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Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Larry Swearingen Murder Case: Was an Innocent Man Executed?

     Melissa Trotter, a 19-year-old college student from Willis, Texas, a suburban community just north of Houston, went missing after being last seen in a pickup truck driven by a 27-year-old electrician named Larry Swearingen. Witnesses saw them together on December 8, 1998 pulling away from Lone Star Community College in Conroe, Texas.

     Detectives trying to find the missing student quickly developed Larry Swearingen as a suspect in her disappearance. Swearingen had a history of crimes against women and was at the time under indictment for having allegedly kidnapped his former fiancee. Investigators considered him a violent sociopath.

     About a week after Melissa Trotter went missing, when detectives questioned Swearingen, he denied knowing her. However, when asked why his pager number was in the missing student's possessions, Swearingen admitted that he knew her and that she had been in his truck many times. At this point the authorities did not have enough evidence to charge Swearingen with any crime related to the missing person case. They did, however, take him into custody in connection with numerous outstanding traffic violations. As it turned out, he would remain behind bars the rest of his life.

     On January 2, 1999, 25 days after she went missing, a person stumbled upon Melissa Trotter's partially clad body in Sam Houston National Forest 70 miles northeast of Houston. The forensic pathologist concluded that she had been killed within a day or two of her disappearance. Her killer had either strangled her to death with a piece of her pantyhose in the national forest or killed her somewhere else before dumping her body in the woods.

     Detectives searched Larry Swearingen's trailer and found a pair of ripped pantyhose that matched the suspected crime scene ligature. Investigators also found a lighter in the suspect's dwelling that was similar to one the victim had owned.

     A crime lab hair and fiber examiner matched fibers on the victim's body with fibers from the inside of Swearingen's truck. In addition, a cell tower had pinged the suspect not far from where the body had been found in the forest. Detectives believed Swearingen had murdered Melissa Trotter after she resisted his sexual advances. They also believed he had raped her before strangling her.

     In mid-January 1999, the Montgomery County District Attorney charged Larry Swearingen with kidnapping, rape and capital murder. The prosecutor also notified the defense that the state would seek the death penalty in the case. The defendant pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     At his murder trial Swearingen's attorneys challenged the validity of the fiber matches related to the pantyhose and challenged the trace evidence taken from the defendant's truck. Five forensic pathologists took the stand for the defense and testified that in their expert opinions, Melissa Trotter's body showed too little decomposition to have been dead 25 days at the time of her discovery. The experts believed that when the corpse was found on January 2, 1998 she had been dead no longer than 14 days. This meant that at the time of her murder, about December 22, 1998, Larry Swearingen had been in jail on the outstanding traffic charges.

     Defense attorneys argued that the circumstantial case against their client was weak and based on junk science. The defense also pointed out that dried blood and tissue samples taken from beneath the victim's fingernails did not come from Larry Swearingen.

     Notwithstanding the aggressive defense, the Montgomery County jury found Larry Swearingen guilty of capital murder. The trial judge sentenced him to death.

     Attorneys with the Innocence Project took up Swearingen's appeal of the murder verdict. On August 21, 2019, following several stay of executions and lost appeals before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, Swearingen was delivered to the death chamber at the state prison in Huntsville, Texas.

     The condemned man's final statement before being injected with pentobarbital was: "Lord, forgive them. They don't know what they are doing." The executioner administered the lethal dose at 7:47 in the evening. "It's actually burning in my right arm," said Swearingen. "I don't feel anything in the left arm." Those were his last words. Twelve minutes later the attending physician pronounced the 48-year-old dead.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Brenda Delgado Murder-For-Hire Case

     At quarter to eight on the night of Wednesday, September 2, 2015, 35-year-old dentist Dr. Kendra Hatcher parked her car in the garage of her upscale Dallas, Texas apartment complex. As Dr. Hatcher did so, a man hiding in the back seat of a Jeep Cherokee driven by a woman jumped out of the vehicle and approached her. It was at that moment the assailant shot the dentist one time with a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, killing the victim on the spot. After stealing two of Dr. Hatcher's purses the shooter climbed back into the Jeep and was driven off by his driver.

     On Friday, September 4, 2015, detectives with the Dallas Police Department arrested 23-year-old Crystal Cortes on suspicion that she had been the person behind the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee. Cortes, during her interrogation, confessed to her role in the robbery-murder. She also identified the shooter as 31-year-old Kristopher Love.

      After a week into the Hatcher murder investigation detectives came to believe that robbery had not been the motive behind the killing. The officers suspected the slaying had been the culmination of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by a 33-year-old dental hygiene student at Stanford-Brown College named Brenda Delgado.

     Two months before the murder, Delgado, a Mexican citizen, and her boyfriend, 38-year-old dermatologist Dr. Ricardo Panigua, had broken up following a two-year relationship. After the split Dr. Panigua began dating Dr. Kendra Hatcher. Detectives suspected that Delgado had the dentist murdered out of jealousy and rage.

     When questioned by investigators the murder-for-hire suspect admitted lending Crystal Cortes the Jeep Cherokee and meeting with Cortes and the suspected hit man, Kristopher Love. She met with the murder suspects at a Dallas apartment complex a few days before the killing. Delgado, however, denied being the mastermind behind a plot to have her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend murdered. That, she claimed, had been Love's idea.

     On September 11, 2015, a Dallas County prosecutor charged Crystal Cortes with capital murder. Police officers booked her into the Dallas County Jail under $500,000 bond. Cortes' attorney, George Ashford III, told reporters that his client, before what she believed was just going to be a robbery, had tried to call and warn Dr. Hatcher of the hold-up plot. The lawyer said that after the killing Mr. Love had threatened to kill Cortes' 6-year-old son if she went to the authorities.

     According to Crystal Cortes, Brenda Delgado had promised her and the hit man free prescription drugs if they robbed Dr. Hatcher. Also, Delgado had allegedly paid Cortes $500 to drive Kristopher Love to the robbery scene. Just before Love climbed out of the Jeep in the victim's parking garage, Cortes asked him how much money Delgado had paid him to commit the robbery. Love replied, "That's none of your business."

     On October 3, 2015, Dallas detectives arrested Kristopher Love on suspicion of capital murder. At the time he was taken into custody he was still in possession of the murder weapon. A magistrate set his bail at $2.5 million. In Texas a capital murder conviction can lead to the death penalty.

     About the time Kristopher Love was arrested a Dallas County prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Brenda Delgado. At that time the murder-for-hire suspect's whereabouts were unknown.

     In speaking to reporters regarding Delgado, Major Max Geron of the Dallas Police Department, said: "Ms. Delgado was involved in the planning and the commission of Kendra Hatcher's murder."

     On April 7, 2016, a spokesperson with the FBI announced that murder-for-hire fugitive Brenda Delgado had been placed on the bureau's "Ten Most Wanted" list. A day later the authorities in Torreon, Mexico took the fugitive into custody.

     In October 2018, a jury sitting in Dallas, Texas found Kristopher Love guilty of murder. The judge sentenced the hitman to death.

    Before Delgado could be extradited back to Texas, the U.S. prosecutor had to agree not to pursue the death penalty against the suspect. According to the Mexican authorities in charge of the case, it could take up to a year to complete the extradition process.

     On June 7, 2019, a jury in Dallas, Texas, after deliberating only twenty minutes, found Brenda Delgado guilty of the plot to murder Dr. Kendra Hatcher. The judge sentenced her to life in prison.

Friday, April 28, 2023

The Aaron Jackson Murder Case

     The ideal eyewitness is a person with excellent eyesight who is unbiased, honest, sober and intelligent. Unfortunately, most eyewitnesses are either not sober, intelligent, unbiased, honest or sure of their identifications. Moreover, they can be bribed, misled, and intimidated. Eyewitness misidentification has caused thousands of wrongful convictions. In the 1930s pioneers in the field of forensic science hoped that the scientific interpretation of physical clues--fingerprints, bullets, blood, and the like--would make this form of direct evidence unnecessary. That day hasn't come. Police and prosecutors still rely heavily on eyewitnesses, and often at their peril.

The Aaron Jackson Murder Case

     In 2001, police in Springfield, Illinois arrested Aaron "Chill" Jackson, a 36-year-old ex-con who had served 6 years in prison for armed robbery. Charged with the shooting death of 27-year-old Durrell Alexander, Jackson, a vicious and dangerous criminal, was held on $1 million bond. A pair of eyewitnesses said they had seen the defendant shoot Alexander in the chest and abdomen. A year later, just before the trial, the eyewitnesses took back their identifications. Without this testimony, the state's attorney in Sangamon County had no choice but to drop the case. Investigators believed that Jackson had threatened these witnesses.

     In Washington Park, Illinois on April 1, 2010, at 5:47 in the morning, a passenger in John Thornton's 1998 Buick Regal shot him three times in the chest, causing the car to crash. John Thornton, the mayor of Washington Park, had been cracking down on local crime. Two women who saw the 52-year-old's car go off the road told a detective they had seen Aaron Jackson climb out of the wrecked Buick and limp to a vehicle waiting nearby. Police arrested Jackson that day.

     The state's attorney, in addition to eyewitnesses Nortisha Ball and Gilda Lott, could link the suspect to the scene of the shooting in three ways: a latent fingerprint on the Buick's outside rear passenger door; a trace of his blood on the passenger's side deployed airbag; and a speck of the victim's blood on the suspect's left pant pocket. While this last piece of physical evidence was too small for a complete DNA profile, the state DNA analyst determined that the suspect was among a small population of black people--one in 4,200--who could not be eliminated as the donor of the blood speck.

