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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Kleber Cordova Bathtub Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Deadly Bay Area Limousine Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

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

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

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

The Jorelys Rivera Murder Case

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

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

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

BRUNN: Yes.

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

BRUNN: No.

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

BRUNN: No.

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

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

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

     "I'm not bothered at all."

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

     "I have," Brunn replied.

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

     "I don't."

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

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

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

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

     

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Turkish Severed Head Murder Case: Killing a Serial Rapist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

     

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Modern History of The Death Penalty

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

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

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

The Electric Chair

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

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

The Electric Chair's Golden Era

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

Electrocuting Fat People

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

The Gas Chamber

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

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

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

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

The Caryl Chessman Case

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

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

Lethal Injection

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

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

The Clayton Lockett Case

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

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

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

Back to Bullets

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

The Return of the Electric Chair

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Wayne Mills Murder Case

     Jerald Wayne Mills grew up in the town of Arab, Georgia in the northern part of the state. At the University of Alabama where he played football, he earned a degree in education. But instead of becoming a teacher, Mills formed a band and for fifteen years performed primarily on the college circuit.

     Mills, in 2010, was charged with driving under the influence and reckless endangerment after he bumped a police officer who was standing on the side of the highway. Between tours in 2013, Mills busied himself by working on his seventh album. The 44-year-old was married and had a 6-year-old son.

     A friend of Mills, Chris Ferrell, owned the Pit and Barrel Bar located in downtown Nashville. In July 2013, police arrested Ferrell on charges of domestic violence and vandalism. The complaining witness in the case was a bartender he dated. Notwithstanding that arrest, Ferrell possessed a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

     In mid-November 2013, Ferrell and his bar were featured on a TV series on the Spike Network called "Bar Rescue." In the series, experts helped save struggling bars and nightclub businesses.

     During the early morning hours of Saturday, November 23, 2013, Wayne Mills and a handful of friends and acquaintances were drinking with Chris Ferrell in his bar after it had closed. Just before five that morning an argument broke out between Mills and Ferrell. The trouble started when Mills lit up a cigarette in the non-smoking section of the bar. The two men became so angry, bystanders, fearing violence, left the premises.

     Shortly after 5 that morning, a small group of people outside the Pit and Barrel heard three gunshots. One of the bystanders called 911.

     Police officers arrived at the bar to find Mills dead or dying from three shots to the head. One of the bullets had entered the back of his skull. A short time after being taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctors pronounced Mills dead.

     Chris Ferrell told detectives that fearing for his life, he had shot his friend in self defense. As the only witness to the shooting, detectives accepted Ferrell's account pending further investigation and the results of the autopsy. The bar owner was not taken into custody.

     Detectives with the Davidson County Police Department, for ten hours following the fatal shooting, worked under the false belief that the man shot by Ferrell was Clayton Mills, a Nashville songwriter. Given the fact several people who knew Wayne Mills had witnessed his argument with Ferrell, then heard gunshots, it's hard to image how detectives didn't immediately acquire the true identify of the victim. And why had it taken them so long to sort out their mistake?

     On November 26, 3013, a spokesperson for the Nashville Medical Examiner's Office announced that while a forensic pathologist had performed the autopsy on Wayne Mills, results of that post-mortem work would not be released for up to fourteen weeks. The spokesperson also refused to say if Mr. Ferrell had sustained injuries from the fight.

     In the meantime, Wayne Mills' friends, fans, and family, having heard that one of Ferrell's bullets had entered the back of Mills' head, questioned the believability of the self defense claim.  A rumor surfaced that the shooting occurred when the men were standing on opposite sides of a physical barrier.

     On December 6, 2013, a Davidson County grand jury indicted Chris Ferrell on one count of second-degree murder. Following the indictment, the bar owner turned himself over to the police. Officers booked Ferrell into the Davidson County Jail and the judge set his bail at $150,000. At a bond hearing on December 16, the judge lowered Ferrell's bail which led to his release from custody.

     In January 2014, the Nashville Medical Examiner's Office released the Mills autopsy report. The victim had been killed by a single bullet to the back of the head. The absence of gunpowder staining around the entrance wound suggested the shot had been fired from a distance of at least eighteen inches. The shooting victim had also suffered two broken ribs, abrasions on his head and contusions on his chest, arms, forearms, left thigh and right knee. According to the toxicology report, Mills had a blood-alcohol level of .221, three times the legal limit for driving intoxicated. He also had amphetamine in his system.

     The Wayne Mills murder trial got underway in Nashville on March 2, 2015. In his opening remarks to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Wesley King said that the victim had been shot in the back of the head as he was leaving the bar.

