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Monday, December 5, 2016

Two Stalkers, Different Sentences

The Mercedes Driving Tire Slasher

     In January 2010, Jessica (not the victim's real name) broke up with Dieter Heinz Werner, her 68-year-old boyfriend. Shortly after that, someone slashed her tires in the parking lot of a Houston, Texas movie complex. A month later, Jessica found a GPS tracking device attached to the undercarriage of her car. She suspected Werner, who had been bothering her with text messages and phone calls, of slashing her tires and using the GPS device to keep track of her whereabouts.

     That spring, the ex-boyfriend continued his harassment by sending Jessica hundreds of text messages. On April 3, 2010, he sent her a text which read: "Should have answered the phone and not ignored me again. Pissed me off. Now I show you." That day, after following her to a grocery store, Werner texted: "Pissed me off when I saw you at Krogers and you turned your head. I would never treat you like that."

     On April 15, 2010, a witness at the same movie complex parking lot saw an elderly white man slashing someone's car tires with a pocketknife. The witness jotted down the license number to the vandal's Mercedes convertible. The vehicle was registered to Dieter Heinz Werner. A couple of weeks later, a Harris County prosecutor charged Werner with stalking, a third degree felony. Werner was held without bond for a few days until a judge issued a protection order against the accused stalker. After being served with the restraining order, Werner paid his $75,000 bond and was released.

     In late 2011, Dieter Werner was found guilty of the stalking offense. A few months later the judge sentenced him to ten years in prison, the maximum penalty for a third degree felony. But in 2012, before Werner was transferred out of the Harris County Jail into the state prison system, he was paroled. After serving about a year behind bars, the convicted stalker walked free.

     According to Texas corrections authorities, Werner had benefited from a so-called "parole in absentia." (Texas parole boards in the 1980s had issued these get-out-of prison passes when the state prison system couldn't handle all of the convicted felons.)

     Victims' rights activists, as well as Werner's stalking victim, were outraged. The parole authorities had not even bothered to notify Jessica of her stalker's parole hearing. In Texas and other places it was a fact that parole boards often did not inform victims when criminals were released on parole.


The Taco Bell Handcuff Case

     In 2011, in the northern Georgia town of Ringgold, 25-year-old Jason Earl Dean and the 18-year-old girl he had become obsessed with, worked at the local Taco Bell. After Joan (not her real name) told Dean she did not want to go out with him, he continued asking her out for a date. This had gone on for a month. The harassment became so intense she changed shifts at work to get away from him. Undeterred, Dean continued to bother her.

     On the night of August 8, 2011, Dean waited outside Taco Bell until Joan's shift ended. As she walked to her car he came up to her with a pair of handcuffs which he slapped around her wrist, binding them arm to arm. She screamed for help which brought other employees out of the Taco Bell. Her fellow employees talked Dean into turning Joan free. The police rolled up to the scene shortly thereafter, but Dean had left. A few days later, police officers arrested him on a college campus in nearby Dalton, Georgia. A local prosecutor charged him with stalking and felonious restraint.

     In January 2013, Jason Earl Dean entered a so-called "blind guilty plea" before Judge Ralph Van Pelt. (A blind plea means that no sentencing agreement had been reached between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The defendant was essentially throwing himself on the mercy of the court.) Judge Van Pelt, showing no mercy for this stalker, sentenced him to four years in prison followed by six years of probation.

    On its face, Judge Van Pelt's sentence seemed excessive. Whether or not it was excessive depended upon what kind of person Jason Dean was. Without knowing this stalker's background there was no way to evaluate his sentence. But in any case, it appeared that this judge considered stalking a serious crime. I wish more judges did.

   
     

Sunday, December 4, 2016

John L. Marra: The Judicial Cover-Up of a Police Chief's Conviction

     John Marra's modest entry into law enforcement took place on July 11, 2005 when the 29-year-old became a part-time reserve police officer in Uniontown, Ohio, a Stark County village of 2,800 in the northeastern part of the state. A little over two years after being on the job, Marra entered into an intimate relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He sent her inappropriate text messages, and while on duty, kissed and fondled her at her place of employment, a Subway restaurant.

     In May 2008, the 32-year-old police officer pleaded no contest to dereliction of duty, a second-degree misdemeanor. The Stark County judge sentenced Marra to two years probation and 100 hours of community service. The judge also ordered Marra not to have further contact with the girl or members of her family. As part of the plea deal, Marra agreed to resign from the Uniontown Police Department.

     In 2010, shortly after his period of probation expired, Marra joined the police department in Brady Lake, Ohio, a small Portage County town in the Akron metropolitan area. In December 2013, following the retirement of the chief of police, the major named Marra acting head of the agency. On March 17, 2014, the village council approved Marra's appointment as the chief of the Brady Lake Police Department.

     Marra's promotion, given his history with the Uniontown Police Department, raised more than a few eyebrows. In April 2014, members of the local print and television news media asked Mayor Hal Lehman if someone, in anticipation of Marra's appointment, had conducted a background investigation. The mayor replied that such an inquiry had been made and said, "We are done with the issue." Another reporter asked the mayor if he would provide the media with a copy of the investigative report. Mayor Lehman said he did not have a copy of that document.

     Mayor Lehman, when asked specifically about the new police chief's dereliction of duty conviction five years earlier, had nothing to say other than the matter was settled.

     Chief Marra, aware that his 2008 conviction might prove troublesome to the advancement of his law enforcement career, had petitioned the court to seal the records of the case. If granted his request, this information would be no longer available to the public.

     The Stark County prosecutor's office opposed the Marra petition. Recognizing that offenses less serious than a first-degree misdemeanor can be removed from public scrutiny, the prosecutor trying to preserve Marra's conviction history argued that this particular case was an exception because of Marra's intimate involvement with a 16-year-old girl. Had Marra not agreed to plead in the case, he would have been convicted of a more serious offense. Moreover, as a public official, the chief of police should be held to a higher standard of conduct than an ordinary citizen. Chief Marra had violated that standard.

