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MU students take a look at appeals process

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Early one summer morning in 2009, Leon Adamy was walking out of his home when he heard three gunshots ring out from his neighbor's house across the street. Each shot, he said, was followed by a groan.

A year later, a Webster County jury found Julia Surbaugh guilty of murdering her husband, Michael, who was shot twice in the face and once in the head with a .22 caliber pistol.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Marshall University students got their first taste of criminal court proceedings as part of a West Virginia Supreme Court effort in different parts of the state to generate interest in the appeals system.

The Surbaugh case was one of three the justices picked to hear in front of the students at MU's Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. For much of the morning, the theater was packed nearly to capacity.

"We want students to see how the judicial system works," Chief Justice Menis E. Ketchum II said. "We want them to be exposed to more than just books."

Surbaugh was sentenced to life in prison in the murder of her husband, a former teacher who was forced to resign from the school system after he was caught with marijuana on school grounds.

In her petition for appeal, she alleged that the judge who heard the case made several errors that swayed the verdict, including a refusal to give jury instructions highlighting evidence that Michael Surbaugh emotionally abused her during their rocky marriage, according to her lawyer, Richard H. Lorensen.

Surbaugh argued that on the morning of the slaying, her husband approached her with the weapon, and she shot him twice after she managed to wrest it from him.

Also Tuesday, the justices heard arguments in a civil case in which a judge found that a man negligently provided alcohol to a group of teens and indirectly caused the death of a Jefferson County girl, who died in a car accident later that night.

The family of 14-year-old Jessica Staubs sued Jonathan Ray Marcus, 18, after he drove the girl, her friend and Steve Woodward, 25, to the store to buy alcohol. Woodward was convicted of buying several bottles of malt liquor and vodka for the girls. According to Marcus' lawyer, Tracy Rohrbaugh, there is no evidence that Marcus did anything more than simply drive Woodward and the two teens to the store.

According to Rohrbaugh, the girls chugged the drinks at a friend's house and stole a car. The teen driver lost control of the vehicle and struck an embankment. Staubs was killed on impact.

Rohrbaugh asked the court to reverse the circuit court's decision.

In the third case, which seemed to be the most captivating for the students who attended the hearings, lawyers for Ron and Rhonda Durham asked the justices to block the euthanasia of their dog, which allegedly viciously attacked a child who had wandered into their yard.

During a birthday party in Grant County, a 3-year-old toddler wandered into a neighbor's yard, where a Great Dane mix and a Rottweiler mix were chained. The dogs reportedly ripped the top of the child's scalp from behind the bangs line, ear to ear, and halfway to the back of her head, according to court filings.

The Durhams voluntarily euthanized the Great Dane, apparently because the dog participated in the bulk of the attack. The family appealed a Grant County Circuit judge's order to euthanize the other dog.

According to the lawyer for the family, the statute that the judge used as authority to order the dog's death is a criminal statute, and does not apply to a civil case.

The parents of the toddler had sued the Durhams in Grant County.

Tommy Ferrell, a freshman pre-law major, said he appreciated that the justices and lawyers took time during Tuesday's hearings to lay out the facts of the cases before launching into the legal arguments.

He was also glad that the justices picked interesting cases, he said.

"People have dogs. High school and college kids drink, unfortunately, and [interest in] first-degree murder has been popularized by things like 'Law & Order,'" he said.

Dain Bender, a freshman chemistry major, had heard about the hearings from his professor. He said he came away with a new perspective on the legal system.

"I just think there is a lot more to it than people realize," he said. It's just a really cool process."

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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