     Defense attorney David Raybin told the jury that the defendant wouldn't have murdered his best friend, that the killing had been in self defense. "He [Mills] was my client's best friend. My client loved him and cared for him and wouldn't murder him," Raybin said. "Never in the ten years they had known each other was there ever a harsh, loud episode between them."

     Prosecutor King put songwriter Thomas Howard on the stand who testified that he saw Ferrell smack a cigarette out of Mills' hand that made Mills angry. "At that point Mills got up and turned around and said, "You ever smack my hand like that again, I'll kill you." Howard said he heard gunshots as he left the bar.

     After the prosecution rested its case on March 4, 2015, the defense attorney put 24-year-old Nadia Markum on the stand. She had been in the bar that night and said Mills and Ferrell were yelling at each other. While she didn't recall the specifics of the argument because she was drunk, she remembered Wayne Mills throwing a glass to the floor. Right after she exited the bar she heard three shots.

     On Markum's cross-examination, prosecutor King got the witness to admit that when questioned by the police, she had said, "All that Mills did was smoke a cigarette." She had also told detectives that Mills was trying to leave the bar when he was shot.

     Defense attorney Raybin, as his final defense witness, put Chris Ferrell on the stand. The defendant testified that Mills became agitated when he couldn't get a cab. "I can't get a cab!" he said. "There are no whores, and no f-ing cocaine here. Why am I here?" At the time of the outburst, Ferrell was walking around the bar turning out lights in anticipation of closing up the place. It was then Mills lit a cigarette.

     The defendant testified that he asked Mills to put out the cigarette. Mills refused, saying that he had helped "build this bar." Ferrell said he reached across the bar and grabbed the cigarette out of Mills' mouth, crushed it and threw it on the floor. Mills responded to this by saying, "If you ever take a cigarette from me again, I will kill you!" According to the defendant, he told Mills to leave the bar but not with the drink he held in his hand. To that Mills said, "If you talk to me like that again I'm going to f-ing kill you." Mills then threw his drink to the floor, smashing the glass into pieces, "You know what?" he said, "I'm going to f-ing kill you!"

     The defendant said that in response to that threats to his life "I fired in fear. I panicked. I believed he had a weapon."

     On March 6, 2015, the jury found Chris Ferrell guilty of second-degree murder. On April 28, 2015, at his sentence hearing, Chris Ferrell, in addressing the court, said, "I stand here today with the heaviest heart, conscious and soul. I will carry the memory of that horrible night forever. I am so sorry for my actions that in an instant changed so many lives." The judge sentenced Ferrell to twenty years in prison.

     

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Problem of Dueling Experts

     When a presumably healthy baby dies in his or her crib for no apparent reason, and there is no evidence of foul play, rather than classifying the cause of death as "unknown," or "undetermined," a coroner or medical examner will usually call the fatality a "sudden infant death syndrome" (SIDS) case. Although this is the same as ruling the death as "undetermined," it sounds more scientific. At one time, the parents of SIDS babies found themselves under clouds of suspicion. Today, as a result of scientific study of these cases, forensic pathologists are attributing natural death causes in infant deaths that earlier would have been classified as SIDS fatalities.

     The "shaken baby syndrome" (SBS) refers to signs of physical trauma found in children under six who have been violently shaken. When a baby or toddler is shaken too hard, the victim's brain is jarred against the skull, causing it to bleed and swell. Most pediatricians and forensic pathologists believe that to diagnose SBS, they must find, at minimum, evidence of subdural hematoma (brain hemorrhaging), retinal bleeding (broken veins in the eyes), and cerebral edema (liquid on the brain that causes it to swell). The conventional wisdom had been that a child with these injuries who had neither been in a car accident or fallen from a two-story window had been violently shaken. Supportive evidence of SBS might include trauma to the neck and spine, bruises on the arms and torso, and broken ribs.

     In the late 1990s, a handful of pediatric researchers began to question the science behind the standard SBS diagnosis.Could cerebral edema and blood in the eyes and brain have other causes such as vitamin deficiency, disease, or reactions to vaccines and drugs? Diseases thought to cause symptoms of SBS included hypohosphatasia, brittle bone disease; Alagilles's Syndrome, a liver ailment; Bylers Disease (a liver disorder common among the Amish); and glutaric acidura (acid buildup in infants that causes paralysis and retinal bleeding). Some experts believe that a relatively short fall to a hard surface, say from three feet, can cause damage to the brain similar to that found in SBS victims.

     Because there is no agreement among pediatricians and forensic pathologists what physical evidence of SBS consists of, homicide trials involving defendants accused of shaking infants to death often involve dueling expert witnesses testifying against each other.