     On May 1, 2014, following a brief hearing on Marra's petition, Stark County Judge John Poulos approved of the sealing of all documents pertaining to the 2008 dereliction of duty conviction in Uniontown, Ohio. Judge Poulos based his decision on the fact the petitioner had been convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor that, under Ohio law, allowed the sealing of these crime records. The judge obviously didn't buy the argument that public officials should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. [Why would he? The judge was a public official himself.]

     I disagree with this judge's decision. We give our law enforcement officers enormous power over our lives. In return, they owe us honesty, trustworthiness, good character, and sound judgment. Officer John Marra, with regard to the girl, exhibited an alarming lack of good judgment as well as a troubling and perhaps pathological flaw in his character.

     The citizens of Brady Lake who pay the chief's salary, and are subject to his power and authority, had a right to know such things as the degree to which Marra had coerced or stalked the girl. It may also have been important to know how this case came to light, and how the officer initially reacted to the accusations.

    

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The William Richards Murder Case

     In 1993, 44-year-old William Richards and his wife Pamela, while they were building a house near Hesperia, California in the high desert in San Bernardino County, lived in a motor home. Because there were no power lines near the property, a generator in a nearby shed provided the electricity. William worked as a swing shift electrical engineer at a manufacturing plant in the town of Corona. His 40-year-old wife had a job as a waitress. The following account of what happened on August 10, 1993 is based on William Richards' statement to the police.

     That night, William Richards clocked out of the plant in Corona at 11:03. When he arrived home shortly after midnight, he noticed there were no lights on in the trailer. He re-started the generator in the shed, and as he walked toward his front door, stumbled over his wife's half nude body. Someone had smashed the 5-foot-2, 126 pound woman's head with an heavy object. Richards called 911.

     Deputies from the San Bernardino Sheriff's office arrived at the scene at twelve-thirty that morning. The officers did nothing to protect the crime scene while they waited for the arrival of the homicide detectives. The investigators didn't show up until 3:15, and when they did, decided to wait until daylight before processing the crime scene. In the meantime, officers walked around the site and did nothing to keep several dogs off the property. (When they did begin the crime scene investigation, the officers realized dogs had kicked dirt on Pamela Richards' body.)

     From the beginning, homicide detectives considered William Richards the prime suspect in the murder. Blood spatter patterns suggested the victim had been partially undressed after the bloody attack in an effort to stage a sexual assault. (There was no physical evidence of rape.) Investigators found no signs of forced entry and no physical evidence of an intruder such as foreign shoe impressions and tire tracks. (If there had been such evidence, it could have been trampled by the police.) Moreover, nothing had been stolen from the trailer. Investigators believed that Pamela Richards had been bludgeoned by a blood-stained steppingstone. (A forensic pathologist would find that she had also been strangled.)

     As for motive, detectives believed that the suspect, after he learned that his wife planned to leave him for another man, had killed her in a fit of rage. The fact that Richards and his wife, over their twenty-year marriage, openly had affairs and had already agreed to separate, cast doubt on this motive to kill her. Without a confession or an eyewitness, the San Bernardino County prosecutor had a weak, circumstantial case against William Richards. The fact the crime scene investigation had been bungled also hurt the prosecution's case. Nevertheless, the prosecutor charged Richards with first-degree murder. Police arrested him on September 3, 1993.

     In July 1994, after the jury deadlocked six to six on the question of William Richards' guilt, the judge declared a mistrial. Just three days into his second trial in October 1994, the judge, due to improper communications with a juror, declared a second mistrial. In January 1995, the jury deadlocked eleven to one for his guilt. This led to a third mistrial.

     The San Bernardino County prosecutor, on his fourth try in July 1997, bolstered the state's case with the testimony of Dr. Norman Sperber, the renowned forensic odontologist (dentist) from San Diego who had testified at Ted Bundy's serial murder trial in Florida. Dr. Sperber testified that in his expert opinion, the crescent-shaped impression on Pamela Richards' hand was consistent with having been made with the defendant's front teeth. The odontologist said that only two percent of the U.S. population could have made this crime scene bite mark.

     To counter Dr. Sperber's testimony, the defense presented another respected forensic dentist, Dr. Gregory Golden, the Chief Forensic Odontologist of San Bernardino County. Dr. Golden testified that the photograph of the victim's bite mark was of such poor quality he couldn't make a conclusive determination in the case. When pressed by the prosecutor on cross-examination, Dr. Golden said that he could not eliminate the defendant as the maker of the crime scene bite mark.

     Based on the new bite mark evidence, the jury in Richards' fourth trial found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life. The convicted man continued to maintain his innocence.

     In 2000, lawyers with the California Innocence Project entered the case on William Richards' behalf. A re-evaluation of the forensic evidence in the murder case led to a petition before a San Bernardino County judge to overturn Richards' murder conviction. The hearing on this motion took place in 2009 before Judge Brian McCarville.

     Since Richards' fourth trial, new technology had made it possible to sharpen the photographic image of the crime scene bite mark. Dr. Norman Sperber took the stand and declared that after analyzing the enhanced photograph, it was his expert opinion that the questioned bite mark had not been made by Mr. Richards. Two other forensic dentists agreed with this analysis, and a third testified that he could not render a conclusive opinion either way.

     A DNA expert testified that the bloody steppingstone contained DNA evidence that had not come from the defendant. A forensic hair and fiber identification expert testified that a 2-centimeter follicle taken from under one of the victim's fingernails did not match samples taken from her husband.

     Judge McCarville, based on the bite mark, DNA, and hair follicle testimony, overturned William Richards' murder conviction.