     In October 2010, the Jackson trial blew up in the prosecutor's face when one of the eyewitnesses, Nortisha Ball, testified that a police detective named Kim McAfee, who had since been convicted in federal court of 39 white collar felonies, had forced her to pick Jackson's mugshot out of a photograph line-up. Another witness, Lequisha Jackson (no relation to the defendant) testified that Detective McAfee had offered her money to testify that he had not been at the scene of the shooting. (Apparently McAfee had initially been a suspect himself in the Thornton murder case.) The judge declared a mistrial.

     On April 12, 2012, Mr. Jackson's second murder trial got underway. The prosecutor, Steve Sallerson, put eyewitness Nortisha Ball back on the stand. Now serving time on a burglary conviction, the 23-year-old had led the prosecutor to believe she would identify the defendant as the man she had seen limping from Thornton's Buick after it had crashed. Instead, she threw him a curve by testifying she did not get a good look because it was dark that morning. Moreover, she was 150 yards away from the car and was under the influence of alcohol and drugs. On cross-examination, defense attorney Thomas Q. Keefe III got Ball to say that Detective McAfee had forced her to pick the defendant's photograph out of the spread of mugshots.

     Nortisha Ball, perhaps under threat from the defendant, became a prosecutor's worst courtroom nightmare. The other eyewitness, Gilda Lott, a witness with a history of drug related convictions, wasn't much better. She contradicted herself, acted confused then broke down on the stand. The judge had to threaten her with contempt to induce her to respond to the prosecutor's questions. At best, as a prosecution witness, Gilda Lott was useless. It seemed the defendant had gotten to her as well.

     While the two eyewitnesses were a complete prosecution disaster, the state DNA analyst, Jay Winters, identified the blood spot on the airbag as the defendant's. Using a more sophisticated DNA analysis on the speck of blood found on Jackson's trousers, Winters placed the defendant in a one in 46,000 population of black people who could not be excluded as the donor of this crime scene evidence.

     State fingerprint examiner Melissa Gamboe testified that the latent print on the rear passenger door of the mayor's Buick had been left by the defendant. 
     On April 27, 2012, the St. Clair County jury took just 5 hours to find Aaron Jackson guilty of murder. The judge, on August 27, 2012, sentenced Jackson to 35 years in prison. 
     The Jackson case is a good example of the value of physical evidence over eyewitness testimony. Because most jurors have seen TV shows like "CSI" they tend to have faith in forensic science and forensic scientists. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Kareem Andre Williams Murder Case

     On January 11, 2013, Lauren Kanoff from New York City was in Boynton Beach, a Palm Beach County town north of Hallandale Beach visiting her 80-year-old father, Albert Honigman. Mr. Honigman lived in the Aberdeen Development, a gated retirement community considered safe from crime. Mr. Honigman had grown up on Long Island, New York and after retirement had moved to Florida's southeast coast with his wife Phyllis. In 2011 Phyllis passed away.

     At ten o'clock Friday night, January 11, 2013, Lauren and her father were unloading packages from their car in their open garage after an evening of shopping. A man walked up behind Lauren, and when she turned around, he punched her in the eye and side of her face. The blow knocked her down, and for a few seconds rendered her unconscious. When Lauren came to she saw the assailant over her downed father punching him in the face. "You stay down old man," he said, "I have a friend in the car with a gun."

     Lauren did not see the car, but she got a good look at the attacker, describing him to the police as a 6-foot, athletically built black man in his 20s or 30s. Before the assailant left the scene he stole several pieces of jewelry and Mr. Honigman's $26,000 Rolex watch.

     Paramedics rushed Albert Honigman to the Bethesda West Hospital where he was given a brain CAT scan. The next morning the patient went home but later in the day was called back to the hospital after the CAT scan revealed blood on his brain. The following day, January 13, Mr. Honigman returned to his retirement condo. He went to bed where, a few hours later, his daughter found him dead.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy determined that Mr. Honigman had been killed by blunt force trauma to the head. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's office classified the manner of this 80-year-old's death as criminal homicide.

     In speaking to a reporter after her father's murder, his daughter said, "I don't know if he [the assailant/robber] followed us in, I have no idea. All we know is we turned around...and suddenly I'm down, my father's down."

     In the wake of the robbery and homicide, residents of the Aberdeen Development in Boynton Beach were apprehensive. Mr. Honigman's murder destroyed the sense of security in this retirement community. One of the Boynton Beach retirees said this to a reporter: "It's a very frustrating experience to have someone who lives in [your] gated community get murdered. It's terrifying."

     Homicide detectives, by reviewing surveillance camera tapes,  determined that Lauren Kanoff and her father had been followed home from the Boca Raton Town Center Mall by a man in a silver Camaro. On February 6, 2013, officers in West Palm Beach arrested 25-year-old Kareem Andre Williams. The murder suspect, a personal trainer with L. A. Fitness, resided in Loxachatche, Florida. In Palm Beach County, Williams had been arrested for grand theft and carrying a concealed weapon. In 2011 Williams was released from a Florida prison after serving time for armed burglary and several firearms offenses.

     Kareem Williams, the owner of a car that matched the Camero seen following the victims home from their shopping trip, was placed, through cellphone records, at the mall at the same time the victims were there. A mall surveillance camera tape also showed Williams and Albert Honigman in the same proximity near one of the shopping mall's exits.

     On February 15, 2013, a Palm Beach County prosecutor charged Kareem Williams with first-degree murder and lesser offenses. The magistrate denied bail for the suspect of this brutal home invasion homicide.

     On February 9, 2016, a jury found Williams guilty of first-degree murder, burglary with assault and robbery. Two days after the verdict, the judge sentenced Williams to two consecutive life sentences.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Math Teacher Joyce Quiller: Hero or Victim?

     In January 2014, students and parents filed complaints against a veteran math teacher at Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida. The teacher, 51-year-old Joyce Quiller, taught tenth and eleventh graders enrolled in Bridge to Success, a program created to help students two or more years older than normal for their class levels. In other words, most of Quiller's students were not the best nor the brightest. The 21 year classroom veteran had the difficult and unrewarding job of trying to teach math to mostly unmotivated and undisciplined teenagers.

     In the context of today's lax public school education standards, Joyce Quiller had the reputation of being a strict demanding teacher who didn't dumb-down and didn't suffer fools. She expected her students to show up for class with pen, paper and completed homework assignments. When students didn't live up to her academic expectations they failed the course. She gave 77 percent of her students Fs with all but a few of the rest receiving Ds. It seemed this teacher had imposed a toll on the so-called Bridge to Success, and most of her students didn't want to pay it. It's easy to see why this woman was not a popular teacher among students, their parents, and school administrators.

     The six or so complainants accused Quiller of being foul-mouthed and insulting in the classroom. In speaking to a student who showed up for class without pen or paper, she allegedly said, "What's the point of coming to this motherf--ing class if you don't bring materials?" Moreover, according to her accusers, she told another kid to "shut the f---up."

     Joyce Quller also faced the allegation that she called her students "stupid" and "ignorant," and once used the n-word. (The complainants in this case were black and so was the accused.)

     This was not the first time Joyce Quiller had been called on the carpet for using inappropriate classroom language. In 2001 and again in 2013 the school superintendent reprimanded her for telling a student to "get out of my f--ing class." She also supposedly instructed a kid to pull up his pants. (Wow, the kid must have been devastated.)

     In response to the accusations of unprofessional classroom demeanor, Quiller submitted a written statement that she was "appalled and disturbed" at the allegations against her. She denied using profanity in class and accused the complainants of having a vendetta against her.

     In March 2014, following an internal inquiry and a hearing, the superintendent of the Duval County School District sent Joyce Quiller a letter of termination. She appealed her firing to an administrative law judge.

     Administrative law judge Bruce McKibben, in August 2014, ruled that the school district had violated the terms of Quiller's employment contract by skipping step three of a three-step system of punishment. According to the judge's interpretation of the case, the school superintendent should have suspended Quiller without pay. The judge ordered the school system to reinstate Joyce Quiller.

     In his 21-page decision, Judge McKibben found that a preponderance of the evidence (a standard of proof less demanding than proof beyond a reasonable doubt) supported the claims she used profanity in class. He did note, however, that one of Quiller's B students testified that she had never heard the teacher swear.

      Regarding Quiller's work environment at Ribault High School, Judge McKibben wrote: "Quiller was placed in an almost untenable situation. She did not have all the tools needed to work with students, and her classes were too large. Nevertheless, she was expected to maintain her composure and professionalism."

     The judge, perhaps out of political correctness, did not point out the obvious fact that many of Quiller's students were probably idiots. More school supplies would not have solved that problem.

     On September 8, 2014, after Joyce Quiller answered questions and pleaded her case before the Duval County School Board, board members ignored the administrative judge's reinstatement ruling by voting again to fire the former math teacher.

     Three Florida appellate court judges, in July 2015, ruled that teacher Quiller should have been suspended, not fired, and ordered the school board to rehire her.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Anthony Novellino: The Pig Mask Murder Case

     In 2010, after years of marriage, Anthony Novellino and his wife Judith, a teacher at Morris Catholic High School in Denville Township, New Jersey, couldn't stand each other. She accused him of being verbally abusive and controlling. He claimed that because she was such a lousy housekeeper the house was always a mess. To back up his accusation he emailed photographs of the unkempt home to family and friends.

     The couple also fought over their oldest son Anthony A. Novellino Jr., a resident of nearby Parsippany. Over the past few years police officers arrested Novellino Jr. for possession of drugs. He had also been charged with auto theft. Judith Novellino treated her drug-addicted son with compassion and accommodated his needs such as giving him money. The father, fed up with his son, believed that tough-love such as jail was the best way to deal with the problem.

