jury said he was guilty of reckless endangerment for firing a rifle at his roommate last December, which means he must serve at least two years in prison.

Samshal admitted during his testimony this week in state district court in Grand Forks that he fired his 7 mm hunting rifle toward Leo Franco from a few feet away in their south Grand Forks apartment on Dec. 14.

But he said he intentionally missed Franco, trying to scare his roommate away.

Samshal said Franco acted aggressive toward him and he was scared of his roommate because Franco had beaten him up a few weeks before on Thanksgiving Day.

Prosecutors contend that Samshal was drunk and tried to kill Franco, telling police at the time that he had “hated” Franco “for a long time.”

Franco was in court Friday night to hear the sentence. He left afterward with friends, declining to comment.

Samshal’s family surrounded him after the verdict, hugging him. Samshal, too, declined comment because he still faces a sentencing on Dec. 14. He now lives in East Grand Forks.

Franco’s actions

But during closing arguments by both sides earlier Friday, Franco was obviously emotional in hearing the allegations recited, at one point wiping away tears.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the trial was that both roommates felt obliged to testify that they are not gay, because Samshal said unwanted advances by Franco were part of his controlling, aggressive behavior that concerned Samshal.

Franco’s Cuban heritage was raised as an issue at trial as he explained why he showed affection to Samshal, who he said he viewed as a younger brother.

Franco testified he was worried back on Dec. 14 that Samshal, depressed over how his life was going, was going to shoot himself. So he insisted on trying to talk to him in his bedroom.

He emigrated to the United States a decade ago and became a U.S. citizen seven years ago, Franco said.

Penalties to come

The maximum prison sentence for reckless endangerment is five years. Because he used a dangerous weapon, Samshal must serve a mandatory minimum of two years in prison.

In addition to the mandatory minimum sentence of two years, he must serve at least 85 percent of whatever sentence state District Judge Debbie Kleven pronounces Dec. 14 before he’s eligible for parole because of the violent nature of his crime.

The maximum prison sentence for attempted murder is 20 years.

The jury deliberated six hours Friday, announcing it had reached a verdict at about 8 p.m. Jurors declined to comment as they left the darkened courthouse and walked into the snow.

The prosecution asked that Samshal, who has been free on bond, be held until sentencing. But Judge Kleven said she would agree to extend his current $5,000 bond because he had undergone treatment for his drinking, held a steady job and had no access to firearms.

Jason McCarthy, the assistant state’s attorney who led the prosecution, told Judge Kleven he was concerned for the public’s safety.

During the trial, Samshal didn’t think he did anything wrong by “firing a high-powered rifle in an occupied apartment building,” McCarthy said.

Attorneys respond

Blake Hankey, Samshal’s attorney, said while he is pleased the jury acquitted his client of attempted murder, he’s disappointed by the reckless endangerment conviction.

The evidence seemed clear that Samshal feared Franco and was acting in self-defense when he fired the bullet, Hankey said.

It was clear from questions posed by the jury for Judge Kleven during deliberations that they were wrestling with the issues of self-defense and excessive force, Hankey said.

McCarthy, who worked with Assistant State’s Attorney Meredith Larson on the case, said they were not disappointed in the verdict.

“We feel that the jury took the time to… follow the evidence,” convicting Samshal of a serious felony that will mean prison time, McCarthy said. “Ultimately they are the decision-maker.”