     The San Bernardino County prosecutor appealed Judge McCarville's ruling to the California Supreme Court. On December 3, 2012, in a 4-3 decision, the state's highest court reinstated Richards' murder conviction. According to the majority justices, the forensic evidence presented at the 2009 hearing did not prove the convicted man's innocence. (Once convicted, the burden of proving innocence shifts to the defendant.) These justices did not believe the forensic dentists had completely ruled out Richards as the source of the crime scene bite mark.

     The dissenting judges did not agree with this interpretation of the new bite mark testimony. As these three justices saw it, three of the four odontologists, including Dr. Norman Sperber, stated that the convicted man was not the source of this crime scene evidence. Since it had been this evidence that had finally led to Richards' murder conviction, its absence supported the position that the state had not carried its burden of proving this man's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

     In September 2014, a new law went into effect in California that would make it easier for William Richards' attorneys to have his conviction overturned. Under this legislation, whenever an expert witness changes his or her opinion, as Dr. Sperber did in the Richards case, the initial testimony will be classified, by law, as false evidence. If that evidence played a vital role in the guilty verdict, the expert's repudiation is grounds for overturning the conviction.

     Citing the new law, Richards' attorneys asked the California State Supreme Court to reconsider the case and throw out the murder conviction.

     On May 27, 2016, the California Supreme Court overturned Richard's 1997 first-degree murder conviction. Following this decision, the San Bernardino District Attorney decided not to retry the case.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Timothy Hennis Triple-Murder Case

     U.S. Air Force officer Gary Eastburn and his wife Kathryn were married in 1975. Ten years later, Captain Eastburn, the chief of Air Traffic Control at Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, received a new assignment to England. Before the couple's planned departure to Great Britain, they decided to find a new home for their English Setter. The Eastburn family had grown and now included three children. Kara was five, Erin, three, and the baby, Jana, was almost two.

     Army Sergeant Timothy Hennis, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, lived in Fayetteville with his wife Angela. The 27-year-old saw an ad in a free classified newspaper regarding the Eastburn family's offer to sell their dog for $10 to anyone willing to give the pet a good home. In early May 1985, in response to the ad, Sergeant Hennis met with Kathryn Eastburn at her house on Summerhall Road. The sergeant went home that day with the English Setter.

     On May 10, 1985, a neighbor, aware that Captain Eastburn was attending a squadron officers' training school in Montgomery, Alabama, noticed that a few newspapers had not been picked up at their house. Concerned about the wellbeing of Kathryn and her three children, the neighbor went to the front door to check on them. From outside the house the neighbor heard a baby crying. When he knocked on the door and no one answered, the neighbor called the police.

     Upon entering the Eastburn dwelling, police officers were stunned by what they found. Kathryn, Kara, and Erin had been repeatedly stabbed. The killer had also slashed their throats. The baby in the crib was severely dehydrated, just hours from death. Kathryn had been tied up and raped.

     The killer had attempted to clean up the crime scene but had been overwhelmed by the task. There was too much blood. The only items missing from the house were a small amount of cash and the Eastburn ATM card.

     An Eastburn neighbor said he had seen a tall man wearing a dark Members Only jacket walking from the house a couple of days before the police were called to the scene. This man was carrying a large trash bag and drove off in a white Chevrolet. Based on this witness' description of the suspect, a police artist drew a sketch of the man's face.

     Following the news coverage of the triple murder, Sergeant Hennis voluntarily paid a visit to the police station. He told detectives that when he saw a photograph of Kathryn Eastburn on television he realized she was the woman from whom he had recently purchased the dog.

     Because Sergeant Hennis was tall, looked like the man in the police sketch, had just taken a dark Members Only jacket to a dry cleaner, and drove a white Chevrolet Chevette, he became the prime suspect in the case. A witness picked Hennis out of a police line-up as the man seen carrying the trash bag out of the murder house. Shortly after being seen leaving the Eastburn house with the bag, Hennis was seen burning items in an oil drum in his backyard.

     Detectives determined that Hennis and his wife were separating and that he was having money problems. A witness saw Hennis using an ATM machine about the time someone used the Eastburn card.

     Sergeant Hennis denied killing the mother and her children. He said he was home that night building his daughter a dollhouse. County prosecutor William VanStory charged Hennis with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of rape.

     Because the prosecution didn't have a confession, physical evidence linking Hennis to the murder scene, or an eyewitness to the massacre, VanStory offered Hennis a plea bargain. The defendant, perhaps realizing that the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial, turned down the deal.

     The Hennis murder trial got underway in the spring of 1986. According to the prosecutor's theory of the case, the defendant, after buying the dog, returned to the Eastburn house to have sex with Kathryn. He knew that Captain Eastburn was in Montgomery, Alabama. When Kathryn rejected his sexual advances he flew into a rage and murdered her and her two children.

     The witness who picked Hennis out of the police line-up as the man leaving the murder house carrying the trash bag took the stand for the prosecution. Another witness testified that the Eastburn ATM card had been used on two occasions after the murders. Twice the card user had withdrawn $150. The prosecutor pointed out that the defendant owned his landlord $300 in back rent.

     The Hennis trial lasted three weeks. The jury, after ten hours of deliberation, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Hennis to death.

     The convicted man's attorneys appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court on grounds the jurors had been unduly prejudiced by the introduction into evidence of the graphic murder scene photographs. In 1988, the state supreme court granted Hennis a new trial.

     A year after winning the appeal, Hennis' attorneys, at his second trial, took a more aggressive approach. They put forward their own narrative of the case. Kathryn Eastburn and her children had been murdered by a mysterious stranger who for months had made phone threats against the family. Moreover, a murder scene head hair found on the Eastburn bed did not come from any member of the family or the defendant. Several bloodstains in the house did not match the blood types of the family or Sergeant Hennis. (The Hennis trial predated the DNA era. Blood could only be placed into groups.)

