It took a jury of 12 less than four hours to find defendant Sean McGeough guilty of strangling his 54-year-old sister to death.
McGeough, 56, sat still and expressionless as the verdict was read on Nov. 18.
In a poll, each juror confirmed that they had found the prosecution’s case to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt – that the defendant had murdered Stephanie McGeough sometime between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2 of 2016 while staying at her San Andreas apartment.
The jury rejected the defense’s narrative that the defendant discovered his sister’s body after she committed suicide, covered it in clothing and frozen items, and fled in a paranoid state, using her Chevrolet Tahoe and debit card for his intended purpose of committing suicide in the hills of Nevada.
“He freaked out and did some weird stuff,” Public Defender Richard Esquivel said in his closing argument. “Grieving people do weird things.”
The jury never heard Sean McGeough’s story in his own words, as the defendant did not take the stand.
Nonetheless, the defense maintained that the expert testimonies of two forensic pathologists – one assigned to the case and another consulted by the defense – was not enough evidence to render a guilty verdict. The first ruled the manner of death undetermined, and the second ruled it a suicide.
“I’m flabbergasted,” Esquivel told the Enterprise after the trial. “I don’t think they had any evidence to justify first-degree murder.”
The prosecution argued that the pathologist hired by the defense, Dr. Judy Melinek, did not have all of the evidence from the case provided to her and, therefore, could not present a fully-informed opinion.
Cpl. Deayrian Sanchez with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office returned to the stand during the prosecution's rebuttal, refuting Melinek’s observation that strings attached to the ligature shown in evidence photos could have been used to carry out suicide by strangulation.
Sanchez, who claimed she was present during the autopsy, stated that the strings were placed by pathologist Dr. Jason Tovar as visual markers after the removal of the ligature.
In his closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Brad Jones laid out the prosecution’s case, reviewing evidence including a spike in energy usage at the apartment that allegedly correlated with a cranked-down thermostat, and extensive written materials kept by the victim.
Though journal entries dated several years before her death detailed ideation and an attempt of suicide, there was no suicide note found at the scene, Jones stated.
“Sure, she had problems. Her mental history is a tragedy,” Jones said of Stephanie McGeough. “But the defendant should not get away with murder just because her life contained tragedy.”
Jones reviewed the cause of death before the jury: a nylon strap wrapped three times around the victim’s neck and hair, tied with a partial knot and tightened with enough force to fracture both sides of her thyroid cartilage. Her head was also covered with a plastic bag.
The victim’s blood alcohol level at the time of her death was a minimum of .17, according to experts.
“This is not the way someone would kill herself. There is no reason for her to pull her hair and cause herself extra pain,” Jones said. “(The defendant) waited for her to become intoxicated and caught her off guard.”
According to the prosecution, the defendant was angry at his mother for “abandoning” him at a motel and withdrawing her promise of money, and he may have blamed his sister for their falling out. His sister was also reportedly planning to move out just one month after he came to stay.
Witness’ testimonies alleged Sean McGeough’s attempts to obtain his mother’s home address, as well as a threat to kill them both.
“His mom got away, but his sister did not,” Jones said. “Killing Stephanie hurts Stephanie and his mother.”
McGeough was convicted of first-degree murder and will be sentenced on Dec. 16, at which time he may face a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.