ST. PAUL (WCCO) — Testimony concluded in the murder trial of a New Brighton man accused of killing his neighbor over a deer feeding dispute.

Neal Zumberge took the stand in his own defense on Monday, testifying for slightly over one hour.

Zumberge told jurors that the violence of May 5, 2014 was the culmination of years of threats to his family and drunken behavior by his neighbor, Todd Stevens. Prosecutors maintain that Zumberge had grown increasingly agitated over Stevens’ feeding of deer in the neighborhood.

One of the critical questions put to Zumberge concerned the 12-gauge shotgun that was used to kill Stevens. When Zumberge was asked if he remembers pulling the trigger, he told jurors, “It’s just a blur, the gun just kept going off.”

Zumberge told jurors that he never intended to kill Stevens, but rather that he “only wanted to stop him.”

Stevens had stepped outside on the front lawn of his home across the street from the Zumberge home when he was hit by pellets fired from four blasts of a shotgun.

When asked what he was thinking when he saw Stevens step outside that night, Zumberge said, “I immediately thought my wife was in danger.”

Paula Zumberge had been in a heated argument with Stevens’ girlfriend, Jennifer Cleven, just moments before the shooting.

Earlier Monday morning, Neal Zumberge’s son Nicholas testified that he’d seen Stevens wearing a gun on his waist between 15 to 20 times since 2010. Prosecutors have called witnesses to refute the claim. First responders and the medical examiner found no gun on Stevens’ body following the shooting.

Composed and speaking clearly, Neal Zumberge said the dispute with Stevens had stretched over 15 years. According to the defendant, it got to the point that Neal Zumberge inquired about selling their house.

In December 2013, Neal Zumberge said that Stevens “was drunk in our driveway, yelling threats to me, he’d kill me. He wanted me to come out on the street to fight.”

Under cross-examination, Neal Zumberge admitted that he preloaded the Browning semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun a week before the fatal confrontation. He sensed things were heating up following an altercation at a local VFW club involving his son Jacob, Stevens and Cleven.

Neal Zumberge said his neighbors “were shining spotlights on our house.”

Defense attorney Gary Wolf made a motion after the close of testimony Monday for an additional offense to be included — murder in the third degree.  Judge Margaret Marrinan granted the motion despite the objection of the state.

That charge carries a lighter sentence upon conviction. The current state sentencing guidelines call for a 150-month sentence for this crime. For second-degree murder, the guideline sentence is 305 months. Murder in the first degree is mandatory life.

Closing arguments will take place Tuesday morning.

Bill Hudson

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