     The defense attorneys argued that the overkill nature of the murders was not consistent with a man who had merely been rebuffed by a woman with whom he had wanted casual sex. According to the defense, the Eastburn family had been slaughtered by a maniac who, for whatever reason, hated them.

     In cross-examining the prosecution's witness, the defendant's attorneys did a good job of raising doubts regarding their credibility. The prosecutors, on the other hand, seemed overconfident they would secure another guilty verdict. For that reason they were shocked when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

     Timothy Hennis, following his acquittal, re-enlisted in the Army. Promoted to Staff Sergeant, he did tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and in Somalia before being stationed back in the states at Fort Lewis, Washington.

     In 2006, years after he had retired from the military, the Army called the 48-year-old back into service and sent him to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

     Army prosecutors, shortly after Staff Sergeant Hennis reported for duty at Fort Bragg, charged him in military court with triple-murder. The Army had called Hennis back to active duty for the sole purpose of the court martial.

     The Hennis legal team sprang back into action. Defense attorneys accused the military of violating their client's right against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. However, due to legal precedent that allowed the court martial of a soldier who had been acquitted in a civilian court of the same crime, the Army's case moved forward.

     Army prosecutors had new evidence that incriminated Hennis. A North Carolina DNA analyst had matched his DNA to semen found inside Kathryn Eastburn. Advanced DNA science had made the identification of this rape kit vaginal swab evidence possible.

     At the 2010 court martial trial, the Hennis defense argued that merely because the defendant and Kathryn Eastburn had engaged in consensual sex didn't prove that he had murdered her and the children. The defense attorneys also brought up the unidentified hair follicle and the unaccounted for bloodstains. Moreover, DNA found under Kathryn's fingernail did not match the defendant.

     The case put on by the Hennis defense was no match for the testimony of the prosecution's DNA expert. The military jury, following a three-day trial, found Hennis guilty of three counts of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced him to death. (Hennis cannot be executed without presidential approval. The military hasn't executed anyone since 1961.)

     In 2012, after numerous federal appeals involving defense claims that the DNA evidence had been contaminated by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Hennis case.

     With their client in solitary confinement on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, the Hennis legal team, in March 2014, appealed the court martial verdict to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for The Armed Forces. The Hennis defense argued that because Harris had been unlawfully ordered to active duty in 2006, the Army did not have jurisdiction to court martial him.

     On October 14, 2014, the Armed Forces Court of Appeals denied the Hennis petition. At this point it appeared that his attorneys had run out of legal remedies in this one-of-a-kind murder case.

     

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Whitney Heichel Kidnap Murder Case

     Whitney Heichel, at 6:45 in the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 2012, walked out of her Gresham, Oregon apartment with the intent of driving her 1999 Ford Explorer to her nearby job at Starbucks. That day she had to attend an early morning employee meeting. Instead of reporting to work, she was seen two and a half hours later sitting in the passenger's side of her SUV at a service station in Troutdale, Oregon. (The man behind the wheel had used Heichel's ATM card to purchase gas.)

     A Starbucks employee called Heichel's apartment when she didn't show up for work. Whitney's husband Clinton, at 9:56 AM, called 911 and reported his 5-foot-2, 120 pound wife missing. Ninety minutes later, police officers found Heichel's vehicle in the parking lot of the Walmart store in Wood Village. The front passenger's side window had been broken out. The next day, children found the missing woman's cellphone in the brush between the service station and the abandoned SUV.

     Detectives began questioning residents of Heichel's apartment complex. They spoke to a 25-year-old acquaintance and neighbor named Jonathan Holt. The investigators grew suspicious when Holt's account of himself on the morning in question contained glaring inconsistencies. Detectives grilled Holt on Wednesday the 17th, and when they interrogated him again the next day, he confessed. The police  also recovered the 9 mm pistol Holt used to murder the victim.

     On the morning of October 16, 2012, Holt waited outside the apartment complex for Heichel. When she came out of her apartment he asked her for a lift. Holt had been in Heichel's SUV about five minutes when he pulled a gun and told her to drive to an area near Roslyn Lake. At the lake, Holt forced Heichel at gunpoint to give him oral sex. He then shot her to death.

     After murdering Whitney Heichel, Holt drove the body to Larch Mountain, a 40 minute drive up winding roads from the apartment complex. After hiding her corpse in the underbrush, he drove to the Walmart parking lot where he abandoned the vehicle. (Holt had either broken the passenger's side window to throw off the police, or it had been blown out by a bullet when he shot her.)

     Twelve hours after Whitney Heichel didn't show up for work at Starbuck's, a pair of Holt's friends spotted Holt walking along 257th Avenue in Gresham. When they offered him a ride, he refused, saying, "I just need to finish clearing my head." A short time later, Holt's friends tracked him down and asked him again to get into the car. After accepting the lift, Holt told his friends a strange story. He said that on his way to work that morning at a Swan Island vending company, two black men robbed him at gunpoint. Holt later admitted to detectives that this story was untrue. After confessing to Whitney Heichel's murder, Holt admitting to downloading child pornography onto his laptop computer.

     According to Holt's wife Amanda, her husband felt like a failure, and this had let "so many things build up. I think he just loses it." (Whatever the hell that means.)

     On Friday, October 19, 2012, police officers found Whitney Heichel's body in a remote spot in the woods on Larch Mountain. Besides the confession, detectives  linked Holt to Heichel's murder through his fingerprints and other physical evidence crime scene investigators recovered from her SUV.

     According to medical examiner Dr. Christopher Young, Whitney Heichel had been shot four times. On Monday, October 22, Jonathan Holt, at his arraignment hearing in a Clackamas County court, was charged with aggravated murder. The judge denied him bail. His trial was set for April 2013.

