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Defendant in Jonelle Matthews case gets new lawyer ahead of potential retrial

Steve Pankey was convicted for false reporting in the 1984 death, but jurors could not reach a consensus on kidnapping and murder charges, leading to a mistrial.

GREELEY, Colo. — Steve Pankey's lawyer withdrew when he appeared in court Monday for a status hearing as prosecutors determine if they will charge him for a second time in the 1984 death of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.

Jurors began deliberating on Nov. 2 following more than two weeks of testimony in Weld County where prosecutors asserted that Pankey's own statements pointed to him as her killer, while the defense argued the case lacked evidence and said Pankey's "obsessive interest" didn't make him a killer.

On Nov. 4, a mistrial was declared after they returned to say a consensus could not be reached on counts one, two and three. Those charges included first-degree murder, felony murder and second-degree kidnapping. 

Jurors did reach a unanimous guilty verdict on a charge of false reporting, a misdemeanor with a max sentence of six months. Pankey has already spent more time than that behind bars and will likely get credit for that time, his attorney said. 

At the hearing on Monday, Pankey's lawyer Anthony Viorst withdrew citing the toll a retrial would take on his small practice and his advancing age.

A public defender has taken over Pankey's defense, and a hearing has been scheduled for 1:15 p.m. on Nov. 17 while his office reviews evidence during the discovery process before determining a stance on a new trial.

RELATED: Mistrial declared on murder, kidnapping charges in Jonelle Matthews case

Jonelle was last seen on Dec. 20, 1984, when she was dropped off at her Greeley home following a Christmas concert. When her father returned home about an hour later, Jonelle was not there.

Credit: KUSA File

The case stumped investigators for decades until July 2019 when Jonelle's remains were found by oil workers digging in a Weld County field. More than a year later, in October 2020, a grand jury indicted Pankey on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree kidnapping with a weapon, as well as two-sentence enhancing crimes of violence counts. 

RELATED: Former candidate for governor says he's being eyed in 1984 Greeley disappearance

The indictment says Pankey took Jonelle from her home between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 20, 1984. At some point during the kidnapping, the indictment says Pankey shot Mathews “intentionally and after deliberation.”

Pankey – who ran for governor in 2014 and 2018 in Idaho – disclosed in a 2019 interview with KTVB that he’d given a DNA sample in the case and that his home had been searched.

However, prosecutors conceded during the trial that there is no DNA linking Pankey to the crime. Analysts tried but were unable to recover any useable DNA from Jonelle's remains or clothing which were buried in a field for more than three decades.

Prosecutors relied heavily during the trial on circumstantial evidence and Pankey's statements and odd behaviors over the years to paint him as her killer.

RELATED: Steve Pankey's ex-wife describes his behavior in the days after Jonelle Matthews was killed

His ex-wife Angela Hicks took the stand and detailed some of that strange behavior. She recalled that about a month after Jonelle went missing when their church was gathering a search group together for her, that their pastor said he heard from God that Matthews would be found alive.

She said Pankey yelled "false prophet," and had to be escorted out of the church.  

Hicks also described Pankey as a controlling husband, saying he made her stop seeing her dad, wouldn't allow her to drive, and forbid any radio or TV.

Credit: Weld County Sheriff's Office
Steven Pankey

Defense attorney Anthony Viorst countered by saying Pankey’s ex had these memories “all the sudden” and that she never suspected that Pankey had anything to do with Jonelle’s case until 1999.

Pankey took the stand in his own defense and refuted many of the statements Hicks told the jury. He worked to convince the jurors that he was telling them the truth and that statements he'd made previously including one asking for immunity were lies.

"Because at that point, I wanted to privately say what I publicly said today that, you know, I really don't know anything, and I was bitter and I was just making stuff up," Pankey said in part.

RELATED: Jonelle Matthews was one of the first missing children whose face was put on milk cartons

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RELATED: Evidence of guilt or obsessive interest: Attorneys lay out competing narratives in Jonelle Matthews case

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