An unusual defense strategy that began with a jailhouse interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer helped Eric McLean convince a jury in Tennessee that his killing of his wife’s teenage lover was a tragic accident and not first-degree murder.
“You were the first step in that journey in the search for the truth,” McLean’s attorney, Bruce Poston, told Lauer on Friday. It was one day after a jury found McLean guilty of a lesser charge of reckless homicide in the March 2007 killing that shocked his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn.
Poston said his strategy was dictated by the nature of the crime. “Every case is different,” he told Lauer. “I had an extraordinary client. He told me the truth. It was my job to convey that truth to the jury.” He did it by letting his client talk.
McLean had never denied killing Sean Powell, the 18-year-old high school student with whom his wife, Erin Myers McLean, was having an open affair. Erin McLean was a student teacher and mother of two who was 30 at the time.
Because of the sensational nature of the crime, Poston invited Lauer to interview his client in jail. McLean, who broke down crying several times during the interview, said at the time that the shooting was an accident, but would not detail what happened.
Seven missing minutes
Powell was shot dead while sitting in his car outside the McLean home. Eric McLean first called 911 to report an intruder. Seven minutes later, his wife called 911 again to report a murder.
When McLean spoke with Lauer more than a year ago, he said he couldn’t discuss what happened during those seven minutes. “That’s gonna be — that’s critical to the trial,” Poston said at the time.
On Friday, Lauer asked McLean to explain what happened. Over the objections of his attorney, the 33-year-old McLean finally filled in that seven-minute blank.
“The cell phone didn’t work,” McLean continued. “I thought he’d leave if I called. It was kind of a bluff in a way. The gun was a bluff, too. It just didn’t work out right.”
He told Lauer last year the shooting was an accident. On Friday, he said, “I think when everybody understood what happened and heard exactly what happened, they knew it wasn’t intentional. It changed a lot of ideas about what really went on.”
At his trial, McLean testified that he had stolen the rifle from a relative after learning of his wife’s infidelity. His intent was to kill himself, but he couldn’t go through with it, he testified. When he pointed it at Powell, McLean only wanted the young man to leave. Instead, he testified, Powell mocked him and grabbed the rifle by the barrel. When Powell pulled on the weapon, it went off, McLean testified.
The jury believed his story. A first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 51 years in Tennessee. The reckless homicide charge on which McLean was found guilty is the least serious homicide verdict.
McLean is out on bail while he awaits sentencing in November. He could get two to four years in prison, but Poston said he hopes that the court will put McLean on parole instead.
‘I couldn’t leave her’
McLean was 31 and had been married to Erin for 11 years when he began to suspect that she was having an affair with a student at West High School in Knoxville. From the beginning of the fall semester, he said last year, his wife talked excessively about the young man who had been given up for adoption at age 6 but who later reunited with his mother, Debra Flynn.
Initially, Powell’s name came up when Erin McLean talked about her students with her husband.
Then, McLean said, Erin began to have frequent phone conversations with her student. Later, the McLean sons — ages 11 and 7 at the time — told him that Powell had accompanied them and their mother on trips to the park and were holding hands.
“Why not leave her?” Lauer asked McLean at the time.
“I just couldn’t leave her,” McLean replied.
“Explain that. Why not?”
“ ’Cause I love her,” McLean said then, breaking down.
McLean had had hopes of becoming a high school band director, but put his own career on hold to put his wife through graduate school so she could become a teacher. He supported his family by delivering pizzas and playing in a local rock band.
Erin McLean moved after the murder, taking the couple’s sons with her. Her whereabouts are unknown, but McLean said he hopes to regain custody of his sons, whom he has not talked to since June 2007.