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Onawa teen found guilty of second-degree murder

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Jay Lee Neubaum trial

Jay Lee Neubaum watches jurors exit the Monona County courtroom in Onawa, Iowa, during his May trial for the shooting death of 16-year-old Joseph Hopkins in Mapleton, Iowa. Neubaum is scheduled to stand trial on Dec. 7 on 10 counts of sexual abuse and has waived his right to a jury trial.

ONAWA, Iowa -- Her son may be gone, fatally shot nearly a year and a half ago in a Mapleton, Iowa, garage, but Crystal Hopkins said his killer can't take away her memories.

"I'm lucky I got to be his mom for 16 years," Hopkins said Thursday evening outside the Monona County Courthouse, where a jury minutes before had found Jay Lee Neubaum guilty of second-degree murder for the Jan. 31, 2020, shooting death of 16-year-old Joseph Hopkins. "He may have took Joe's life, but I still have everything I did with him."

Jurors spent a little more than two hours deliberating before reaching their decision. It was a verdict that Hopkins' family expected.

"We knew this is probably what we would get. Now we need to heal," said Julie Susie, Joseph Hopkins' grandmother.

Neubaum, 18, of Onawa, had been charged with first-degree murder, but jurors found him guilty of the lesser charge.

"We wanted first (degree), but we expected second," Crystal Hopkins said.

Neubaum, who had been free on bond, showed no visible reaction as the verdict was read or when taken into custody after the jury was dismissed.

District Judge Duane Hoffmeyer scheduled sentencing for June 29 in Monona County District Court. Neubaum faces a 50-year prison sentence. Had he been found guilty of first-degree murder, he would have received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

His attorney, public defender Laury Lau, declined to comment on the verdict as she left the courthouse.

Hopkins, of Mapleton, was shot once in the forehead with a 12-gauge shotgun while he, Neubaum and two other teenage boys were working on a demolition derby car in a garage behind the home of Neubaum's grandmother, with whom he was living.

In his closing argument to the jury, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Monty Platz said the shooting was no accident, as Neubaum repeatedly told authorities in evidence presented during two days of testimony.

"He went and got that gun and blew away an innocent person," Platz said. "It was a deadly, accurate kill shot almost perfectly centered in the victim's forehead.

"That gun didn't fire itself. He meant to do it."

Lau said in her opening arguments Tuesday and again during her closing on Thursday that the shooting was an accident, the result of four teenage boys playing with guns.

"Jay Lee Neubaum is not guilty of murder," Lau said. "Jay Lee Neubaum is not guilty of hurting his friend. Jay Lee Neubaum is not some criminal mastermind. Jay Lee Neubaum is a kid.

"There was no malicious intent."

Prosecutors said Neubaum shot Hopkins after becoming angry with him because he would not stop playing with an unloaded 20-gauge shotgun. Two teens, including Hopkins' younger brother, Jaxon, who were present at the shooting, testified that they had passed the gun around and dry fired it.

They said Neubaum retrieved a semiautomatic 12-gauge shotgun, checked to see if it was loaded, then pointed it at Joseph Hopkins and fired it.

In testimony and defense statements during the trial, Neubaum repeatedly told investigators the gun accidentally fired while he pointed it toward the floor to check if it was loaded and switch on the safety. He told police that the slug ricocheted off the concrete floor and struck Hopkins.

The teen's father, Aron Neubaum, testified Thursday that he kept the gun, always loaded, in the garage. He said his son had never fired the gun, or any semiautomatic shotgun, before.

Present during his son's interview with Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents in the hours after the shooting, Aron Neubaum said he watched as Jay Lee demonstrated to them the actions he took to check the gun to see if it was loaded.

"Did he do it right?" Lau asked.

"No," Aron Neubaum said.

The first officers to respond to the shooting were skeptical of Jay Lee Neubaum's explanation of what happened.

Monona County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Maule testified he saw no broken concrete on the floor to indicate a ricochet.

The forensic pathologist who conducted Hopkins' autopsy had testified that after observing the gunshot wound, she didn't believe the slug had ricocheted off the floor. The bullet path had a downward trajectory through Hopkins' head, she said, rather than traveling upward after bouncing off the floor. She doubted that had the slug ricocheted, it would not have had enough energy left to penetrate his skull. And based on metal found inside Hopkins' wound, the slug passed through the car before striking Hopkins.

Evidence presented Wednesday showed a bullet hole near the radiator of the car the boys were working on. The hole would have lined up with where Hopkins was crouching when the shotgun was aimed at him, DCI special agent Lynn Olesen said when showing jurors a computerized re-creation of the crime scene.

Jaxon Hopkins, 15, and fellow 15-year-old Trace Schroeder testified that Joseph Hopkins was holding the 20-gauge shotgun when he was shot. Investigators found the blood-covered gun, along with Aron Neaubaum's 12-gauge together, across the garage at the crime scene.

Platz suggested it was one of many acts Jay Lee Neubaum took to try to get away with a crime. Two teenagers testified Thursday that Neubaum told him he'd burned his fingertips so that investigators couldn't collect his fingerprints.

"He never said he did it on purpose, but he never said it was an accident," 18-year-old Dallas Knudson said.

Neubaum's father testified that he worked with his son at Monona County Iron, where Jay Lee often burned his fingers and hands when handling hot metal.

Olesen had testified that he saw peeling skin on Neubaum's fingers weeks after the shooting, but he was able to get usable prints, which didn't play a factor in the case.

Neubaum still faces prosecution in Monona County for 10 counts of third-degree sexual abuse for the alleged rape of six teenage girls and forced sexual contact with a seventh in 2019 and 2020. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is scheduled to stand trial in December.

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