GUILTY: Defendant murdered girlfriend

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Jimmy McDaniel personally testified Friday and Monday to his rocky relationship with Linda Kline as well as to the events of what happened Oct. 4-5, 2016, in Bridgeport. He was convicted by a jury of his peers of two separate counts, first degree reckless homicide as well as strangulation and suffocation. (Photos by Correne Martin)

Crawford County District Attorney Tim Baxter points to body camera footage of the defendant hovering overtop Linda Kline, as if performing CPR, when the first officer arrived at the murder scene.

Jimmy McDaniel looks at the jury toward the end of the trial.

Prosecuting Attorney Tim Baxter gives his closing remarks to the jury. Baxter put together an impressive murder case, with which the jury ultimately agreed.

By Correne Martin

After seven hours of jury deliberation Monday, Jimmy McDaniel was found guilty of first degree reckless homicide in addition to strangulation and suffocation in the Bridgeport murder of his girlfriend Linda Kline, Oct. 4, 2016. As the verdict was read, McDaniel, 50, dropped his head showing little emotion, while Kline’s family—including her mother, brother and children—cried tears of gratification.

The 12-member Crawford County jury gave the guilty verdict around 10:45 p.m. Monday, in front of Judge Lynn Rider, following five days of testimony from local law enforcement, family, neighbors and forensic pathology experts.

The decision aligned with the prosecution’s case, which, presented by District Attorney Tim Baxter, maintained that McDaniel strangled Kline sometime between 8:30 and 11 p.m. in the basement of her sister’s home, then staged a suicidal hanging of her body before authorities were called to the scene at 12:17 a.m., Oct. 5, 2016.

Defense: Kline exhibited suicidal risk factors
Closing arguments were given Monday afternoon. But in the days before, McDaniel’s defense team attempted to paint a picture of the couple’s relationship that made Kline look like an aggressive and impulsive alcoholic whose previous suicide attempts, medical issues, employment inability and other “risk factors” were simply too much for her to bear. Attorney Jeffrey Erickson deduced her problems as simply a “failure to thrive.”

“I think this situation speaks to somebody who attempted to take her life again,” Erickson said.

Not denying Kline’s difficulties, Baxter implored the jury, “Now is not the time to judge Linda Kline. It’s not the time to judge her way of life. You are here to judge Linda’s way of death. Why isn’t she here today? Look at the evidence in this case; [it] shows you why Linda isn’t here today.”

Baxter pointed out that the defense’s key expert, Dr. Carl Wingren, a pathologist hired at $2,000 for five hours of testimony (plus additional fees), only reviewed documents provided to him by the defense. Wingren testified that Kline attempted suicide in February and May of 2016, both while trucking on the road with McDaniel. He claimed that, then, McDaniel was the person who called 911 and “tried to save her life.”

Wingren also shared that Kline (who would now be 55 years old) dealt with a number of physical illnesses, especially chronic pain, for which she took oxycontin and muscle relaxers the night of her death. Wingren noted, Kline was also diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury following a June 2016 ATV accident and suffered from a mild neurocognitive disorder as a result. He said she had a staph infection above her ribs and had a “PICC line” placed for daily hospital injections of antibiotics. According to her medical records presented in court, Kline herself pulled out that PICC line on Oct. 4, 2016.

Wingren alluded to dizziness, blacking out, possible vertigo and abnormal coordination that Kline was experiencing. According to Baxter, this information was the defense’s effort to pad its case that the multiple bruises throughout Kline’s body were due to her own drunken stumbling and not as the prosecution’s witness, Dr. Michael Stier, said: from blunt force trauma sustained by defending herself from McDaniel the night of her death.

Though such amplified minutiae was provided about Kline’s personal struggles, little reference was given during the trial to McDaniel’s character flaws, such as potential anger issues observed by Kline’s mother and neighbors who heard the couple fighting frequently.  

However, McDaniel testified that Kline was the love of his life and, though their relationship was rocky, he tried to “talk to her about these issues” and “overlooked certain things” because he loved her.

Erickson’s submissions to the jury were the competing expert opinions of the case (Stier versus Wingren), what he felt was “tunnel vision” from the officers involved focusing on homicide too early-on, and, of course, the totality of Kline’s issues causing her to act impulsively in suicide.

Prosecution points to evidence of guilt
Yet, in spite of any back story, Baxter was confident there was no socio-element to even consider in this homicide trial, thanks to the unwavering conclusions from the testimony of Stier, who performed two autopsies on Kline’s body for cause of death certainty.

Baxter admitted to the jury in his closing statements that he was uncertain of any motive. But, it wasn’t the jury’s duty to figure out “why” and it wasn’t Baxter’s responsibility to prove intent. The only matter that needed proof beyond a reasonable doubt was whether McDaniel killed Kline or not.

Baxter laid out his story of what happened
McDaniel, Kline and her sister (Michelle Little) had supper together the night of the murder. Based on the autopsy’s evaluation of Kline’s stomach contents and how much the food was digested before she died, Dr. Stier determined she was killed between 30 minutes to three hours after eating. McDaniel said they were planning to watch a movie at 8 p.m., so Baxter concluded that they finished eating just before then.

The 911 call was received by dispatch at 12:17 a.m. McDaniel’s testimony of Kline’s “suicidal hanging” ended with him finding her body, grabbing her around the middle, lifting her up, untying the knot in the extension cord around her neck and then laying her down in the grass next to the T-post from which she was “hanging.” Prior to that, McDaniel testified, he walked all over the house and yard—through cut brush on bare foot—and back and forth on the house’s back deck searching for her. But he said he never saw her body hanging from the post until he was at the back of the fenced-in backyard. Body camera footage from the first officer on scene showed at least three lights on in the backyard, where she was found. And, according to testimony from Lt. Jaden McCullick, who gave measurements of 21 feet from the deck to the post, Baxter said McDaniel should’ve reported seeing her from the deck on at least one of his two trips past.

Baxter also established that Kline, being 5’4” tall, could not have hung herself—even a partially suspended hanging—while tiptoeing, reaching to the top of the 6’4” T-post and tying an extension cord there, especially in an inebriated state (1.5 blood alcohol content at death).

A final point of Baxter’s was McDaniel’s behavior after Kline’s death. According to phone records given in court, McDaniel called his home state of Georgia at 9:52 p.m. the night of the murder. McDaniel said he talked to his son at that time, but that wasn’t confirmed in court. Baxter believes such evidence, paired with his eventual intent to take a bus to La Crosse and catch a flight back to Georgia, means he was fleeing.

“Remember, this was the love of his life. Yet she hangs herself and ‘oops, better get back to Georgia,’” Baxter quipped sarcastically.

The prosecutor added that every time McDaniel was questioned about a timeline past 8:30 p.m. the night of Kline’s death, he became angry, cried or relied on a “trauma defense,” saying he couldn’t recall specific times in light of his experiences that night.

“Distraught or caught?” Baxter wondered to the jury.

Drawing a conclusion of what ultimately occurred on Oct. 4, 2016, in Bridgeport, alluding to one of the seven deadly sins, Baxter added, “The wrath came to haunt Linda.”

A sentencing hearing for Jimmy McDaniel is set for Jan. 5, 2018, at 1:30 p.m., in Crawford County Court.

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