     Judith Novellino filed for divorce and on June 8, 2010 it became final. According to the divorce settlement she would receive $110,000, her share of the house, plus $150,000, her half of their IRAs and bank savings. Mr. Novellino made no secret of the fact he felt cheated in the distribution of the family assets.

     On June 19, 2010, eleven days after the finalization of the breakup, Anthony Novellino came home and found Judith in the house retrieving her personal belongings. They argued and he became enraged. The confrontation came to a bloody end when he stabbed her 84 times with an 8-inch kitchen knife. Before he packed some of his belongings and walked to his car, Mr. Novellino slipped a pig mask over his former wife's head.

     Christina German, the divorced couple's daughter, discovered her mother's body in the bathroom when she came to the house to help the 62-year-old move her belongings to an apartment in Parsippany.

     Five days after the brutal murder police in Puyallup, Washington took Anthony Novellino into custody. The 66-year-old fugitive had driven across the country to be with a woman he had met on the Internet. Assistant Morris County prosecutor Maggie Calderwood charged Novellino with murder and several lesser offenses.

     When interrogated by detectives in New Jersey the suspect claimed that he had "hit" his former wife twice with the knife in self defense. The judge denied Novellino bond. Officers booked the suspect into the Morris County Jail where he would await his day in court.

     The Novellino trial got underway in a Morristown Superior Court on July 7, 2014. In his opening remarks to the jury the defendant's attorney, Michael Priarone, said his client, in a fit of temporary insanity had attacked his wife. This act of violence, according to the defense attorney, was entirely out of his client's character. As a result, Priarone wanted the jury to find Mr. Novellino guilty of what he called "passion provocation manslaughter," an offense that carried a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

     Anthony Novellino's attorney moved to have the death scene pig mask excluded from evidence on the grounds it was "highly prejudicial" to his client. The judge denied that request.

     On July 22, 2014, after just three hours of deliberation, the jury found Anthony Novellino guilty of murder, hindering apprehension, tampering with evidence and two counts of illegal weapons possession.

     At the September 12, 2014 sentence hearing, the judge sentenced 70-year-old Anthony Novellino to 50 years in prison. The overkill and the pig mask had sealed his fate.

Monday, April 24, 2023

The Gary Castonguay Case: Paroling a Cop Killer?

     In 1976, 32-year-old Gary Castonguay was convicted of shooting into the homes of two police officers in Bristol, Connecticut. The attacks took place at night when the officers were home with their families. Castonguay told people that he wanted to kill cops.

     Instead of being locked up in prison for attempted murder, a judge found Castonguay legally insane and sent him to a psychiatric hospital for six months. Once released from the hospital he was free.

     In 1977, caught breaking into a home in Plainville, Connecticut, Castonguay fled from police officer Robert Holcomb. As Holcomb was about to catch and arrest him the burglar turned and shot the 26-year-old officer. Castonguay, with the officer down, was free to escape. But instead of running off, he stood over the fallen officer and shot him three times in the chest, killing him on the spot.

     Following his conviction and life sentence for the cold-blooded killing of a police officer, Castonguay's attorney filed several appeals on his client's behalf. The appellate courts rejected all of the appeals. As a result the conviction and the life sentence remained in effect.

     On January 9, 2015, members of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a two to one vote, agreed to grant the 70-year-old cop killer a parole. The board members made this atrocious decision after Castonguay's self-serving testimony that he hadn't intended to kill officer Holcomb. In an effort to escape, he panicked, blacked out and had no memory of the shooting.

     These ridiculous arguments hadn't worked at Castonguay's trial and had been rejected by all of the appellate courts. But decades later the cop killer was able to use these absurd justifications to convince two parole board idiots to send him back into society.

     None of officer Holcomb's relatives were notified of the Castonguay parole hearing. When the relatives learned of the granted parole they were understandably shocked and outraged. Also outraged were members of the general public who flooded the parole board with angry emails and letters.

     As a result of the public outcry over the parole board's ruling, the board agreed to hold another hearing to give the slain officer's relatives a chance to express their anger and disbelief that this cold-blooded cop killer had been granted parole.

     At the March 25, 2015 hearing the same board members voted three to zero to rescind the cop killer's parole.

     This case begs the question: where do they find these sob-sister parole board members? If Castonguay had killed a police officer in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Ohio or Oklahoma, he'd be dead by now and the dead officer's relatives would not have to worry about a couple of corrections fools setting him free. 

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Robert Durst: Money, Madness and Murder

     Robert Durst, born in April, 1942 into a wealthy family, grew up in Scarsdale, New York. His father, Seymour Durst, got rich investing in real estate. In 1949, when Robert was seven, he saw his mother fall to her death from the roof of the family mansion. The authorities ruled her death a suicide. Although young Robert received extensive psychological counseling, his doctors worried that this childhood trauma would lead to future mental illness. (Robert's brother Douglas claimed in 2014 that Robert did not witness their mother's death, that the lie was nothing more than a ploy to gain sympathy.)

     After graduating from Scarsdale High School and Lehigh University, Robert Durst started graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. After acquiring a first-class education, he entered the family real estate business but hit a roadblock in 1995 when his brother Douglas assumed control of the enterprise. This led to Robert's permanent estrangement from his family.

     In January 1982, Robert Durst's wife Kathleen, a woman he'd married ten years earlier, suddenly disappeared. Robert waited several days before reporting her missing and didn't bother notifying her family. The police suspected foul play but without the body, the homicide investigation hit a dead end.

     In 2000, with Kathleen Durst still missing, the New York State Police re-opened the 18-year-old case as a cold-case murder investigation. Detectives suspected that Robert had murdered his wife and disposed of her body.

     Not long after the renewed police interest in Kathleen Durst's disappearance, someone murdered, execution-style, Susan Berman in her home in Benedict Canyon, California. Because Berman had been Robert's longtime friend and confidant, detectives believed she had knowledge of Kathleen Durst's disappearance. Investigators speculated that she had been killed because she was a potential witness against Robert Durst. The Beverly Hills police had been alerted to Berman's murder by the writer of an anonymous, hand-printed note telling them of a "cadaver" in Berman's house. The writer, in addressing the envelope, had misspelled Beverly as "Beverley." Handwriting experts did not have enough document evidence to identify Robert Durst as the writer of the so-called "cadaver note."

     Although interrogated by detectives as a suspect in the Berman murder case, Robert Durst was not charged. The two cases remained unsolved.

     In 2000, Robert moved to Galveston, Texas to get away from the criminal investigations of his missing wife and his murdered friend, Susan Berman. About this time he took up cross-dressing.

     In 2001, the body parts of 71-year-old Morris Black, Robert Durst's apartment complex neighbor, were found floating in Galveston Bay. When questioned by the police, Durst claimed that Mr. Black had entered his apartment, grabbed a gun hidden in the room and pointed it at him. According to the 60-year-old Durst, the gun went off accidentally when he tried to disarm his neighbor.

     While he denied murdering Mr. Black in cold blood, Durst admitted that after the killing he used a paring knife, two saws and an axe to dismember the victim's corpse before dumping the body parts into Galveston Bay. The authorities booked Durst into the county jail on the charge of murder.

     Free on bail until his murder trial, Durst missed a preliminary court hearing on the case. The judge issued an arrest warrant for the bail-jumper whose whereabouts were unknown. A month or so later, police officers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania took Durst into custody outside a supermarket after he had shoplifted a chicken sandwich, Band-Aids and a newspaper. Durst had $500 in his pocket and $37,000 in cash stashed in his car along with two guns, marijuana and Morris Black's driver's license.

     At Durst's 2003 murder trial for killing Morris Black, his three attorneys--the best legal defense team money could buy--argued self defense. Following seven weeks of testimony, the jury shocked everyone by finding Robert Durst not guilty. After this stunning verdict, lead investigator Cody Gozalas told reporters that he'd rarely had a more clear-cut case of murder against a defendant. "I believe," the investigator said, "that Mr. Durst walked up behind Mr. Black and shot him in the back of the head. There was nothing to suggest self defense. Mr. Durst never mentioned self defense until after the defense attorneys took over the case."

     The Durst case jurors, widely criticized for the acquittal, said it had been a difficult verdict for them to arrive at. While they knew the defendant had cut up Mr. Black's body, they weren't convinced he had committed a premeditated murder. The jurors bought the defense theory that Durst suffered from a psychological disorder that caused him to cut up and dispose of Mr. Black's body amid a state of panic.

     At the time of Durst's murder acquittal the Durst family fortune was valued at more than $2 billion.

     Prosecutors, having lost the murder case, charged Durst with two offenses related to Mr. Black's murder--bail jumping and evidence tampering. To avoid going through another trial, Durst pleaded guilty to the lesser charges. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison. Durst served one year of that sentence. Pursuant to the terms of Durst's 2005 parole, he had to obtain official permission to travel any significant distance from his home.

     In December 2005, Robert Durst made an unauthorized trip to a shopping mall near the apartment complex where he had killed Morris Black. In the mall he had the bad luck to run into the judge who had presided over his murder trial. The judge, suspecting a parole violation, notified the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. Corrections authorities sent Durst back to prison on the parole violation. He remained behind bars until March 2006.

     In 2011 Robert Durst purchased a townhouse in Harlem, New York. Three years later, in Houston, Texas, Durst exposed himself at a CVS drugstore then urinated on a rack of candy. A Harris County prosecutor charged him with criminal mischief and indecent exposure.

     In February 2015, the HBO television network aired the first episode of a six-part series about Robert Durst and his connection to his wife's disappearance and the Susan Berman murder. The show was called "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." In making the documentary, New York City producers Marc Smerling and Andrew Jarecki spent 25 hours interviewing Durst on camera.