     Jonathan Holt, in July 2013, pleaded guilty to the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of his neighbor. The judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Kleber Cordova Bathtub Murder Case

     On May 9, 2008, at 7:30 in the morning, 29-year-old Kleber Cordova called 911 and reported that his wife had accidentally hit her head on their bathtub faucet and slipped, unconscious, under the water. He said he had tried but failed to lift his 4 foot 10 inch, 125 pound wife out of the tub.

     First responders to the Morristown, New Jersey home found a nude Eliana Torres submerged on her back with her face directly under the spout. Given cardiopulmonary resuscitation and rushed to the Morristown Memorial Hospital, the 26-year-old woman died five days later without regaining consciousness.

     Kleber Cordova and Eliana Torres had a one-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter who attended second grade at the Normandy Elementary School. Cordova, his wife, and their eight-year-old girl had been born in Ecuador and were in the United States illegally. The victim's mother, Rita Valverde, on the day of the bathtub "accident," rushed to the Morristown hospital from her home in Danbury, Connecticut.

     Cordova, when questioned by the police at the  hospital a few hours after his 911 call, said he had arrived home from his night job to find his wife lying face-up in the bathtub with water from the spout pouring directly into her mouth. After failing to remove her from the tub, Cordova had called for help. The next day, aware that his wife was still alive and could possibly regain consciousness, Cordova asked to speak with detectives.

     In a video-taped statement given in Spanish through an interpreter, Cordova changed his story. During the week prior to the bathtub incident, he and Eliana had been arguing. She had informed Kleber that she had a boyfriend and planned to leave him. That morning, after she asked him for a divorce, he want "crazy" and held his wife's head under the water for about three minutes. To make the drowning look like an accident, Cordova removed her wet clothing and hid the garments in his car. (The interrogators had not warned Cordova of his Miranda rights, but since he had initiated contact with them, the judge, in a preliminary hearing, ruled the confession admissible.)

     Charged with the murder of his wife, Cordova was placed in the Morris County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond.

     On March 23, 2009, Morris County prosecutor John McNamera offered Cordova a deal. If he pleaded guilty to murder, the judge would sentence him to 30 years in prison. If tried and found guilty, he could receive up to 75 years in prison. Cordova rejected the offer. He would take his chances with a jury.

     The Cordova murder trial began in early March, 2012 at the Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, New Jersey. Assistant prosecutor Brian DiGiamaco did not show the jury Cordova's video-taped confession because a judge had ruled it inadmissible. The prosecutor put the defendant's daughter, now twelve years old, on the stand. On the morning in question, the eight-year-old girl awoke to the sound of her mother's cries for help. From the bathroom Eliana had screamed, "God help me!" in Spanish. The witness said she walked into the bathroom where she saw water splashing out of the bathtub. Her father was leaning over her mother who was clawing at his face. (When the police spoke to Cordova at the hospital they noticed fresh scratches on his face.) Cordova, when he realized that his daughter was standing nearby, said, "Everything is all right, go to your room." Fearing that her father would get angry if she disobeyed, the girl returned to her room, closed the door, and sat on her bed.

     From her bedroom, the witness heard someone turn off the bathtub water. Her father then walked out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. She could hear his wet sneakers on the kitchen floor. The witness said she took this opportunity to re-enter the bathroom and check on her mother. That's when she saw "the thigh part of her body" in the tub and a lot of water on the floor. Frightened, the little girl ran back to her bedroom.

     Later that morning, in the hospital waiting room, the defendant told his daughter not to say anything about what she had seen. The victim's mother, Rita Valverde, was sitting nearby and overheard Cordova say this to his daughter.

     On cross-examination by Cordova's attorney, public defender Jessica Moses, the defendant's daughter acknowledged that the first time she accused her father of killing her mother was in December 2008, several months after the incident. The defense attorney, in this line of questioning, hoped to convince the jurors that detectives had wrangled this story out of the eight-year-old. (Since the incident, the witness had been living with her grandmother, Rita Valverde, who had moved from Connecticut to Florida.)

     On March 28, 2012, the victim's sister, Zaida Solis, took the stand and testified that three days after Cordova's arrest he had said this to her: "How could I do that to the love of my life?" The defendant also told his sister-in-law that the drowning had "happened fast," and that he was sorry about it. According to Cordova, on the night before the bathtub attack, Eliana had phoned her boyfriend in front of her husband. The next morning she demanded a divorce.

     After the state rested its case, Jessica Moses asked Judge David Ironson for a judgment of acquittal on the grounds the prosecution had not made a prima facie case against her client. If she did not prevail on that request, the public defender asked for a reduction of the charge from murder to passion/provocation manslaughter. "There is no evidence to support a murder conviction," she argued.

     In opposition to the public defender's reduced charge motion, assistant prosecutor Maggie Calderwood asserted that the defendant had killed his wife "knowingly," and "on purpose." Judge Ironson denied the public defender's motions. The murder charge would stand.

     Jessica Moses didn't have much of a defense beyond a character witness who said Cordova worked hard as an overnight cleaner at a Morristown restaurant and a hospital security officer who saw the defendant faint after visiting his unconscious wife. Cordova did not take the stand on his own behalf.

     In her closing argument to the jury the public defender said that the defendant's daughter had changed her story when questioned by the police months after her father called 911. The defense attorney, in explaining why Cordova had taken off his wife's clothing and hid them in his car, said he "panicked" after the 911 dispatcher asked him a series of questions regarding what had happened in the bathroom. He staged the scene as an accidental drowning because he was sure the authorities would accuse him of murder. As evidence that the killing was not premeditated, the public defender pointed out that two days before the struggle in the bathtub, Cordova bought his wife a new computer and paid an extra $99 for a one-year warranty.

     On April 5, 2012, after deliberating two hours, the jury found Kleber Cordova guilty of murdering his wife. The defendant showed no emotion as the foreman read the verdict.

