Dateline   |  July 06, 2013

Shattered, Part 12

The jurors return with their verdict. Will Eric Abshire walk away a free man?

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> after two weeks of testimony, the case was in the hands of the jury. justine 's family fretted.

>> oh, i felt so nervous. it only takes one person on a jury to not be sure and that seemed pretty likely. just one person would say, i'm not totally convinced, guys. i'm not going to vote with you.

>> they waited for the verdict.

>> you see movies, you know, everything happens like this. in the movies. it is just not the way it is.

>> whenever they could, they visited the makeshift roadside memorial where justine had died.

>> it's hard in a way. it's a really peaceful place for me and then it's really, really sad place to think that, you know, this was her last place on earth.

>> but as they each acknowledged, nothing had ever been the same since getting that call in the middle of the night that justine was dead.

>> what was the impact of it, to your family?

>> it is like the big bang . we sort of exploded. and went in different directions.

>> grief consumed them. the marriage of three decades fell apart.

>> eventually our marriage crumbled. you know? it's -- it goes on and on. it's endless.

>> and unstoppable shock wave.

>> there's this giant hole and nothing will ever fill that.

>> the prosecutors hoped the trial would bring the family some measure of peace but from years of experience, they knew that even a guilty verdict would only do so much.

>> there's collateral damage everywhe everywhere.

>> we can't avoid that but it's a fact of the world we live in.

>> the trial had been an uphill fight. the prosecutors hadn't been able to tell the jury precisely how or even where justine had been killed.

>> you like to be able to explain exactly what happened. step by step .

>> but these jurors would be the people to say, guilty or not.

>> and they were having a hard time figuring out how one man could pull off such an elaborate murder plot. eric , they figured would have likely had to run over her with some large vehicle, found a way to move the body to the road and then gotten both justine 's mustang and his motorcycle to the crime scene, all in a short window of time.

>> i spent a lot of nights laying there trying to put it together.

>> there are a lot of moving parts here.

>> there were.

>> and the jurors didn't see the parade float maker as the solution to eric 's problem of moving all those vehicles around.

>> could that have happened? possible. anything can happen. how likely? one in a million chance would be my guess.

>> we didn't really weigh that in on our decision. we kind of put that towards the back.

>> it was not a decider, you're saying?

>> no, no.

>> no.

>> but they also weren't persuaded by the testimony of eric 's cousin tracy saying she was with him around 11:30 the night justine died as he cared for her mother.

>> she could have been confused on the dates. you know? mother was in and out of the hospital a lot.

>> they returned to the courtroom to ask the judge to define circumstantial evidence .

>> he said, use our common sense and take in all the evidence and make our decision that way.

>> so many unanswered questions. from the complexities of an elaborate plot to the mysteries of the human heart .

>> how someone could do that to someone they claimed that they loved so much.

>> they struggled to reach a decision.

>> we had a timeline up on the board so that we could kind of look at what happened, who said what, you know, to try to figure out what was -- what we could believe and what we couldn't believe.

>> finally they decided to take a vote. they were unanimous.

>> we were kind of stunned for a minute.

>> word went out. the jury had a verdict.

>> steven! we have a verdict!

>> oh. got to go.

>> i felt like i was just going to explode. about as tense as i've ever been in my life.

>> the family had been waiting almost five years to the day for this moment, a moment they thought might never come.

>> i remember having my hand on steven's forearm and i felt a little muscle pulsing. you know? i just kept saying it's okay, it's okay, it's okay.

>> the jurors walked back in to the courtroom. they announced their verdict. eric abshire guilty of murder in the first degree, sentenced to life in prison .

>> it's a huge feeling of relief, release.

>> as steve and heidi swartz walk out of the courthouse, they hug. the long ordeal, the five-year pursuit of justice for their daughter finally ended with a guilty verdict .

>> it was a lot of work. it's worth it.

>> and the prosecutors knew without the family and the dedicated investigators, eric abshire likely would have never been charged.

>> i think eric almost got away with murder. it would have been easier to say, what a tragedy. you know? a young groom has lost his beautiful bride, what a shame. we're so sorry.

>> in the end, the jurors acknowledge the case did have unanswered questions but they nonetheless felt confident with their verdict.

>> we don't have to know exactly how it happened. we just know from the circumstantial evidence that he was the one that did it.

>> abshire is appealing the jury's verdict. and his cousin tracy believes the jury got it wrong, that eric did not kill justine .

>> i don't believe he could do something like that.

>> you have read the articles. out there. everybody can read them. pretty easy to put together a picture of eric as a monster.

>> it is.

>> looking for fights and women gets restraining order. runs up debt. easy to put together a bad picture of eric . what do you think's incomplete here?

>> it doesn't make him a murderer. a lot of men are like that. i mean, i hadn't seen that side of him, act that way towards her, but a lot of men make mistakes. act certain ways that doesn't make them murderers.

>> for justine 's family and friends , one of the greater unsolved mysteries has always been why she stayed in the relationship with eric . they speculate that she was planning to leave him the night she was killed. after the funeral, they discovered her luggage was missing. she had also left behind two months of lesson plans in the drawer at school.

>> i think she realized that if she stayed something terrible was going to happen to her.

>> and you think she did try to get snout.

>> i think that that's what she was doing.

>> but didn't make it?

>> didn't make it.

>> but all of justine 's friends and family are tough on themselves for not intervening even more forcefully in what to them had become a miserable marriage.

>> it's the guilt club. we're all in the guilt club. her parents, everybody. and that's the hardest thing for me. i mean, i could have just flown out there because in my heart i felt that it was wrong. so, you know, sometimes you say you can't borrow trouble but i guess after years of it you have to put your foot down and do something.

>> lauren likens the long-term domestic abuse she believes her sister suffered is watching her slowly die from a chronic illness. even with the guilty verdict in, the agony hasn't faded.

>> peace and justice seem like these lofty ideals and will be blue skies and sunshine but that's not the case.

>> at the elementary school where justine taught, they've planted a tree in memory of the kindergarten teacher whose happiest moments in her final year were likely spent in the comfort of the children she loved.