     In the course of their research the producers acquired from Susan Berman's stepson a hand-printed letter Durst had sent to her a year before her murder. On the envelope Durst had misspelled Beverly as "Beverley."

     Believing that the identical misspellings in the Berman letter and the "cadaver note" indicated that Durst had hand-printed the note sent to the Beverly Hills Police Department, the TV producers asked New York City forensic document examiner John Osborn to analyze the handwriting evidence. After comparing the note to the Berman letter and 40 specimens of Durst's known hand-printing, Mr. Osborn concluded that Durst was the writer of the cadaver document. The producers notified the authorities in Los Angeles.

     In Louisiana at eleven at night on Saturday March 14, 2015, the day before the airing of the final episode of "The Jinx," deputies with the Orleans Parish arrested Robert Durst in his room at the J. W. Marriott Hotel. A prosecutor in Los Angeles had charged Mr. Durst with the first-degree murder of Susan Berman.  Durst had been preparing to fly to Cuba.

     The next evening, when the final episode of "The Jinx" aired, Robert Durst was seen being confronted by producer Jarecki with the two pieces of hand-printing featuring the identical misspellings of Beverly. Durst admitted writing the Berman letter, but in obvious distress, denied writing the cadaver letter to the Beverly Hills Police Department.

     At the conclusion of the filmed interview of Durst in the New York City offices of producers Smerling and Jarecki, Robert Durst asked to use their restroom. With his microphone still hot, he began talking to himself. "There it is," he said. "You're caught. What a disaster. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

     On March 17, 2015, the authorities in Orleans Parish announced that Robert Durst had been charged in Louisiana with possession of a firearm by a felon, a felony that carried a maximum ten year sentence. It was not clear how this charge would affect the progress of the Berman murder case in Los Angeles.

     While Durst sat in a Louisiana jail cell, police officers and FBI agents, on March 17, 2015, searched his apartment in a 17-story condominium in a posh Houston, Texas neighborhood. His attorney, Dick DeGuerin, called the search a publicity stunt orchestrated by the Berman case prosecutor in Los Angeles.

     In January 2016 Durst pleaded guilty to the federal gun charge. The judge in Louisiana sentenced him to 85 months to be served at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

     On November 7, 2016, the 73-year-old was arraigned in the Los Angeles Superior Court for the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. At that hearing Deputy District Attorney John Levin announced that the state would not seek the death penalty in the case. Durst, who pleaded not guilty, sat in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace.

     On February 26, 2020, in a Los Angeles, California court room, a jury of eight women and four men were selected in the Susan Berman murder case. 
     On May 22, 2021, following a 14 month COVID-19 delay, Robert Durst went on trial for the murder of Susan Berman. A week into the trial, the judge put the proceeding on pause when the 78-year-old defendant was hospitalized. On June 13, 2021, after doctors declared Durst fit for court, the murder trial continued over the objection of the defendant's attorneys. 
     In July 2021, the Durst trial was put on hold for two weeks due to the defendant's re-hospitalization. 
     Robert Durst, on August 11, 2021, took the stand on his own behalf, and regarding his wife Kathleen, said that he has changed his mind several times on whether or not he had seen her enter the commuter train for Manhattan on the night she disappeared in January 1982. He also testified that he lied when he told investigators he had later spoken to her on the phone. Days after Kathleen's disappearance the defendant told a detective that he had called and spoken to her at her apartment in Manhattan. "That was also a lie," he said. "I was imagining that she was out someplace having fun. It hadn't occurred to me that anything had happened to her."
     While on the stand Mr. Durst also said that Kathleen fabricated and exaggerated stories about his abusing her. 
     On August 17, 2021, on the fifth day of Durst's testimony, pursuant to being cross examined by prosecutor John Lewin, the witness admitted that he would lie to save his own skin. "If you had in fact killed Susan Berman," the assistant district attorney asked, "would you tell us?"
     "No," the witness replied.
     "If you said you've taken the oath to tell the truth but you've just told us that you would lie if needed, can you tell me how that would not destroy your credibility?"
     "Because what I'm saying is mostly the truth. There are certain things I would lie about, certain very important things." While on the stand Durst admitted writing the "cadaver note" with the misspelling of Beverly and sending it to the Beverly Hills Police Department.
     On September 8, 2021, the Robert Durst trial entered the closing arguments stage during which time the prosecutor called the defendant's testimony "cockroach soup" and called him a "narcissistic psychopath." 
     The jury retired to deliberate the defendant's fate on September 14, 2021.
     On Friday, September 17 the jury returned with a first-degree murder verdict. The jurors also found Durst guilty of the special circumstances of lying in wait and killing a witness. This finding carried a mandatory life sentence. The convicted murderer's sentence hearing was scheduled for October 2021.
     After being sentenced to life in October 2021, Robert Durst tested positive for COVID-19 on November 21, 2021 and was placed on a ventilator. He died on January 10, 2022. He was 78.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Ethan Estevez Sexuial Abuse/Murder Solicitation Case

     In August 2012, the Harford County Maryland School District hired 29-year-old Ethan Estevez to teach biology in the town of Aberdeen. The resident of Churchville, Maryland would teach alternative education students at the Center for Educational Opportunity. According to the center's website, "Alternative Education provides a continuation of educational services to students who may have experienced crises. This program also exists to meet the individual needs of those students who have dropped out of school or not have been successful in a traditional school environment."
      In February 2014, members of the center's teaching staff came to suspect that Estevez was engaged in a sexual relationship with a female student, a relationship that had been going on since September 2012 when the girl was fifteen. The girl told some of her friends and her mother that she and the teacher had been involved romantically. The mother, along with teachers from the school, reported Estevez to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. 
     A few days after filing the criminal complaint against the teacher, the alleged victim's mother, with a detective listening in on the call, phoned Estevez and asked him if her daughter's allegations were true. Estevez explained that he and the girl were in love and planned to get married. (Estevez, however, already had a wife.) The teacher denied that he and the girl had engaged in anything beyond kissing.
    On March 7, 2014, a school administrator placed Estevez on administrative leave. A month after that, detectives searching the girl's iPhone came across a February 2014 text message to one of her friends that revealed a murder-for-hire plot involving Estevez as the mastermind and his wife as the target. The girl had written: "Like it has to look like an accident because of life insurance and stuff." In another text message the girl said she "just needed it to really happen before Sunday." 
     Questioned about the text messages by detectives, the student claimed that the teacher never really intended to have his wife murdered. Yes, they had talked about it but he was just joking around. 
     On June 4, 2014, a Harford County grand jury indicted Ethan Estevez on charges of sexual abuse. On that day the head of the school district fired him. After a few hours in jail Estevez posted his bond and was released to await his trial.
     A month after Estevez's sexual abuse arrest, Harford County detectives questioned a girl who had exchanged text messages with the suspect's alleged student victim. According to the ex-teacher's student/girlfriend, he had initially spoke of making his wife's murder look like a hit-and-run accident. Later he changed the murder plan to have the hit man orchestrate a fake drive-by shooting outside of a restaurant. To make the hit look like a random crime and throw suspicion off himself, Estevez wanted the assassin to shoot him in the arm. (That was stupid because hit men are amateurs who usually don't shoot straight.) This girl also told detectives that her friend said the hit man would kill the teacher's wife for $600. 
     In August 2014, an assistant Harford County state's attorney charged Ethan Estevez with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. At the defendant's bail hearing the prosecutor argued that the suspect posed a danger to the community and to his wife. District Court Judge David Carey said he could not ignore the seriousness of the charge. He said, however, that Mr. Estevez was entitled to bail which he set at $75,000. The next day the murder-for-hire and sexual abuse suspect posted his bond and walked out of the Harford County Jail.

     In February 2015, the prosecutor in charge of the Estevez case dropped the murder solicitation charge in exchange for the former teacher's guilty plea to a fourth-degree sexual offense related to the student. Hartford County Circuit Judge Stephen Waldron sentenced Estevez to one year in the county jail. Pursuant to this lenient sentence, Estevez was deemed eligible for work release. (He had found a job at an insurance company.) The judge also sentenced Estevez to five years probation.   

Friday, April 21, 2023

Judge Michael Thornsbury

     There are many jurisdictions in the United States that have earned reputations of being awash in governmental corruption. For example, nothing is politically on the level in the states of Louisiana and Nevada and the cities of Detroit and Chicago. But to varying degrees, governmental fraud, dishonesty, crime and abuse of power on the federal, state and local levels flourishes everywhere in America. Whenever you have government, big or small, you have corruption. Government is nothing more than organized lying. Government and corruption go together like pancakes and syrup. You can't have one without the other. And corruption is not just limited to big cities and states. It exists in places like Mingo County West Virginia. 

     Mingo County, home to 27,000, is located on the state's southern border with Kentucky. This place, going all the way back to its Hatfield and McCoy days, has a history of violence and political corruption. In 1997, the people of Mingo County elected Michael Thorsbury to the office of circuit judge. As the only common pleas judge in the county, Thornsbury held a position of power and influence. He was the proverbial big fish in the small pond. Unfortunately he was a piranha.

     In 2008, Judge Thornsbury became romantically involved with his married secretary. A couple of months after he begged her to leave her husband, Robert Woodruff, she ended her relationship with the judge. This is when things started to get bad for Mr. Woodruff.

     Judge Thornsbury, in a effort to railroad Mr. Woodruff into prison, asked a friend to plant drugs in a magnetic box under his car. The judge, thinking that his friend had carried out the assignment tipped-off the local police.