     The judge, on July 24, 2012, sentenced Kleber Cordova to fifty years in prison. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Deadly Bay Area Limousine Fire

     On Saturday, May 4, 2013, Nerizo Fojas, a recently married 31-year-old registered nurse from Fresno, California entertained eight of her friends and fellow nurses at a bachelorette party in Oakland. At nine that night, the newlywed and her guests climbed into a white, 1999 Lincoln stretch limousine en route to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City, the site of her bridal shower. Orville Brown, the 46-year-old who had been driving as a chauffeur for two months, had picked up the nine women for the 40-mile trip from Oakland to Foster City.

     At ten o'clock, as the limousine crossed the San Mateo Bridge on Highway 92 about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco, one of the passengers tapped on the partition that separates the driver from the passengers. At first Brown couldn't hear what this passenger was saying over the car music. When he heard others in the back yelling, "smoke, smoke!" he pulled out of the westbound lane and brought the Town Car to a stop at the side of the bridge.

     In a matter of seconds after Brown exited the limo, the rear passenger and trunk areas of the vehicle burst into flames, engulfing the passengers. Four of the women managed to escape the sudden inferno by crawling through the 3 foot by18 inch driver's partition opening. Five of the nurses, including Nerizo Fojas, were burned to death as they waited to squeeze through the partition opening.

     The dead women were so badly burned they had to be officially identified through dental records. Two of the women who survived the fire were in critical condition.

     Nerizo Fojas had been working at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno for two years. Prior to living in Fresno she had resided in Oakland. She and her husband had planned to travel to her native Philippines in June for a second wedding ceremony.

     San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told reporters that "it was almost impossible for [the victims] to get out as the fire was moving so fast." As cause and origin experts investigate the fire scene, forensic pathologists performed autopsies and ordered toxicology tests.

     It is rare for a motor vehicle not involved in an accident to burst into flames. The fact the fire had spread so fast suggests that something highly flammable had been near the origin of the fire. (A good many car fires that are not incendiary are electrical in nature.) According to the chauffeur, he had informed his passengers that smoking in the vehicle was prohibited. Orville Brown and other witnesses reported that the fire was not accompanied by an explosion.

     On May 7, 2013, Nelia Arelllano, one of the passengers, told a television reporter from San Francisco that the driver of the limo ignored her when she first yelled at him to stop the car. By the time he pulled over the fire had engulfed the rear area of the vehicle. (Stretch limousines have doors at the front and back but not along the elongated section of the car.) The San Jose company that operated the limo, Limo Stop, was licensed and insured.

    In 2014,  fire scene investigation specialists from San Mateo and Alameda Counties determined that the limo fire had been started by a "catastrophic failure" of the suspension system of the 1999 converted Lincoln Town Car that caused its drive shaft to rub on the vehicle's undercarriage, producing friction and sparks that started the fire in the rear passenger section.

     The California Public Utilities Commission fined Limo Stop $20,000 for having nine passengers in the vehicle, one over the limit. On appeal the amount was reduced to $5,000.

     In 2014 and 2015, families of four of the five women who died in the limo settled lawsuits with numerous companies associated with the vehicle fire. In May 2016, the husband of the fifth victim, Aldrin Geronga, filed a wrongful death suit against the Ford Motor company. According to this plaintiff's attorney, "Ford knew there were problems fifteen years ago." 

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Jorelys Rivera Murder Case: The Polygraph as an Interrogation Tool

     Several years ago, a story went around about an ingenious small town cop who hooked a young thief up to a copy machine the kid thought was a lie detector. When the suspect gave an answer the interrogator didn't like, he hit the print button causing a sheet of paper to come out of the copier that read, "Not True." The suspect, convinced he had been caught by a sophisticated lie detection instrument, confessed. Whenever I told this story in class, I said it happened in West Virginia, and that the judge, offended by the cop's clever dishonesty, threw the confession out.

     The copy machine-as-polygraph story probably didn't happen in West Virginia, or anywhere else. But it illustrates an important point about scientific lie detection, and how the polygraph technique can be used by examiners to coax confessions out of guilty suspects. The debate over polygraph accuracy, in this context, is not relevant. What does matter is this: most criminal suspects who happen to be guilty, believe the polygraph works. In the right hands it can be an effective interrogation tool. A few years ago, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made public a video-tape of a murder suspect's polygraph examination and follow-up interrogation. The transcript of this session reveals how a professional polygraph examiner/interrogator can acquire a confession.

The Jorelys Rivera Murder Case

     On Friday, December 2, 2010, 7-year-old Jorelys Rivera, a resident of the River Ridge Apartment complex in Canton, Georgia outside of Atlanta, went missing. Three days later police officers found her body in a dumpster not far from where she had been abducted. Ryan Brunn, a 20-year-old newly hired maintenance man had lured the girl into a vacant apartment where he had raped and murdered her.

     On the day following the discovery of the murdered girl's body, Keith Sitton, a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, gave the suspect a polygraph test. What follows is the word-for-word account of that session:

SITTON: Regarding that girl, do you intend to answer the [polygraph] questions truthfully?

BRUNN: Yes.

SITTON: Did you participate in any way in causing the death of that girl?

BRUNN: No.

SITTON: Do you know for sure who caused the death of that girl?

BRUNN: No.

     In discussing the results of the polygraph test with Brunn, Sitton said, "I can see you're not doing good on this test. Those [last two] questions are really bothering me."

     "I promise you. I'll take the test again," Brunn replied. His voice was weak, and he was obviously nervous.

     "There's something on this that you're not telling us. Something that you're keeping to yourself. What is it you're holding back? Because we're going to solve this thing. It's just written all over you. Something's bothering you."

     "I'm not bothered at all."

     "You haven't told the complete truth about everything."