Shirley Ree Smith Case

     In 1997, a jury in Van Nuys, California convicted Shirley Ree Smith of shaking her seven week old grandson to death. The prosecutor convinced the jury that Smith had shaken the baby to stop him from crying. The medical examiner, in explaining why there wasn't as much cerebral bleeding as one might expect in a SBS case, said the baby had been shaken so violently the blood vessels in the brain stem suffered "shearing," casusing instantaneous death without bleeding due to the fact the baby's heart had stopped beating. The autopsy had failed to produce evidence of brain swelling or retinal bleeding.

     The Smith defense put two forensic pathologists on the stand who classified the death as a SIDS case, noting that the baby had jaundice, a heart murmer, and low birth weight. The jury accepted the prosecution's version of the facts, and found Shirley Ree Smith guilty. She received a sentence of fifteen years to life.

     A state court of appeals upheld the conviction. The Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals, however, in 2006, reversed the conviction and ordered Smith released from prison on the grounds the jury had missclassified the baby's death as a SBS fatality. The state prosecutor appealed the case reversal to the United States Supreme Court.

     On October 31, 2011, the supreme court, in a 6 to 3 decision, reinstated Shirley Ree Smith's homicide conviction. This meant she would have to return to prison. The six justices upheld a longstanding legal principle that an appeals court cannot substitute its judgment for a jury's. The high court, recognizing the jury in the Smith case may have relied on the wrong forensic pathologists, reminded the Ninth Circuit Court that judges in jury trials cannot decide the law and the facts. If Shirley Ree Smith had a remedy in law, it would have to be in the form of executive clemency.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Tomeikia Johnson Murder Case

     Off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Tomeikia Johnson and her husband Marcus Lemons started arguing while having drinks on February 21, 2009 at the T.G.I. Friday bar in Compton, California. At 11PM, after the 32-year-old cop paid the bill, she and Lemons, a barber and locally known amateur bowler, left the restaurant with the CHP officer behind the wheel. About an hour later, Johnson pulled up to her parents' Compton home with her husband's dead body in the BMW. Lemons had been shot point-blank in the head with his wife's handgun. Johnson's mother called 911.

     Pending the results of the homicide investigation conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, the CHP re-assigned Johnson to desk duty. She told investigators that she and her husband, after they left the bar, continued to fight. When she pulled the car off the road, he became physical. As they struggled for control of the gun, it went off and killed him. According to her account of the shooting, she was defending herself against an abusive husband.

     Detectives looking into the shooting believed that Johnson had pulled the car off the road, reached into her purse, took out her gun, and shot Lemons in the head. The Los Angeles County deputy district attorney handling the case believed that Johnson had murdered her husband. In January 2011, sheriff's deputies arrested Tomeikia Johnson on the charge of first-degree murder as she sat at her CHP desk. (From the beginning, the CHP had cooperated with the investigation.) Initially held in the county jail on $2 million bond, Johnson made her bail and was released.

     In January 2012, with the defendant's family seated on one side of the courtroom, and her dead husband's relatives gathered in the other half of the gallery, the Johnson trial got underway in downtown Los Angeles. In her opening statement to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Natalie Adomian laid out the prosecution's theory of the shooting. According to the prosecutor, after Johnson pulled the BMW off the road, she pulled out her gun, pressed the muzzle against his head, and pulled the trigger.

     Over the next several days, Adomian, to support the prosecution's assertion that the killing had been intentional, put a blood spatter interpretation analyst as well as a gunshot residue expert on the stand. The experts testified that the pattern and location of the blood and powder staining did not support the defendant's account of the shooting. The forensic scientists were followed by a series of witnesses who portrayed the defendant as having an aggressive personality and a drinking problem. These witnesses characterized Marcus Lemons as a peaceful, nonviolent husband who had taken a lot of abuse from his wife. Since Johnson hadn't confessed, and there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial.

     To establish that his client had been an abused wife, and that the shooting had occurred during a life and death struggle for the gun, attorney Darryl Stallworth put the defendant on the stand realizing that the outcome of the case depended upon Tomeikia Johnson's credibility. Stallworth, to make the case for his client's innocence, had to put Marcus Lemons on trial. He had to attack a dead man, always a risky move in a murder trial.

     According to the defendant, a week before her husband died while trying to kill her, he had given her reason to fear for her life. They had gotten into an argument while driving back to Los Angeles from a bowling tournament in Las Vegas. She told him to stop the car, and when he pulled off the road, she ran to a nearby truck stop and called 911 and reported that her husband had gotten possession of her gun and wanted to kill her. (No charges were filed against Lemons.) Johnson also testified that in 2008, Lemons had attacked her in a Las Vegas hotel room, injuring her neck. No charges were filed in that case either.