     Having failed to set Mr. Woodruff up for a phony drug bust, Judge Thornsbury tried something else. After carefully cultivating a friendship with a West Virginia State Trooper, the judge asked the officer to file a false complaint accusing Woodruff of grand larceny. The cop followed through by accusing Woodruff of stealing drill bits from his coal company employer. Mr. Woodruff had salvaged old drill bits, but with the company's permission. Mingo County prosecutor Michael Sparks intervened on Woodruff's behalf and a local magistrate dismissed the case. The state trooper, the next year, was named West Virginia State Trooper of the Year. 

     Determined to get Robert Woodruff out of the way in order to get to his wife, Judge Thornsbury, in an effort to dig up dirt on his target, appointed a friend to the position of foreman of a Mingo County Grand Jury. This gave the Judge's friend the power to issue subpoenas as part of a fishing expedition in search of information the judge could use against Mr. Woodruff. When the recipient of one of these bogus subpoenas refused to cooperate, the Judge's scheme fizzled out.

     In 2012, Mr. Woodruff was assaulted outside a convenience store by two men, one of whom brandished a handgun. Judge Thornsbury tried to turn Mr. Woodruff from being the victim of the assault to its perpetrator. Once again, the county prosecutor refused to go along with the phony case.

     On August 15, 2013, FBI agents arrested Judge Thornsbury in Williamson, the Mingo County seat. The jurist was under indictment by a federal grand jury for "conspiring to violate Robert Woodruff's right not to be deprived of his liberty without due process of law." If convicted as charged, the 57-year-old judge faced up to 20 years in prison.

     On the day of Judge Thornsbury's arrest, the West Virginia Supreme Court suspended him without pay and lifted his license to practice law.

     Judge Thornsbury, after posting his $10,00 bond, insisted that he was innocent and predicted that he would be vindicated when his case went to trial.

     On October 2, 2013, Thornsbury entered pleas of guilty of conspiring to deprive Robert Woodruff of his constitutional rights. He also resigned from office. The federal judge sentenced Mr. Thornsbury to 50 months in federal prison.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Historic Disaster at Waco

     The April 19, 1993 FBI raid of the Mount Carmel Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 80 cult members, is a worst-case example of how the militaristic approach to law enforcement can lead to disaster.

     Fifty-one days before the FBI raid, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tax, and Firearms (ATF), at the conclusion of a seven month investigation, had stormed the compound to arrest cult leader David Koresh and search for a cache of guns that ATF agents suspected had been illegally converted to fully automatic weapons. That raid ended after a brief shootout in which 4 ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded. The officers retreated, leaving an unknown number of Branch Davidians dead and wounded.

     The AFT agents, prior to the raid, had several opportunities to arrest David Koresh outside the Mount Carmel compound. These chances were missed because Koresh was not under a 24-hour surveillance. Had the ATF taken Koresh into custody when the opportunity presented itself the raid might not have been necessary. The ATF had also lost the element of surprise, and they knew it when two National Guard helicopters, circling above the compound with agency supervisors aboard, took gunfire from below. The supervisors launched the invasion anyway. Although several AFT agents had been trained at Fort Hood by Green Beret personnel, most of the agents participating in the 9:30 A.M. attack had not been appropriately trained or armed. Many of the 76 agents who charged the compound carried semi-automatic handguns.

     Following the AFT fiasco the FBI took charge of the stand-off. Following the 51-day siege and a series of failed negotiations, several FBI SWAT teams, in full battle gear armed with shortened variants of the standard M-16 assault rifle and supported by Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M-60 tanks, stormed the compound. Forty minutes after 400 canisters of CS gas had been shot inside the building through holes punched in the walls by the armored vehicles, the structure burst into flames and burned to the ground. David Koresh and 17 children were among the 80 dead. Attorney General Janet Reno, operating on unreliable evidence that the Davidian children were being sexually mistreated had authorized the assault. The Waco fiasco turned out to be the deadliest police action in American history.

     Attorney General Reno, in the wake of the Waco disaster, asked former Missouri senator John C. Danforth to investigate the government's role in the raids. In 2000, following a 14-month inquiry, Danforth determined that FBI agents had not started the fire by firing bullets into the compound. The former senator also found the military's role in the raids as lawful.

     Several months after the Danforth inquiry, Thomas Lynch, the director of the CATO Institute's Project on Criminal Justice published a report characterizing the Branch Davidian raids as "criminally reckless," and Danforth's investigation as "soft and incomplete." According to the CATO investigation, FBI agents in National Guard helicopters had fired rifle shots into the compound, a finding that contradicted the FBI's claim that the helicopters had been deployed merely to distract the Davidians.

     At a news conference Senator Danforth defended the integrity of his inquiry and attacked the CATO report. The debate over who started the fire at the Davidian compound remained unresolved. Regardless of what FBI agents did or didn't do on April 19, 1993, many believe the military supported ATF and FBI raids should not have been launched in the first place. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Bones in the Furnace: The Historic Webster-Parkman Murder Case

     Over the past 100 years science has played a vital role in tens of thousands of criminal cases. The publicity associated with some of these investigations and trials has advanced the cause of forensic science. In many of these cases a clever criminal is outfoxed by a well-trained, dedicated investigator relying on physical clues and expert analysis. This is the image that has helped advance forensic science and criminalistics by sparking public interest and court acceptance of physical evidence and expert testimony. (Ironically, it was the O. J. Simpson double murder, a case that involved poor police work and a criminal who was not clever, that popularized DNA.)

      Celebrated cases remind us that good police work can triumph over bad criminals and that justice can be achieved. Cases that have captured and held the attention of the media and the imagination of the public have tended to involved heinous crimes, cases involving diabolical or unlikely suspects, circumstantial evidence in the form of physical clues, defendants who vigorously maintain their innocence, inspired detective work and satisfying and/or dramatic verdicts.

     In America, science first played a vital and dramatic role in a celebrated criminal investigation and trial that took place more than 160 years ago.

The Webster-Parkman Case

     On Friday afternoon November 23, 1849, Dr. George Parkman, a 60-year-old physician and former anatomy professor at Harvard's Massachusetts Medical College in Boston, paid a visit to Dr. John Webster, a highly respected professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the institution. Dr. Parkman, having given up the practice of medicine to engage in real estate and other business ventures, came from a prominent New England family and was quite wealthy. The purpose of Dr. Parkman's visit that day to Dr. Webster's college laboratory was to collect on a series of loans he had made to the chemistry professor. It seemed that Dr. Webster enjoyed a rather extravagant life-style that kept him in debt to Dr. Parkman and other creditors.

     Dr. Parkman was seen entering the little building that housed Dr. Webster's laboratory at 1:45 that afternoon, the last time anyone saw Dr. Parkman alive. Dr. Parkman's mysterious disappearance created a lot of attention and concern among his family, friends and colleagues. The college posted a $3,000 reward for information leading to the identify and apprehension of the doctor's abductor or abductors.

     The following Saturday, Dr. Webster appeared at the home of Dr. Parkman's brother, Reverend Francis Parkman, and informed him that he had last seen his missing brother in his (Webster's) chemistry lab the previous Friday. Dr. Webster even acknowledged that Dr. Parkman had come to see him about a debt.

     On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day 1849, Dr. Webster, who had been acting rather strangely since Dr. Parkman's disappearance, gave the college janitor, a man named Ephraim Littlefield, a turkey. Littlefield had been helping Professor Webster in his laboratory the day Dr. Parkman went missing. Although the janitor was not in the room during Dr. Parkman's visit, he had overheard bits of their heated conversation. When Littlefield learned of Parkman's disappearance he became suspicious.

    After receiving the turkey from Dr. Webster, the janitor felt certain the chemistry professor had something to do with his creditor's disappearance. The next day Littlefield snuck into Webster's chemistry lab to search for Parkman's body. When he touched the brick wall of the assay oven it was still warm. (The oven was built inside a vault that was locked.) To see what was inside, Littlefield, with his wife standing guard as a lookout, broke through the wall with a chisel and crowbar. Inside he saw what looked like a human pelvis and two parts of a leg. He notified the authorities.

     When told he was under arrest for the murder of Dr. Parkman, Dr. Webster denied any knowledge of the crime. When one of the arresting constables informed him of the discovery in the assay furnace, Dr. Webster, referring to the janitor, said, "That villain! I am a ruined man!"

     Shortly after being placed into his jail cell Dr. Webster tried to kill himself by taking a strychnine pill.

     On December 13, 1849, the coroner's jury announced its verdict: "All the remains have been demonstrated to be parts of one and the same person; and those parts of the human frame have been identified and proven to be the remains and parts of the body and limbs of Dr. George Parkman...that he was killed...by blows and wounds inflicted upon him by the hands of Dr. John W. Webster."

     A grand jury indicted Dr. Webster for first-degree murder on January 26, 1850. He trial was scheduled for March 19 at the Supreme Judicial Court House in Boston.  Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw would preside. The case would be prosecuted by George Bemis, the assistant attorney general of Massachusetts.

     Dr. Webster tried to retain the legal services of two prominent defense attorneys of the day, Daniel Webster (no relation) and Rufus Choate. Both lawyers declined to take the assignment. As a result, Webster retained the services of a less well-known but competent attorney named Pliny Merrich.

     The Parkman murder case made headline news in America for nine months. On the opening day of the trial thousands of people gathered outside the Boston court house. Many had been standing outside the building all night in hopes of getting a courtroom seat. During the twelve-day trial two thousand spectators witnessed the proceeding.

     The heart of the prosecution's case consisted of the medical and dental testimony pertaining to the identity of the remains in Dr. Webster's assay furnace. In order to convict the defendant of murder, the state would have to establish the corpus delecti, which in this case consisted of the victim's skeletal and dental remains.