     "I have," Brunn replied.

     The GBI agent asked Brunn about having been accused of sexually fondling a young girl in Virginia: "You know what I'm talking about," he said.

     "I don't."

     "Remember, I said you had to be 100 percent truthful. I asked you [on the polygraph] if anyone made accusations. So what you have done is told me a lie.

     "They put things in that child's head. I'm a good person. I didn't do nothing to that little Spanish girl, and I didn't do nothing to the other girl [the one in Virginia].

     The next day, Sutton questioned Brunn again. He informed the suspect that according to the polygraph he had lied. To this, Brunn said, "I should have told the truth straight up. But I didn't. I was scared." At this point, Brunn made a full confession. He said he had raped the girl, cut her throat, wrapped her in a garbage bag, and dumped her body in the trash compactor.

     On January 17, 2011, Ryan Brunn pleaded guilty to murdering Jorelys Rivera. The judge sentenced him to life without parole. A year later, while serving his time at the Georgia State Prison, Brunn used his sweatshirt to hang himself.

     

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Turkish Severed Head Murder Case: Killing a Serial Rapist

     Nevin Yildirim lived with her husband and two children, ages two and six, in a village in southwestern Turkey. In January 2012, her husband left home to work at a seasonal job in another town. Shortly after Mr. Yildirim began working at the other place, a 35-year-old member of the village named Nurettin came to Nevin's house and raped her. This married father of two threatened to shoot Nevin's children if she reported the crime to anyone.

     By August 2012, after months of being raped on a regular basis by Nurettin, Nevin was five months pregnant with his child. When she visited a clinic regarding an abortion, a health care worker informed her that her pregnancy was too far along for that option. In Turkey, abortions are illegal after the first ten weeks of pregnancy.

     On August 28, 2012, when Nurettin came to Nevin's house to rape her again, she pulled her father-in-law's rifle off a wall rack and shot him. As the wounded Nurettin reached for his handgun to return fire, Nevin shot him again. Hit with her second slug, he tired to run, but stumbled and fell. As he lay on the ground cursing her, Nevin fired a third bullet, this one into his genitals. The rapist went silent, and a few seconds later, died where he lay in a pool of his own blood.

     The woman who had just killed the man who for months had been raping her, laid down her rifle and picked up a kitchen knife that she then used to decapitate him. She picked up the detached head by the hair and carried it triumphantly to the village square. To a group of men sitting around a coffee house, Nevin, still gripping her rapist's head as it continued to drip blood from the base of the severed neck, said, "Here is the head of the man who played with my honor."

     As the coffee house drinkers looked on in horror, Nevin Yildirim tossed her blood trophy. The severed head rolled along the ground and came to rest in the public square. A short time later, a local police officer took the blood-splattered woman into custody.

     A few days after the killing, in speaking to her court-appointed lawyer who came to the local lock-up, Nevin reportedly said, "I thought of reporting [Nurettin] to the military police and to the district attorney, but this was going to make me a scorned woman. Since I was going to get a bad reputation, I decided to clean my honor, and acted on killing him. I thought of suicide a lot, but couldn't do it. Now no one can call my children bastards....Everyone will call them the children of the woman who cleaned her honor."

     On August 30, 2012, at the preliminary hearing on the charge of murder, Yildirim told the magistrate she didn't want to keep her rapist's baby and that she wished to die. The public prosecutor advised the court he had ordered psychiatric evaluations of the defendant.

    Nevin Yildirim gave birth to her rapist's child on November 17, 2012.

     On March 25, 2013, the district judge found Yildirim guilty of murder. Before he handed down the sentence, the judge ordered police officers to remove feminist protesters from the courtroom.

     After clearing the courtroom of protesters, the Turkish judge imposed the maximum punishment of life in prison. Among women in Turkey and others around the world, the verdict and sentence created an uproar. Had Nevin Yildirim committed the exact crime in the United States, she would have been charged with second or third-degree murder. Her attorney would have had the option of putting on either an insanity or battered woman defense. If found guilty, her punishment wouldn't be anything close to life behind bars. In the U.S. a case like would likely be resolved through the plea bargaining process that would lead to much lighter sentence.

   

     

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Modern History of The Death Penalty

     While the death penalty is still lawful in 32 states, only Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas actually execute their death row inmates. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that the death penalty itself amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

     Since the mid-1980s, the states that carry out the death penalty have used lethal injection as the principal method of execution. Considered a more humane way to kill condemned prisoners than its predecessors the electric chair and the gas chamber, the use of drugs instead of electricity and lethal gas is more a matter of appearance--aesthetics if you will--than concern for the condemned.

     From 1976 to 2015, 1,204 inmates have been executed by lethal injection. Four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--still allow death row prisoners to choose between deadly drugs and the electric chair.

The Electric Chair

     On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler, a convicted murderer serving time at New York's Auburn Prison, earned the distinction of becoming the first person in America to die in the electric chair. The state of Ohio followed New York by replacing hanging with electrocution in 1897. Massachusetts adopted the chair in 1900, New Jersey in 1906, and Virginia in 1908. By the 1930s most of the death penalty states used the electric chair as the primary method of execution. The other states killed their death row inmates by gas, by firing squad, or by rope. The state of Kansas continued to hang its prisoners into the early 1960s.

     The state of Nebraska was one of the last jurisdictions to employ the electric chair as its sole method of killing murderers. In February 2008, the practice ended when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that electrocution was in itself cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state's constitution.

The Electric Chair's Golden Era

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician from Long Island, the official executioner for six eastern states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For his work he charged $150 an execution. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more inmates at one prison visit, he discounted his fee. Some of Elliott's most infamous clients included Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936), the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (1928), the killers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927), the Italian anarchists convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity, and obviously proud of his singular contribution to the American system of criminal justice, wrote a memoir called Agent of Death. The book came out in 1940. Long out of print, it is today in the libraries of true crime book collectors.