     After giving testimony intended to establish Marcus Lemons as the abuser in the marriage, Johnson provided her account of how he had died: After leaving the T.G.I. Friday bar in Compton, she and Lemons continued to argue. He became so angry he reached over and started choking her, forcing her to pull off the highway. He grabbed the keys out of the ignition and told her to walk home. She climbed out of the BMW and started running. Worried that he would take the gun out of her purse (left behind in the car) and shoot her, she returned to the vehicle. As she and her husband reached for the gun, it fell to the ground. When she picked it up, the pistol went off, killing him.

     "Did you want to fire that weapon?" asked the attorney.

     "No."

     "Did you want to kill your husband?"

      "No," the defendant replied.

     The defense rested. Following the closing arguments and the judge's legal instructions, the case went to the jury. If jurors believed Johnson's account of the shooting, they would acquit her. If not, she would not be walking out of the courthouse a free person.

     On January 23, 2012, the jury, after deliberating slightly more than a day, found Tomeikia Johnson guilty of first-degree murder. She fainted, and paramedics rushed to the defense table and wheeled her out of the courtroom on a gurney.

     At Johnson's March 9, 2012 sentencing hearing before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, her attorney asked the judge to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter. Judge Perry denied the request and sentenced Johnson to 50 years to life. Apparently the judge didn't buy her story either. As Johnson wept, her mother yelled "I love you Tomiekia!" This set off a raucous back and forth in the gallery between the opposing families.

     

     

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The William Simmons Murder Case: An Unlikely Conviction

     Kaelin Rose Glazier, a 15-year-old sophomore at South Medford High School in Rush, Oregon, disappeared on November 6, 1996 after watching a video in a house trailer with 16-year-old William Frank Simmons. The missing girl had skipped church that evening to meet her boyfriend, Clifford Ruhland, at Simmons' trailer. According to Simmons, the boyfriend didn't show up, and after he and Glazier watched the movie, she departed.

     The local police, believing that the missing girl had run away from home, waited 21 days before investigating the case as an abduction and possible murder. Simmons, a big kid who had been in trouble with the law, and was the last known person to have seen the girl alive, became the first and only suspect in the investigation. Years passed, and without the girl's body, the case ground to a halt. Every once in awhile detectives would question William Simmons at the police station, and every time he would deny having anything to do with the girl's disappearance.

     People don't vanish into thin air. In 2008, 12 years after Glazier went to Simmons' trailer, a man mowing a field 80 feet from the place she was last seen uncovered skeletal remains. According to a forensic anthropologist, the bones were consistent with the remains of a 15-year-old girl.

     At the recovery site, investigators discovered a skull wrapped in duct tape, a tennis shoe, part of a bra, and some jewelry that had belonged to the missing girl. While the medical examiner officially identified the remains as Glazier's and ruled her death a homicide, the forensic pathologist could not determine the precise cause of death. The police theorized she had been suffocated or strangled. DNA evidence from the duct tape did not match the victim's boyfriend or William Simmons.

     On April 10, 2010, the local prosecutor charged William Simmons with murder, and as a backup charge, first-degree manslaughter. The motive: he had killed the girl after she had rebuffed his sexual advances. After killing her, the suspect had supposedly dragged her body to the nearby field. (It's hard to believe it took 12 years for someone to find, 80 feet from where she was last seen, Glazier's remains. Was anybody really looking for her?)

     The Simmons murder trial got underway on February 14, 2012 in the Jackson County Circuit Court. The prosecutor, without an eyewitness, confession or physical evidence linking the 31-year-old defendant to the murder, had an extremely weak case. The state didn't even have a jailhouse informant, or a murder weapon. All the prosecutor had was the defendant's so-called "motive, means, and opportunity," to commit the crime.

     William Simmons' attorney pointed out that motive, means, and opportunity did not comprise evidence. The defense lawyer reminded jurors that the murdered girl's boyfriend may also have had motive, means, and opportunity in the 16 year old case.

     The jury, after deliberating ten hours, voted 10 to 2 to find the defendant guilty of first-degree manslaughter. (The reckless killing of a person as opposed to an intentional murder.) In Oregon, a defendant can be convicted of manslaughter on just 10 guilty votes. To find a person guilty of murder, 12 votes are needed. The judge sentenced William Simmons to the mandatory 10 years in prison.