     The prosecution's first medical witness, Dr. Woodbridge Strong, an expert in anatomy and the burning of human flesh, informed the court how he disposed of cadavers by burning them in fires fueled by wood. "There is always a difficulty in getting rid of human remains by fire," he said, "on account of attracting suspicion by the smell. I have been called upon by neighbors or the police several times on this account." Dr. Strong testified that he had looked at the human parts found in Dr. Webster's furnace and "there was nothing dissimilar from what I should have expected to find in Dr. Parkman's body."

     Dr. Frederick S. Ainsworth, a professor of anatomy at Harvard College, testified that the remains in question had not been dissected in his department. (Dr. Webster claimed the remains in his furnace belonged to a cadaver.) Dr. Ainsworth said, "All subjects in my department are injected with fluid to preserve them from decomposition. In these remains which were produced by Littlefield [the janitor] I saw no appearance of the use of such fluid. My impression was that the person who cut them up had no anatomical knowledge."

     The next medical witness, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, testified that he "knew the late George Parkman very well. He was a tall, slender man of somewhat peculiar figure. I saw nothing in the remains dissimilar from what I should suppose was Dr. Parkman's formation."

     The physicians and police officers who had examined Dr. Webster's laboratory had noticed what looked like bloodstains on the wall near a sink and stains on the laboratory floor. In 1850, the ability to scientifically distinguish human from animal blood didn't exist. As one witness put it: "I can distinguish human blood from that of lower animals but not from that of higher animals such as an ox, for instance."

     On the fourth day of the trial, the prosecution put on its most important witness, Dr. Nathan Keep, a surgeon-dentist who had practiced in Boston for 30 years. Dr. Keep testified that he had made teeth for Dr. Parkman and that "Dr. Parkman's mouth was a very peculiar one, so marked in respect to its shape and the relation of the upper and lower jaws that the impression of it on my mind was very distinct." Dr. Keep said that when he saw the teeth that had been found in Dr. Webster's furnace along with the other remains, he "...recognized them as being the same teeth that I had made for Dr. Parkman three years before....On comparing the largest fragment with the model [a plaster cast of Dr. Parkman's dentition] the resemblance was so striking that I could no longer have any doubt they were his." Every so often, in the midst of his testimony, Dr. Keep would break down and cry.

     Oliver Wendell Homes, the famous writer and physician and professor of anatomy and dean of the medical college had examined the fleshy parts found in the assay furnace--the thorax, pelvis, two thighs, and the disarticulated leg--and found them consistent with Dr. Parkman's anatomy.

     Most of the fifth day of the trial was taken up by the testimony of the janitor and his wife. Three days later the prosecution rested.

     The Webster defense opened with witnesses who said they had seen the defendant in places other than the college on the day of the murder. Next came the character witnesses, then the testimony most vital to the defense. Dr. William T. G. Morton, a dentist who made false teeth took the stand and said: "I see no particular marks about these teeth [the furnace remains] to identify them. I should think nothing should be judged from this material....My impression is that if [the furnace teeth] were placed among a dozen others which I can produce, I should not be led to pick it out from any peculiarity." (The dueling expert problem is as old as forensic science itself.)

     The defense rested without putting Professor Webster on the stand. In Massachusetts at that time, defendants in capital trials were not permitted to take the stand on their own behalf. Murder defendants, because of their self-interest, were considered too biased to make competent witnesses. They were, however, allowed to address the jury directly prior to its deliberation. These speeches were not given under oath or subjected to cross-examination. Professor Webster, in his fifteen minute address, denied his guilt and criticized his own counsel.

     Three hours following Dr. Webster's speech, the jury found the defendant guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death. Six months later, with his execution just a few days off, the condemned man wrote out a full confession. After killing Dr. Parkman with a stick of wood, Webster dragged the body into an adjoining room and stripped off his clothing which he burned. Then came the dissecting part. "My next move was to get the body into the sink which stands in the small private room. By setting the body partially erect against the corner and getting up into the sink myself, I succeeded in drawing it up. There it was entirely dismembered. It was quickly done as a work of terrible and desperate necessity. The only instrument used was the knife found by the officers in the tea chest and which I kept for cutting corks. While dismembering the body a steady stream of water was running through the sink carrying off the blood in a pipe that passed through the lower laboratory. There must have been a leak in the pipe for the ceiling below was stained immediately around it."

     On August 20, 1850, Dr. Webster was hanged.   

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

The Alan Hruby Murder Case

     John Hruby, a resident of Duncan, Oklahoma, a town of 24,000 about 60 miles north of Dallas, owned and worked at a newspaper located in nearby Marlow. Hruby, 50, his wife Katherine and their 17-year-old daughter lived in the Timber Creek subdivision on the north side of town. The 48-year-old Katherine, known to friends and family as "Tinker," also worked at the Marlow Review, a weekly publication with a circulation of 3,500.

     The Hrubys' son Alan, a 19-year-old political science major at Oklahoma University, was charged in July 2013 with theft and fraud. He had used his grandmother's name to acquire a credit card. While in Europe that summer, he put $5,000 worth of charges on the fraudulently obtained card. Police arrested him in August 2013 when he returned to the United States from his vacation.

     In February 2014 the judge sentenced Alan Hruby to probation. Pursuant to the terms of his sentence, he was not allowed to consume alcohol. The judge also ordered Hruby to attend alcohol and drug counseling sessions.

     Over the October 10 to12 weekend in 2014, young Hruby violated the terms of his probation by traveling to Dallas to attend the Oklahoma University-Texas football game. He stayed at the Ritz Carlton hotel and partied all weekend.

     On Friday October 10, 2014, Todd Brooks, an employee at the Marlow Review, became concerned when his boss and Katherine Hruby didn't show up for work. On Monday October 13, when the Hrubys didn't come to the newspaper office and didn't answer their phones, Todd Brooks' worries about their wellbeing intensified.

     That Monday as the Marlow Review employee wondered if something had happened to his boss and his boss' wife, the Hruby housecleaner made a gruesome discovery when she showed up for work in Duncan. She found John Hruby, his wife and their daughter lying dead on the kitchen floor. They had each been shot in the head.

     Detectives with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) ruled out double-murder/ suicide in favor of triple homicide. Alan Hruby's black Jeep sat in the Hruby home driveway. OSBI investigators impounded the vehicle.

     On October 15, 2014 OSBI officers arrested Alan Hruby for violating the terms of his credit card fraud probation. Under questioning at police headquarters regarding the murders of his parents and sister he confessed.

     In early October 2014 Alan Hruby stole a 9 mm pistol from his father's pickup truck. On Friday October 10, 2014 he used that gun to shoot his mother twice in the head. He shot his sister to death when she entered the kitchen to investigate the source of the gunshots.

     After murdering his mother and sister Alan waited an hour until his father came home. When John Hruby walked into the room Alan killed his father by shooting him twice in the head. When hit by his son's first bullet, the father said "ouch" then dropped to the kitchen floor. That's when the young man finished the job by putting the second bullet into his victim's skull.

     Alan Hruby told his interrogators that he had left his cell phone at Oklahoma University so that when detectives checked it would ping there. He removed the DVR from the home surveillance system and tossed it into a nearby lake along with the murder weapon. After disposing of this evidence he drove to Dallas to enjoy the festive football weekend.

     When asked why he had murdered his family in cold blood the college student said he needed to inherit his parents' estate. He owed a loan shark from Norman, Oklahoma $3,000.

     Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks charged Alan Hruby with three counts of first-degree murder. The prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty in the case. The judge denied the triple murder suspect bail.

     In July 2015, Alan Hruby, serving time on the credit card conviction at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, wrote a letter to The Oklahoman newspaper in which he said that he welcomed the death penalty. As to why he murdered his family, Hruby said that although it wasn't about money, he still hadn't figured out why he did it. "I didn't feel like myself that day," he wrote. "What occurred was so horrible the death penalty is deserved."

     On March 10, 2016, Alan Hruby pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Mary O'Callaghan Police Brutality Case

     The vast majority of police brutality complaints are filed against male officers. This is not surprising since most officers are men. Moreover, male officers tend to be more physically aggressive than their female counterparts. Out of the thousands of excessive force complaints filed against male officers, only a handful result in civil court settlements. Even fewer of these cases lead to criminal prosecutions.

     Female police officers are rarely sued for excessive force and almost never prosecuted for police brutality. But in Los Angeles a female cop was charged with felony assault in connection with the beating of an arrestee named Alesia Thomas.

     On July 22, 2012, 35-year-old Alesia Thomas left her two children outside the Southeast Police Station in South Los Angeles. Suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and drug addiction, Thomas knew she couldn't take care of her kids who were age three and twelve. She felt she had no choice but to leave her children at the police department.

     Police officers arrested Thomas that day at her home on charges of child abandonment. As officer Mary O'Callaghan struggled to put the arrestee--wearing handcuffs and leg restraints--into the patrol car, she was caught on another cruiser's dashboard camera kicking Thomas in the stomach and groin area. The police officer, a former Marine and 19 year veteran of the force, was also recorded punching Thomas in the neck.

     The officers at Alesia Thomas' house called for medical assistance after the arrestee lost consciousness in the back of the patrol car. Notwithstanding the efforts of the responding paramedics Thomas died a short time later at the hospital.

     A police administrator, pending an internal departmental investigation, placed O'Callaghan on unpaid leave.

     The forensic pathologist with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office who performed Thomas' autopsy listed cocaine intoxication as a "major factor" in her death. Because the pathologist was unable to assess what role, if any, being kicked and punched by officer O'Callaghan played in the arrestee's death, Thomas' official cause of death went into the books as "undetermined."

