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School board member not guilty

MITCHELL, N.D. - Tears and exclamations of joy spilled from Mitchell school board member Eric Christensen's family Thursday after a jury found him not guilty of two counts of grand theft.

Immediately after the verdict was announced, a shout of "Oh, God!" was heard from the gallery where Christensen's wife, mother and father-in-law were huddled together. Christensen, who was seated at the defense table with his attorney, dropped his head onto his hands and cried.

When the jury was excused, Christensen embraced his mother and wife, rushed downstairs with his wife from the third-floor courtroom, exited a side-door of the courthouse and drove away.

Christensen's lawyer, Chris Nipe, said the family will put out a statement in the coming days.

"Obviously, they felt that justice was served, and they appreciate that the state's attorney has a job to do and did it," Nipe said. "The jury had a tough job, and I think it kind of showed on them. It was an emotional trial."

Davison County State's Attorney Pat Smith, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment on the verdict.

The jury was given the case at 10 a.m. Thursday, after the lawyers for each side delivered their closing arguments. The jury deliberated for three hours, and its unanimous verdict was read aloud in the courtroom at about 1:45 p.m.

Christensen's former boss, Lynn Odland, who filed the theft complaint, was not present for the reading of the verdict. Odland had accused Christensen of stealing items from the Dakota Ag Innovations office and using company money to buy items that were shipped to Christensen's home and to a daycare operated by Christensen's wife. Christensen testified that he received some of the items as gifts from Odland and was authorized by Odland to purchase the other items with the company's money.

Nipe, the attorney for Christensen, said the most important part of the trial was Christensen's testimony.

"This all came down to credibility and who they believed," Nipe said of the jury. "I think they believed Eric."

Christensen, 31, was charged eight months ago and, had he been convicted, could have faced up to 20 years in prison and a $40,000 fine.

The trial was presided over by Judge Sean O'Brien. It began Monday and was conducted in the Davison County Courthouse in Mitchell.

The jury consisted of nine women and three men and an additional woman -- Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke -- who sat through all the proceedings as an alternate juror but was dismissed when the regular jurors began deliberating.

The verdict of not guilty means Christensen may stay on the Mitchell Board of Education, to which he was elected last year. A conviction would have resulted in his automatic removal. During the past eight months, some called upon Christensen to resign or take a leave of absence from the board while his legal proceedings played out.

The criminal aspect of the case is now over, but there still are two civil cases pending. Christensen is suing Dakota Ag Innovations for $90,000 worth of bonuses he says he earned but never received, and Dakota Ag Innovations is countersuing to reclaim damages for items it says Christensen stole or paid for surreptitiously with the company's money.

Christensen worked as the company's controller for about six years before he was fired in 2007 because of an e-mail he sent to the company's banker. The e-mail, which Odland found in the company's computer system, was critical of Odland and the way the company was being managed.

It was after the firing that Odland said he began discovering the paper trail that led to evidence of Christensen's alleged thefts.

Christensen testified that, prior to the firing, the two men were close. They spent many hours and days together, Christensen said, trying to grow their company. The company exists to produce and sell an ag-based product invented by Odland that restores the luster to sun-baked paint.