     At a hearing in May 2012, the convicted man's attorneys, Andrew Vandergaw and Michael Bertoff, in an effort to secure a new trial for their client, put a witness on the stand named Serena Beach. During the Simmons trial Beach had contacted the defense attorneys and said she had "vital information about the case." The lawyers, busy defending the accused man, didn't have time to investigate her allegations.

     According to Serena Beach, in 2003 or 2004, the murder victim's stepfather, Robert Glazier, told her that he "was there when Kaelin Glazier came into the world and was there when she went out." He allegedly said that he knew she was dead and that her body was "down the road."

     The 65-year-old stepfather, who had been questioned three times by detectives during the early stages of the missing persons investigation, took the stand at the hearing to determine if there was sufficient cause to convene a new trial. Mr. Glazier said he knew that some people considered him a suspect in the murder. He testified that there was a person he suspected in the case.

     Judge Benjamin Bloom denied the defense motion for a new trial. The attorneys for William Simmons said they would appeal the judge's ruling.

     It's surprising that Judge Benjamin Bloom even allowed this case to go to a jury in the first place. Motive, means, and opportunity, while a guideline for identifying criminal suspects, does not rise to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (As evidenced in this case by the two not guilty votes.) The evidence in this case was not even enough to sustain liability in a civil wrongful death suit where the standard of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence. In any other state, the Simmons trial would have resulted in a hung jury.

     By any legal standard, the William Simmons case represents an odd and unlikely homicide conviction. While he may have been a good suspect, and may have committed the crime, that was not enough evidence to put him behind bars for 10 years. If this were the standard of proof in all murder trials, a lot of innocent people would end up in prison.

    

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Cracker Barrel Murders: No Escaping Kevin Allen

     In June 1995, the day he received word that he and his first wife were divorced, 35-year-old Kevin E. Allen assaulted his girlfriend, Janice Koerlin. A few months later, the diagnosed manic-depressive from Kirtland, Ohio, a town 20 miles east of Cleveland, married Koerlin. In September of that year, police arrested Allen after he tried to suffocate his new wife with a pillow. This was a man who obvioulsy had no business being around women. This was a man who needed to be locked up.

     In 2004, Allen filed for personal bankruptcy for the second time. (He had filed for bankruptcy in 1991.) Four years later, the police in North Royalton, Ohio arrested him, now married to his fifth wife with whom he had fathered two daughters, on charges of theft and burglary.

     In March 2011, Kevin and his fifth wife Katherina, who went by Kate and was ten years younger than him, lived in Strongsville, Ohio with their daughters Kerri and Kayla. That year Kevin and Kate filed for personal bankruptcy. They were in debt $60,000. Although Kevin Allen, with his short, thinning gray hair and his trimmed white beard looked like a friendly guy, he continued to be a bellicose, bad-tempered husband. People went out of their way to avoid him. In 2011, Allen went several months without paying his gas bill, and threatened to shoot anybody from the utility company who came to his place to shut if off. A gas company employee did go to the house, but with a police escort.

     In early April 2012, the domestic abuse had gotten so intense and frequent, Kate and the girls moved into a friend's house. On April 12, Kate decided to take Kerri and Kayla to the Cracker Barrel restaurant in nearby Brooklyn, Ohio to celebrate Kerri Allen's tenth birthday. Kate had invited her estranged husband, and in the relative safety of a crowded restaurant, planned to inform Kevin that she wanted a divorce.

     After the late dinner, while still at the Cracker Barrel, Kate broke the news that she was leaving him. Infuriated, Kevin stormed out of the restaurant, but instead of driving home, he circled the parking lot in his silver Jeep Liberty. Worried that Kevin might become violent, Kate, at 8:40, called 911. "I'm having some spouse problems," she said.

     Kate informed the 911 dispatcher that she had just told her estranged husband that she was leaving  him, and he hadn't taken it very well. At that moment, Kevin Allen was outside the Cracker Barrel restaurant driving around the parking lot. A few minutes later, as Kate spoke to the 911 dispatcher, Kevin re-entered the restaurant and approached her and the children carrying a single barrel shotgun. The local police rolled up to the scene just as Kevin disappeared inside the building.

     The police officers, aware that Kevin Allen had gone into the restaurant armed with a shotgun, decided to remain outside. They were afraid that if they went in after him, innocent bystanders could get shot in the cross-fire. The police were also worried that Allen, if confronted inside, might take a hostage.

     When Kevin Allen got to his wife's table, without saying a word, he aimed his shotgun and fired on her and their two children. The transcript of the 911 call, just before the shooting went like this:

DISPATCHER: "Wait in the lobby for the officers. Do not go outside. Let them talk to him, okay? "

KATE: "He's here and the police are here, too. I have to...." (Gunfire could be heard on the dispatcher's end.)

