Spellman trial heads to jury

NEVADA — Two contrasting version of events were presented by the prosecution and defense attorneys in their closing arguments Thursday in the trial of former ISU student Atiba Spellman.  Spellman is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Shakena “Amy” Varnell and Michael Odikro.

The prosecution

In the state of Iowa’s closing argument, prosecutor Mary Howell-Sirna,  said the murders of Varnell and Odikro were planned and malicious, and called Spellman’s actions “cold and calculated.”

“This was a situation that he set up,” Howell-Sirna said.

She repeatedly said “he knew” Varnell was seeing Odikro. She said the state’s evidence substantiated this claim. A number of witnesses testified that they were aware of the affair, including Alonte Lopez, Varnell’s son. Urgano Lopez, Alonte’s father, and Shameka Veasey, Varnell’s friend, also testified that they spoke to Spellman about the affair, conversations in which Spellman complained about Varnell’s trustworthiness. Howell-Sirna said Spellman wanted to show Varnell’s family “what she was really like” so that they wouldn’t hold her death against him.

She said Spellman tried to establish an alibi by calling his boss and lying about his whereabouts. She said he also made sure there were no witnesses to the crimes by ensuring Varnell’s two children were not at Odikro’s apartment.

This, Howell-Sirna said, was a sign of premeditated murder.

Spellman, who was kicked out of the house they shared before Thanksgiving, nearly two weeks before the murders, wouldn’t leave Varnell alone, Howell-Sirna said.

“This wasn’t the loving relationship that he created in his head,” she said.

The affair was the reason Spellman planned months in advance to kill the pair, Howell-Sirna said.

“To say that [Spellman] didn’t know about their relationship is an insult to your common sense,” she said to the jury.

Prior to their deaths, Howell-Sirna said, Spellman made repeated threats to the life of Odikro, which showed he was planning on taking action against the man who took Varnell away from him. She said, in Spellman’s mind, “if [Spellman] can’t have her, nobody’s gonna have her.”

The defense

Paul Rounds, Spellman’s attorney,  said the manslaughter defense was adopted in colonial times for crimes of passion and adultery, which is the conviction he said Spellman deserves.

“On December 6, Atiba Spellman committed two counts of manslaughter,” Rounds said.

He said common sense told the jury “a reasonable person would have reacted” violently if he or she caught their partner cheating like Spellman had the night he killed Varnell and Odikro.

The defense focused its attention on the arguments of the prosecution’s case.

Rounds said that the prosecution’s assertion Spellman planned to commit the murders before the night of Dec. 5 is ridiculous.

According to the defense, Varnell and Spellman had made plans for Friday night — the night of the murders, and Varnell and Spellman had rectified their relationship prior to the homicides.

“Amy had let Atiba back into the house,” Rounds said.

Although Spellman suspected Varnell and Odikro were involved, Rounds said, he was uncertain. He said Spellman waited outside Odikro’s apartment that night in an attempt to see for himself that Varnell was in fact cheating on him. Before that night, Varnell denied allegations of her cheating.

“Love is blind, and Atiba was blind,” Rounds said.

This was why Spellman waited outside for hours watching the house, Rounds said. Spellman snapped and was caught up in the heat of passion when he approached Odikro’s house and saw Varnell answer the door wearing nothing but a comforter. She spat in Spellman’s face and then turned to attack him, Rounds said.

“Whose blood wouldn’t boil at this point?” Rounds asked.

In addition, Rounds called into question the credibility of a number of the prosecution’s witnesses and evidence.

Rounds questioned the seriousness of the perceived threats made against Odikro. He said if these threats were in fact serious, those who heard them should have called the police.

“These people knew Atiba, and they knew he wasn’t serious,” Rounds said.

He said most of the witnesses aimed to help the state’s case. Shameka Veasey, he cited, even said she wanted to see Spellman “rot in hell.” The prosecution, Rounds alleged, coached several witnesses, which led to a misrepresentation of events by the state’s evidences.

As Rounds approached his final arguments, his voice quieted.

“The state’s evidence has not eliminated a crime of passion,” Rounds said.


Howell-Sirna quickly rose and began the rebuttal for the state.

“We believe we have proven two counts of first-degree murder,” Howell-Sirna said.

She explained that the State’s case is relying on forensic evidence.

“[Rounds] wants you to put the victims on trial,” Howell-Sirna said.

The state argued that Spellman thought about his actions while he sat outside Ordikro’s apartment on Dec. 5 and 6.

Howell-Sirna said Spellman would have had the time to suppress his emotions.

“He chose not to,” she said.

She also claimed Spellman could have turned himself in at any time.

“A revenge killing is always murder, and that is what we have here,” she said.

The state asked the jury to return with a verdict of guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for Spellman.

The jury is now responsible for determining Spellman’s conviction.

For each count of murder, the jury has five options: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and not guilty.

The jury will reconvene 9 a.m. Friday to continue deliberations.

Continue checking the Daily for coverage of the jury’s final verdict.