Electrocuting Fat People

     In 1981, Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old's death house attorney argued that the 355-pound inmate was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. Since its construction in 1923, the Florida state electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners. In recent years the chair had been involved in some unsightly executions. For example, death house witnesses in 1997 saw flames shoot from a condemned man's head. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair. The new device could easily handle a 355-pound guest. On July 8, 1999, the executioner sent 2,300 volts through the metal cap on the fat man's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a little groaning, but the new chair did its job.

The Gas Chamber

     Death in a gas chamber usually took six to eighteen minutes. The execution ritual began with the condemned inmate being led into the death chamber and strapped into a chair by his arms, waist, ankles, and chest. A mask was placed over the prisoner's face, and the chamber sealed. The executioner poured sulfuric acid down a tube into a metal container on the floor, a canister that contained cyanide pellets. The mixture of the chemicals produced a cloud of lethal gas.

     An open curtain allowed witnesses to observe the inmate inside the chamber. At the designated moment, the executioner hit an electric switch that combined the chemicals that produced the killing agent.

     The gas chamber was an expensive form of execution. Moreover, one could argue that because the condemned man contributed to his own death by breathing in the gas, it was the most cruel. Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton, a toxicologist, first proposed the gassing of death row inmates to the state of Nevada in 1921. That year, state legislators abolished the electric chair in favor of the gas chamber. On February 8, 1924, a Chinese immigrant named Gee Jon became the first person in America to be executed by gas. He died in the chamber inside the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City.

     Eventually adopted by eleven states as the official method of execution, lethal gas killed 594 prisoners in the U.S. from 1924 to 1999.

The Caryl Chessman Case

     Caryl Chessman was an armed robber and serial rapist who spent most of his adult life behind bars. In 1948, a Los Angeles jury found him guilty of 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. Among his crimes, he had kidnapped a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza out of her car and forced her to give him oral sex. He committed a similar offense against another victim, Regina Johnson. Under California law at the time, a kidnapping that involved bodily injury was a capital offense. Under this law, the judge sentenced Chessman to die in the gas chamber.

     Following his highly publicized trial, Chessman continued to argue his innocence through essays and books. His two memoirs, written behind bars, became bestsellers. During his twelve years on San Quentin's death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals, and managed to avoid eight execution dates. Following his failed last-minute attempt to avoid death with a writ of habeas corpus filed with the California Supreme Court, Chessman died of asphyxiation on May 2, 1960 in San Quentin's gas chamber. He is the only person to die in the gas chamber for a crime other than murder.

Lethal Injection

     By the 21st century, state executioners were injecting death row inmates with a three-drug cocktail that included pentobarbital. When the European manufacturers of this deadly drug stopped exporting it and other killing agents to the United States, executioners found themselves in a fix. Some began using a single drug--usually pentobarbital if they had it--while others concocted new, experimental cocktails made of drugs available in the United States.

     Anti-capital punishment activists have used the lethal drug supply problem to further their push to have the death penalty abolished altogether. But for these crusaders, if it's not the inhumanity of using untested drugs, it's something else. These death house lawyers and political activists object to executing prisoners who, when they murdered, were under eighteen; inmates who are fat with hard-to-find veins; killers with low I.Q.s; and in the case of a Missouri murderer named Russell Bucklew, a death row inmate who wasn't healthy enough to be humanely executed.

The Clayton Lockett Case

     In 1999, an Oklahoma criminal named Clayton Lockett tortured then buried alive an 18-year-old girl who had been unfortunate enough to cross this predator's path. On April 29, 2014, the executioner at the state penitentiary in McAlester administered a three-drug cocktail of Midazalam (to render him unconscious), Vecuronium (to stop his breathing), and potassium chloride (to stop his heart).

     Seven minutes after the drugs went into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. He moved his head and tried to get off the gurney seventeen minutes into the execution. Finally, 43 minutes after being injected, the 38-year-old died of a heart attack. It wasn't a perfect, well-oiled killing, but in the end the drugs worked.

     By describing Lockett's death as torture, a horrible ordeal, and a nightmare, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment crusaders, and people in the media who support their cause, exploited Lockett's "botched" execution for all its worth. Suddenly, executing a sadistic rapist and cold-blooded murderer by lethal injection became cruel and unusual punishment. For those who were not losing sleep over Clayton Lockett's bumpy ride into eternity, listening to this hand-wringing was cruel and unusual punishment.

Back to Bullets

     In 2014, politicians in Utah, Wyoming, and Missouri proposed bringing back the firing squad. In Utah, legislators abolished death by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention surrounding this form of execution. Still, murderers sentenced before 2004 had the option to die by shooting. In 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner, a man who fatally shot a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 in Gardner's attempt to flee the court house, selected the firing squad over lethal injection. Five police officers used .30-caliber Winchester rifles to carry out Gardner's execution. Unlike Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Mr. Gardner died instantly. Nevertheless, those who opposed capital punishment, fretted that the executioners might miss their target, causing a slow and painful death. There was, however, a simple solution to this problem: give each executioner two bullets.

The Return of the Electric Chair

     On May 22, 2014, Tennessee Governor Bill Hallam signed a bill allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state was unable to acquire the proper drugs for the execution. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly passed the bill the previous month. And most people in the state supported the new law. According to a 2014 Vanderbilt University poll, 56 percent of registered voters in the state welcomed the return of the chair.

     Corrections officials in Tennessee have been dealing with the lethal drug shortage. Electricity, on the other hand, didn't come from Europe and was in good supply.

     In Tennessee, Daryl Holton, in 2009, was the last man in the state to die in the electric chair. In 1997, the Gulf War veteran murdered his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in their Shelbyville, Tennessee  garage. Death by electrocution had been his choice of execution.