DISPATCHER: "Ma'am?"

     After murdering his wife and his daughter Kerri, and seriously wounding Kayla, Allen walked out the front door of the restaurant where he encountered the police. When he refused to drop his shotgun, the police opened fire, killing him on the spot.

     When Kevin Allen strode into the Cracker Barrel carrying the shotgun, bedlam broke out with patrons running for cover. The manager helped many diners exit the place through a rear door. None of the customers were injured.

     Medics  rushed Kayla to a nearby hospital where she survived her wounds. People have criticized the officers for not immediately entering the restaurant. But they were faced was a difficult dilemma. Had the police gone in, more people could have been killed. In reality, there is only so much the police can do. They cannot always save families from abusive, murderous husbands. There was no escaping Kevin Allen.

     

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Christopher Krumm Double-Murder-Suicide Case

     Christopher Krumm graduated from University of Colorado where he studied computer engineering.  In 2009, after earning a Master's degree in electrical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, Krumm worked at various odd jobs in Colorado. In 2012, he moved into a one-room apartment on the third floor of a rundown rooming house in Vernon, Connecticut. A quiet, socially awkward person who kept to himself, Christopher worked a blue collar job for a utility company. He came home from work everyday wearing one of those neon-colored safety vests.

     On November 17, 2012, Christopher Krumm embarked on a 30-hour, 2,000-mile road trip from Vernon, Connecticut to Casper, Wyoming, a town of 56,000 in the central part of the state. His father, James Krumm, had been teaching computer science at Casper College since 2002, and was head of the department. The two-year institution was one of seven colleges in the state's community college system.

     Professor Krumm possessed a B.A. and a M.B.A. from the University of Wyoming, and a Master's in computer science from Colorado State University. The 56-year-old professor lived two miles from the 200-acre, 5,000-student campus in a quiet, residential neighborhood with his live-in girlfriend, 42-year-old Heidi Arnold. Arnold, a graduate of the University of California at Davis, held a Master's degree in math from the University of Oregon. She taught mathematics at Casper College.

     Christopher Krumm pulled into Casper Thursday night, November 28, and checked into a hotel on the outskirts of town. The next morning, shortly before nine, he showed up unannounced at the house his father shared with Heidi Arnold. Because James Krumm was teaching a morning class at the college, Professor Arnold was the only person in the house when Christopher, armed with two large knives, knocked on the front door. A few minutes later, Heidi Arnold's bloodied body was lying along the curb in the street in front of her house. Christopher Krumm had stabbed her to death.

     From the scene of Heidi Arnold's murder, Christopher Krumm drove two miles to the Casper College campus. He walked into his father's building carrying two knives and a high-powered, compound bow that was wrapped in a blanket. (A compound bow is one of those complicated-looking hunting bows that has pulleys.) Once inside the classroom, in front of six computer science students, Christopher, from a distance of four feet, shot an arrow into his father's head. James Krumm, with the arrow lodged in his skull, managed to get back on his feet. He wrestled with his son long enough to allow his students to get safely out of the room.

     Christopher finished his father off by stabbing him several times in the chest. When police officers burst into the classroom, the professor was dead, and his son, on the floor next to his father, was dying from self-inflicted stab wounds.

     Matt DiPinto, one of Christopher Krumm's neighbors in Vernon, Connecticut, said this to a reporter with the Hartford Courant, "He [Christopher] told me his dad gave him Asperger's Syndrome and that his dad should be castrated. I didn't know him that well, he just kind of said it out of nowhere, so that kind of threw me off a little." According to Christopher Krumm's uncle, when he last saw his nephew three years before the murders, he did not seem depressed or angry.

   
     

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Emani Moss: The Brutal Life and Death of a Girl Georgia Failed to Protect

     In 2004, prosecutors in Gwinnett County, Georgia charged Eman Moss with assaulting the biological mother of his one-year-old daughter, Emani. Because Eman attacked his girlfriend in front of their daughter, the prosecutor also charged him with second-degree child cruelty. In return for his guilty plea, the judge sentenced Eman Moss to probation.

     Six years after the domestic assault, Eman and his daughter resided in Lawrenceville, an unincorporated suburb of Atlanta. Eman's new girlfriend, Tiffany Nicole Brown, lived in the apartment with them. In March 2010, the six-year-old told a teacher at Cooper Elementary School that she was afraid to go home with her bad report card.

     Emani's extreme fear of being punished at home prompted an inquiry by the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. After finding evidence of abuse, the child protection agency turned the case over to the Gwinnett County Police Department.