     In the course of the internal affairs investigation, detectives learned that two of the arresting officers that day had disregarded Thomas' request for medical help. Moreover, a third officer at the scene may have lied to investigators looking into the incident. According to the internal affairs inquiry, a police sergeant involved with the case had failed to provide supervisory leadership. In other words, there may have been a cover-up.

     On October 9, 2013, a Los Angeles County assistant district attorney charged officer Mary O'Callaghan with felony assault. The ambivalence regarding Thomas' cause of death ruled out the charge of voluntary manslaughter. If convicted, O'Callaghan faced a maximum prison sentence of three years. Following her arrest she was released on $35,000 bail.

     In speaking to a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, the dead woman's mother, Sandra Thomas, lamented the time it took to charge O'Callaghan with a crime. "I am sure," Thomas said, "that Charlie Beck [the chief of police] saw this [dashboard] video long ago. I would like to see that video. They're charging that officer, but what about all of the other officers involved? They did nothing to stop this."

    On June 5, 2015, a jury of eleven women and one man found Mary O'Callahan guilty of felony assault by a police officer. Following her conviction O'Callaghan asked the judge to send her directly to jail where she would start serving her sentence.

     The trial judge, on July 25, 2015, sentenced O'Callaghan to three years behind bars. The judge then suspended twenty months of the sentence. That meant the former police officer would spend about 16 months in the Los Angeles County lockup.

     Had the forensic pathologist in the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office determined the manner of death in this case to be homicide, O'Callahan might have been convicted of criminal homicide and sentenced to a lot more time.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Darell Avant Sr. Murder Case

     At eleven in the morning of December 18, 2013, an official at the Pershing Elementary School in Pine Hills, Florida, a community of 60,000 near Orlando, asked Darell Avant Sr. to come to the school and take his son home. The principal had suspended the 5-year-old for kicking a teacher.

     Perhaps the unruly boy had learned his bad behavior from his father. Since 2003 the 26-year-old Avant had been arrested in Orange County 25 times for domestic violence and other crimes including assaulting a pregnant woman, drug possession, aggravated assault and grand theft.

     At seven in the evening on the day Avant removed his son from the school he called 911 to report that the boy was unconscious and wouldn't wake up. Twenty-five minutes after the emergency call, a member of the Orange County Fire and Rescue crew pronounced the boy dead at his father's apartment.

     In speaking to Orange County Sheriff's deputies Darell Avant said that after picking up his son from school, he spanked him and sent him to his room. Later that day the father punished the boy by making him do push-ups and squats. According to Mr. Avant, after twenty minutes of this the child became dizzy, collapsed and lost consciousness.

     Avant told investigators he tried to awaken his son by shaking and slapping him. When that didn't revive the boy he called a friend who came to the apartment to resuscitate him. That didn't work either. Finally, Avant called 911. Mr. Avant didn't explain why he didn't call for professional help immediately after his son lost consciousness.

     Deputies at the death scene and officers at the morgue noticed fresh contusions and bruises on the boy's back, stomach, chest and arms. His mother told detectives that when the child left for school that morning he did not have those injuries. Investigators believed that the boy had been severely beaten.

     Police officers booked Mr. Avant into the Orange County Jail on charges of domestic violence and several lesser offenses. A social worker with the Department of Children and Families took the dead child's younger sibling into protective custody.

     On December 20, 2013, the medical examiner, following the autopsy, announced that the 5-year-old had died from multiple blunt-force trauma. The medical examiner ruled the death a criminal homicide. Shortly after the medical examiner's ruling an Orange County prosecutor upgraded the charges against Darell Avant to first-degree murder. If convicted as charged, he could be sentenced to death. The judge denied him bail.

     In June 2018, a jury in Pine Hills, Florida found Darell Avant Sr. guilty of first-degree murder. A few days later the judge sentenced him to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Melinda Muniz Murder Case

     In 2013, Mitch Ford, his 25-year-old fiancee Melinda Muniz and his 3-year-old daughter Grace from a previous marriage lived in Plano, Texas, the sprawling suburban community north of Dallas. Ford and his ex-wife Emily Ward were engaged in a custody battle over Grace Ford, their daughter.

     Mitch and Melinda's relationship ran into trouble in late December 2013 when she revealed that she had been cheating on him.

     Early in the morning of January 9, 2014, before he left for work, Mitch Ford told Melinda Muniz that within the next few days she would have to move out of the apartment. The engagement was over. She did not take this news very well.

     Later that day, Mitch Ford, concerned about how Melinda was reacting to the break-up, called the the Plano Police Department and asked that officers check on Melinda and his daughter. At one-forty that afternoon when officers showed up for the welfare call they didn't get a response when they knocked on the door. They called Mr. Ford who came to the complex to let them into the apartment.

     In the master bedroom officers found Melinda with her pants down with duct-tape over her mouth. In the toddler's room they found Grace Ford unconscious in her crib. Someone had placed tape across her mouth as well.

     The child was taken by ambulance to the Children's Medical Center in Dallas where doctors pronounced her brain-dead. Physicians put the 3-year-old on life support until her organs could be harvested.

     Melinda Muniz told detectives that an intruder had forced his way into the apartment and raped her. The rapist had covered her mouth and the child's with the tape. She described the intruder as a total stranger.

     Melinda's story quickly unraveled. A medical examination revealed that she had not been sexually assaulted. Moreover, a surveillance camera at a nearby store showed Melinda buying duct-tape, zip ties, cotton balls and a pair of scissors. When confronted with this evidence and inconsistencies in her story, Melinda Muniz stuck to the intruder story.

     The Dallas County Medical Examiner ruled Grace Ford's death criminal homicide by asphyxiation.

     Police officers, on January 28, 2014, booked Melinda Muniz into the Collins County Jail on the charge of capital murder. She pleaded not guilty. The judge set her bond at $1 million. If convicted as charged, she faced life in prison without parole.

     The Muniz trial got underway on January 27, 2015 at the Collins County Courthouse with district judge Mark Rusch presiding. Co-prosecutor Lisa King in her opening remarks told the jury that the evidence showed the defendant had carefully planned the little girl's murder. Defense attorney Robbie McClung argued that the state's case was full of holes.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy testified that the victim had been suffocated. As for the defendant, she had not been sexually assaulted as she had claimed. The prosecution also played surveillance camera footage showing the defendant, shortly before the murder, purchasing the duck-tape and the other items. Detectives took the stand and testified that the defendant had staged the home invasion/rape to cover up the murder.

     When it came time for the defense to put on its case the defendant, on the advise of her attorney, did not take the stand on her own behalf. Before the opposing attorneys presented their closing arguments to the jury, attorney McClung asked Judge Rusch to allow the jurors to consider the lesser charge of felony-murder. The judge denied the motion.

     In his closing argument, defense attorney McClung emphasized the fact the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial. Moreover, the state had failed to prove a motive in the case. Prosecutor Zeke Fortenberry, when he stood before the jury, said that the state did not have a duty to prove motive in order to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, however, the motive was anger and revenge.

     On February 2, 2015, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Judge Rusch, at a later sentencing hearing, imposed the automatic sentence of life without the chance of parole. 

Friday, April 14, 2023

The Allen and Patricia Prue Murder Case

     St. Johnsbury, Vermont is a town of 6,200 in the northeast part of the state 40 miles south of the Canadian border. It is home to St. Johnsbury Academy, the prestigious prep and boarding school established in the 1840s. This was not a place where people got murdered.

     Melissa Jenkins had been a science teacher and the girl's basketball coach at St. Johnsbury Academy since 2004. The 33-year-old single mother was completing her Masters Degree in Education and was employed part time as a waitress at Creamery Restaurant in nearby Danville where she had worked 12 years.

     On Sunday evening, March 25, 2012, 30-year-old Allen Prue and his wife Patricia, a couple from Waterford, Vermont, were riding about in their car. Allen made his living driving around the area delivering the local newspaper. In the winter he plowed driveways. Two years before he had plowed Melissa Jenkins' driveway, but after he had asked her out a couple of times, she discontinued his service. In the fall of 2011 Prue showed up at her house drunk and asked if he could resume plowing her driveway. She declined his offer.

     As Prue and his 33-year-old wife drove around that evening, he said he wanted "to get a girl." The girl he had in mind was Melissa Jenkins. Patricia Prue approved of the idea. To lure the intended victim out of her home she called Jenkins and said that she and her husband had broken down near her house. Could Melissa give them a lift?

     Before Jenkins left her house to help people she barely knew, she called her former boyfriend to report she had just received a "weird call from a girl and guy who used to plow her driveway." In case something happened to her Melissa Jenkins wanted someone to know where she had gone. After speaking to her ex-boyfriend she put her 2-year-old son Ty in the car and drove off to help the Prues.

     The moment Jenkins climbed out of her car Allen Prue, with the school teacher's son looking on, grabbed and started strangling her. He pushed the stunned woman into his vehicle where, as he drove to his house in Waterford, Patricia Prue continued choking the victim "to make sure she wasn't breathing." The Prues left the Jenkins boy behind unharmed in his abducted mother's car.

     The Prues carried Jenkins (she may have been alive but unconscious) into their house where they removed her clothing, repeatedly stomped on her then laid her badly bruised corpse onto a tarp. After pouring bleach on her body the Prues carried the tarp-wrapped victim back to their vehicle. They drove to a spot along the Connecticut River near Barnet, Vermont. At the river's edge in a wooded area they tied a cinderblock to Jenkins' body and rolled it into the water.

     Back in Waterford the murderers burned the tarp, Jenkins' clothing and the garments they had been wearing.

