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A deadlocked jury led to a mistrial Thursday night after three days of testimony on a nighttime stabbing downtown one year ago. 

The three-day trial for Paul Steven Bixby, 25, concluded shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday in Yellowstone County District Court in front of Judge Michael Moses. Bixby was charged with assault with a weapon.

After a couple of hours of deliberation, jurors asked whether a mistrial was possible, saying nine jurors believed Bixby was not guilty and three believed he was guilty. After continuing deliberations, the split changed to 10 believing not guilty and two believing guilty, and the jurors announced no one was going to change their mind. 

Bixby stabbed Larry Heafner, the owner of Coffee Tavern, a 24-hour downtown business, after an altercation outside the shop on Dec. 4, 2017. Bixby and his girlfriend had entered to use the business’ bathroom but had been turned away because they were not paying customers.

The two left, Heafner followed them outside and a verbal confrontation began, multiple witnesses testified. Bixby then spat on Heafner, Heafner told Bixby to leave or he’d “kick his ass,” Bixby spat again, Heafner punched Bixby and Bixby stabbed him three times, according to charges.

Defense attorney Nicole Gallagher said Bixby was defending himself, and that Heafner had punched him multiple times, hard enough for Bixby to fall to the ground.

Bixby has a previous brain injury for which he received a metal plate implant in the left side of his head, and his doctors had advised him that a subsequent head injury could be fatal, Gallagher told the jury. In addition, Bixby has the use of only his right arm because his left arm is non-functioning, she said. Bixby was also drunk and knew he would be slow to react, Gallagher said. 

The defense attorney said because her client was in fear he could be seriously injured or killed, he was legally entitled to respond with force that could cause death, even though his own actions had not yet risen to that level. 

“Spitting was not going to cause death to Larry Heafner,” Gallagher said. “Spitting doesn’t hurt anything other than your ego.”

Heafner’s injuries were initially thought to be life-threatening, according to charges, but he survived them and testified at trial. Heafner was stabbed twice in the torso and once in the tail bone area, nicking his colon and requiring surgery.

Gallagher said in her closing arguments that Heafner had testified he was “ready to put the boots to” Bixby but then realized he had been stabbed. She also pointed to testimony from a witness who was inside the Coffee Tavern at the time of the altercation and who saw Heafner walk outside once Bixby and his girlfriend had been told they couldn’t use the bathroom.

“It looked like Larry went out there to beat him up,” Gallagher said, quoting from earlier testimony.

But Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Zach Patten Ferreira said Bixby was not justified in using force because he intentionally provoked the altercation by spitting at Heafner. The prosecutor also said Bixby did not exhaust all means to escape — he used a knife in response to a punch, Patten Ferreira said.

Patten Ferreira said Bixby’s statements to police over the course of the case had changed. He initially said they had “the wrong man,” then told them he didn’t remember what exactly took place and finally said he was defending himself, and that he’d been hit in the mouth, from behind — a claim he said made no sense.

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Brett Linneweber, the other prosecutor assigned to the case, reminded jurors that Bixby didn’t tell two responding officers or family members on two jail calls that he feared for his life, although he did say he had been attacked, according to his attorney. 

Linneweber said the coffee shop owner was under no obligation to leave the altercation, reiterating that Bixby started the fight.

“He made first contact, he was the one who used the racial slur, and he kept spitting,” Linneweber said. “Yeah, Larry could have done something else, he could have left. But let’s use the defendant’s logic right back on him: Why does he have to leave? Why does Larry have to leave the front of his business?”

Linneweber said the coffee shop owner was going outside to prevent Bixby from vandalizing his storefront. Bixby had said in statements made at the jail that he had taken a shot of alcohol while standing outside and the movement might have looked to others like he was planning to throw something at the window.

Heafner and Bixby had exchanged racial slurs before the physical altercation began, Bixby said in a jail call to his uncle. Bixby had called Heafner a derogatory term for a Hispanic person, while Heafner had called Bixby a “piece of s--- Native,” according to Bixby. 

Linneweber said no one else in the case told law enforcement about the name-calling, including Bixby’s girlfriend.

The judge set a hearing on Bixby's request to reduce bond for Friday. Bixby has been held in jail for more than a year. 

Prosecutors must now decide whether to request a new trial date, to dismiss the charges or to seek an alternative. Patten Ferreira said they would evaluate their options but declined to comment further. 

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.