     Gwinnett County investigators determined that Tiffany Brown, the girlfriend of the Emani's father, had repeatedly beaten the girl with a belt. On Emani's body doctors found scars, abrasions, scabs, and bruises on her chest, arms, back, and legs. A Gwinnett County prosecutor charged Tiffany Nicole Brown, an elementary school teacher, with first-degree child cruelty. Eman, the girl's father, was charged with child cruelty as well.

     Pursuant to an agreement with the prosecutor, Tiffany was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree child cruelty. Because he and his girlfriend promised to take parenting classes, the charges against Eman were dropped. (The child services agency had signed-off on the plea bargain.) Everybody came out ahead in the deal except Emani who remained exposed to abuse. (I don't know if Tiffany Brown kept her teaching job.)

     In July 2012, Gwinnett County detectives opened another child abuse case on Eman and Tiffany whom he had since married. When investigators were unable to find sufficient evidence to back up Emani's claims that she was being beaten and denied food as punishment, the police closed the case. Shortly after being abandoned again by the government, the nine-year-old ran away from home. After finding Emani, the authorities not only returned the child to her private hell, they charged her as a runaway juvenile.

     At four in the morning on Saturday, November 1, 2013, Eman Moss called 911 from the Coventry Pointe apartment complex in Lawrenceville. Moss told the 911 dispatcher that his daughter had consumed some kind of poison and died. He said her body was in the apartment and that he was thinking of committing suicide. (Unfortunately this turned out to be a hollow threat.)

     Gwinnett County police officers encountered Eman outside the apartment complex standing in a breezeway. The 30-year-old led the officers to a trash can in the recreation area. Inside the garbage bin officers discovered the badly burned body of a girl. The girl in the trash was ten-year-old Emani Moss.

     The county medical examiner's office ruled the girl's death a homicide. According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Emani had died of starvation. Her body had been burned postmortem. The medical examiner did not believe she had been poisoned.  (A toxicology report would later confirm the lack of poison in the girl's system.) According to the pathologist, the dead girl had endured periods of up to twelve days without food. She had been dead about three days.

     Eman and Tiffany Moss, charged with first-degree murder, cruelty to children, and concealing a body, were booked into the Gwinnett County Detention Center. The magistrate denied them bail.

     On June 8, 2015, Eman Moss pleaded guilty to the charge of felony-murder. As part of the plea bargain deal, he agreed to testify against his wife, Tiffany. Detectives believed that Tiffany had been the driving force behind the murder. Mr. Moss, according to investigators, had played a passive role in his daughter's torture and death. He had failed to protect her. In return for his plea, Eman Moss was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Tiffany Moss, if found guilty as charged, could be sentenced to death.

      As of November 2016, Tiffany Moss had not been tried for the abuse and neglect that had led to the death of her child.

   
     

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Happened To Wall Street Reporter David Bird?

     David Bird, a 55-year-old journalist with the Wall Street Journal who covered the world's energy markets--OPEC and such--lived with his wife Nancy and their two children in central New Jersey's Long Hill Township. Although he underwent a liver transplant operation in 2005, Mr. Bird was an avid hiker, biker, and camper. The Boy Scout troop leader, in 2013, ran in the New York City Marathon. His children were ages 12 and 15.

     On Saturday, January 11, 2014, after he and his wife had put away their Christmas decorations, David said he wanted to take a walk and get some fresh air before it started to rain. At 4:30 PM, dressed in a red rain jacket, sneakers, and a pair of jeans, the six-foot-one, 200 pound, gray-haired reporter walked out of his house. Shortly thereafter it began to rain, and rain hard.

     Two hours after David Bird started his walk in the neighborhood, his wife became worried. He hadn't returned home and it was still raining. To make matters worse, Dave had been suffering from a gastrointestinal virus. Nancy Bird called the Long Hill Township Police Department to report her husband missing.

     Over the next three days police officers and hundreds of volunteers searched the neighborhood and nearby wooded areas for the missing journalist. The searchers were assisted by dogs, a helicopter, and people riding all-terrain vehicles and horses. Volunteers also distributed hundreds of missing persons flyers.

     Notwithstanding the effort to locate Mr. Bird, he was nowhere to be found. It seemed he had disappeared without a trace.

     The fact the missing man left his house without the anti-rejection medication he took twice a day in connection with his liver transplant made finding him all the more urgent. Without that medicine he would surely become ill.

     On January 16, 2014, police officers learned that someone in Mexico, the night before, had used one of David Bird's credit cards. The card was supposedly used four days after Bird's disappearance. Investigators, without a clue as to where David Bird was, or why he went missing, considered the possibility that his disappearance had something to do with his reporting on recent middle east crude oil price changes.