     Melissa Jenkins' former boyfriend, two hours after she had notified him about the "weird call" she had just received, tried but failed to get back in touch with her by phone. He drove to her house, and nearby, found Jenkins' idling SUV with her 2-year-old boy asleep inside. Next to her car he found one of Jenkins's shoes. Fearing foul play he called the police.

     An investigator with the Vermont State Police traced the "weird call" Jenkins had received back to the Prues. Confronted by the authorities, Allen Prue confessed.

     On Monday afternoon, March 26, 2012, the day after the murder, the police found Jenkins' body along the river about ten miles from her house. At the scene officers recovered condoms and condom wrappers. The victim's feet had been tied with a length of white rope. Bruising of her face, neck, torso, arms and legs suggested that the Prues had given Jenkins a severe beating. 

     Charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder, the Prues were held without bond at the Northeast Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury. They pleaded not guilty. The medical examiner ruled Melissa Jenkins' death as "homicide by strangulation."

     The Allen Prue murder trial, following a change of venue, got underway in Burlington, Vermont on October 7, 2014. In her opening statement, Caledonia County state's attorney Lisa Warren told the jurors that the Prues who had been engaged in a sexual relationship with a neighbor, wanted somebody they could "play with" on the night of Melissa Jenkins' murder.

     Defense attorney Robert Katims, in his opening remarks, blamed the murder on the defendant's wife. "Patricia Prue strangled the victim," attorney Katims said, "because in her crazy, twisted mind Patricia had become obsessively jealous of Ms. Jenkins. The evidence will show that Patricia Prue strangled Melissa Jenkins without telling Allen she was going to do it, without planning it with him and without Allen Prue agreeing in any way, shape or form with the idea of harming Ms. Jenkins in any way."

     The defense attorney informed the jurors that Patricia Prue suffered from multiple personality disorder and had complete control over her weak-minded husband who quit school at age 16. It was the defendant's low I.Q. that allowed detectives to break him down in a seven hour interrogation. The defendant's murder confession, according to attorney Katims, had been coerced and was therefore false.

     Following the testimony of the medical examiner, prosecutor Warren played the audio recording of the defendant's confession to the jury. She next called Patricia Prue to the stand who invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. A few days later, a Vermont state detective testified that Patricia Prue had used her laptop computer in 2011 to research tips on how to kidnap and rape a girl without getting caught. A search of the defendant's computer revealed that it had been used to shop for a stun gun. (The Vermont State Chief Medical Examiner had testified that a stun gun had been used on the victim the night she died.)

     On October 22, 2014, following nine days of testimony and the attorneys' closing arguments, the case went to the jury of six men and six women. After deliberating six hours the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder as well as the lesser crimes. The judge sentenced Allen Prue to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

     On February 12, 2015, Patricia Prue pleaded guilty to the charge of first-degree murder. The next day, at a sentencing proceeding that had been initially scheduled as a mental competency hearing on her former not guilty by reason of insanity plea, Prue apologized to Jenkins' family. She said she wished she had received the mental health help she so desperately needed. "I'm not sorry we were caught," she said to thirty family members present in the courtroom. "I am sorry that it ever happened."

     Patricia Prue's attorney, Brian Marsicovetere, used the sentencing hearing to call for more support for mental health services in the state. He said his client suffered from post-traumatic stress and various personality disorders. She also had panic attacks as a result of intense anxiety.

     Caledonia County State's Attorney Lisa Warren told the judge that Patricia Prue had spent months plotting Melissa Jenkins' murder. "The couple stalked Jenkins, acquired a stun gun and bought a prepaid cellphone to call the victim and ask for help," she said.

     The judge sentenced Patricia Prue to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Madrid Bombing Case: Fingerprint Misidentification

     On March 11, 2004, terrorists in Madrid Spain bombed a passenger train, killing 191 people. The Spanish National Police sent the FBI digital images of eight latent prints found at the bomb site. These images were fed into the FBI's Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a $640 million supercomputer housed in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The computer selected from its collection of 48 million fingerprints sets, 15 digital latent images as possible matches. Three FBI examiners matched one of the 15 possibles to a latent from Spain that had been left on a plastic bag containing bomb detonators. The FBI experts believed this print belonged to a 37-year-old lawyer from Portland, Oregon named Brandon Mayfield.

     If the FBI fingerprint experts were correct, Brandon Mayfield had been at the scene of the Madrid bombing. The fact that Mayfield, a former Army lieutenant who had converted to Islam heightened the FBI's suspicion that he had been involved in the deadly bombing.

     Fingerprint examiners in Spain agreed that Mayfield's print and the crime scene latent shared eight points of similarity, but the numerous dissimilarities kept them from declaring a match. The FBI responded by having a fourth bureau expert look at the evidence, and he too, declared a match. Shortly thereafter, FBI agents arrested Brandon Mayfield. In the meantime, the police in Spain announced that the crime scene latent belonged to an Algerian suspect named Ouhane Daoud.

     A team of FBI fingerprint experts traveled to Madrid and when they compared Mayfield's fingerprint to the actual latent they realized their mistake. Blaming the misidentification on the low-resolution image of the digital print, the FBI apologized to Mr. Mayfield. However, when a panel of fingerprint experts reviewed the evidence, they found that the misidentification had nothing to do with the quality of the digitized latent. The four FBI experts had simply overlooked easily observed dissimilarities between the two prints.They allowed their eagerness to identify a terrorist override their scientific objectivity. There may also have been an element of groupthink in the misidentification.

     Brandon Mayfield filed a lawsuit, and in November 2006, the federal government agreed to pay him $2 million in damages. The Justice Department augmented the settlement with an official apology, stating that misidentifications of this nature were rare. University of California at Irvine professor Simon Cole disagreed. Responding to news of the settlement, he told a Los Angeles Times journalist that "this is a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. The argument has always been that no two people have fingerprints exactly alike. But that's not what you need to have an error. What you need is for two people to have very similar fingerprints and that's what happened here."

    For years, when FBI experts testified in criminal trials they claimed that in the history of the bureau there had never been a fingerprint misidentification. They could no longer make this claim which was never true. Moreover, in the wake of the Madrid bombing case embarrassment, the FBI fingerprint examiner proficiency test came under attack. According to a FBI whistleblower, if the test was not so ridiculously easy,cheating would be commonplace.

     While juries and the American public believe deeply in the reliability of fingerprint identification, it is not hard science, and there will be identification mistakes.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

No Justice for Arlene Roberts

     On October 28, 1978, Arlene Roberts' neighbors at the Lakeshore Manor Mobile Home Park in Renton, Washington near Seattle, checked in on the 80-year-old after she hadn't been seen for several days. They were shocked by what they saw upon entering her ransacked trailer. Someone had brutally murdered this woman.

     King County Sheriff's deputies found the victim half-naked and gagged with her hands and feet bound by one of her nylon stockings. The killer had strangled Roberts to death with a ligature fashioned from the victim's hair net.

     Although a crime scene investigator gathered physical evidence from the scene, including several latent fingerprints that did not belong to the victim, no suspects were developed. The investigation slowed to a crawl then went inactive.

     Early in 2011, 33 years after the sadistic murder, King County cold case investigators re-opened the Roberts homicide investigation. When detectives submitted three of the crime scene latents into the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) computer--including a print that had been developed off a bank statement and a print off a traveler's check, the computer search produced three "hits" or matches. All of the submitted fingerprints belonged to Ronald Wayne MacDonald, a then 17-year-old burglar who lived seven blocks from the murder scene.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that shortly after Arlene Roberts' murder, MacDonald moved to Florida where he was arrested several times for burglary for which he served numerous stretches in prison. In the 1990's, while living around the Reno, Nevada area police arrested him in 1992 and 2001 on burglary charges.

     In June 2011, King County investigators traveled to Reno to interrogate the Roberts case suspect. When the detectives confronted MacDonald with the crime scene fingerprint evidence he confessed to strangling the elderly woman to death in 1978. Two months later the authorities in Nevada took MacDonald into custody on the charge of first-degree murder. In September 2011 he was back in King County, Washington awaiting his trial under a $2 million bond.

     At the opening of the MacDonald murder trial in June 2012 the defendant and the prosecutor entered into a so-called Alford Plea agreement. (An Alford Plea allows a defendant to agree to a sentencing deal without admitting guilt.) Pursuant to this plea MacDonald pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense that carried a maximum sentence of five years. Pursuant to the deal MacDonald, 51, would only serve 16 months in prison. With credit given for time served, he would, under the plea agreement, be immediately released from custody.

    On August 8, 2012, at the sentencing hearing, King County Detective Scott Tompkins took the stand on behalf of the victim who had no family or friends to represent her at the proceeding. Tompkins urged the judge to ignore the plea bargained deal and impose the maximum manslaughter sentence of five years. According to the detective, the victim had died a horrific death, noting that it had taken the medical examiner eighteen paragraphs just to describe all of her injuries.

     The judge obliged the detective's request and imposed the five year sentence.

    MacDonald's attorneys appealed the judge's sentence to the state supreme court, arguing that the detective, as part of the prosecution team, had no standing to testify at the sentence hearing on behalf of the victim.

     On April 9, 2015, in a 6-3 decision, the state supreme court justices ruled that the detective's sentence hearing testimony was procedurally inappropriate. This meant that MacDonald, scheduled for release in September 2016, was to be immediately set free.

     Prosecutors in the case, because of procedural issues associated with MacDonald's confession back in 2011, believed the best deal they could make involved the 16-month sentence. Thanks to Detective Tompkins, MacDonald ended up serving three years and eight months behind bars. Even so, this sadistic, serial offender got off light. 
     For Arlene Roberts there was no justice.