     On March 18, 2015, at five o'clock in the evening, two men canoeing on the Passaic River in New Jersey about a mile from David Bird's home, spotted a red jacket amid a tangle of branches. From that spot emergency responders retrieved a male corpse.

     Dr. Carlos A. Fonesca with the Morris County Medical Examiner's office and forensic dentist Dr. Mitchell M. Kirshbaum identified the remains as David Bird. The day after the discovery, Morris County prosecutor Frederic M. Knapp said an autopsy would be conducted to determine Mr. Bird's cause and manner of death.

     A few days later, a Morris County spokesperson revealed that Mr. Bird had drowned. Investigators found no reason to suspect foul play. Since Mr. Bird's death wasn't homicide or natural, it was either the result of suicide or an accident.

     In June 2015, a spokesperson for the Morris County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the manner of death accidental. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Jerome Sidney DeAvila Murder Case

     Jerome Sidney DeAvila, a Stockton, California pedophile with a long history of sex crimes, was sentenced to a prison psychiatric hospital after a child molestation conviction in 2011. The 38-year-old criminally insane sexual predator should have remained in custody for the remainder of his life. Although allowing this man back into society guaranteed more victims, state parole officials released him from the prison mental facility in May 2012. Correction officials did not let DeAvila out because he was no longer dangerous. They freed him because some judge determined that the state psychiatric hospital was too crowded.

     DeAvila, just one of thousands of violent criminals the state of California, had been paroled early because there was no room for them in its prisons and jails. Because getting into prison and jail had become so difficult in the state, parole violators like DeAvila had no incentive to comply with the conditions of parole. DeAvila was supposed to wear a GPS tracking device around his ankle that triggered an alarm if tampered with. Removing the device constituted a parole violation. Because removing tracking devices didn't lead to jail time, many parolees decided not to wear them. As a result, DeAvila's parole officer had no idea where he was or what he was up to.

     The Stockton police, on February 13, 2013, arrested DeAvila for the tenth time since his release from the state psychiatric facility. Every one of his arrests involved violations of the terms of his parole, and included public drunkenness, possession of drugs, and the removal of his GPS tracking device. On each these occasions, officers booked him into the San Joaquin County Jail.

    Before the court ordered the thinning out of the state's prison and jail population, parole violators would be held in county jails until their state parole revocation hearings. If found in violation, they'd be sent back to prison to serve up to another year behind bars.

     In DeAvila's case, he'd only spend a few nights in the San Joaquin lockup before being released back into society. Following his tenth parole violation arrest on February 13, 2013, he remained in the overcrowded San Joaquin Jail one week before walking free.

     On February 26, 2013, just six days after DeAvila's last jail release, neighbors discovered the corpse of Rachael Russell, the parole violator's grandmother. Her body had been dumped in a wheelbarrow sitting in her backyard. Later that day, Stockton police officers arrested the high-risk parolee for the rape, robbery and murder of his grandmother. When taken into custody he was wearing her jewelry.

     It had taken a murder to get this man off the streets of Stockton, California. But DeAvila's arrest for murder meant that some other criminal would be set free to make room for him. Instead of grossly overpaying politicians and bureaucrats, the state needs to expand its prison and jail system. Maybe it's time to worry more about the safety of law obeyers and less about prison conditions involving violent criminals.    

     In August 2013, Rachael Russell's daughter and son (DeAvila's mother and uncle) sued the state and San Joaquin County. The plaintiffs claimed that after this dangerous man violated his parole for the tenth time, he should not have been released from the county jail. According to the suit, parole agents who supervised DeAvila knew he was a danger to the 76-year-old victim.

     In April 2014, DeAvila pleaded guilty to rape, robbery, and murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life. The civil suit is pending. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Robert Taylor Murder Case

     At eight-thirty in the morning of September 11, 2008, 52-year-old Robert Taylor called 91l to report the downing of his 63-year-old wife in their south Manatee County, Florida swimming pool. From 1994 to 2007, Taylor had been a Manatee County Sheriff's Office corrections deputy. He had met his wife Pamela in 2004. She had been a nurse at an assisted living facility, and at the Manatee County Jail.

     Sheriff's deputies responding to the 911 call found Pamela Taylor lying at the edge of the pool. Robert Taylor said he had gone to bed around midnight, and when he got up that morning, found his wife floating face-down in the water. Although Taylor said he had just pulled his wife's body out of the deep end, his clothes and shoes were not wet. When the first officer arrived at the scene, Mr. Taylor, with his dead wife's body sprawled out beside the swimming pool, was making himself breakfast. While investigators suspected foul play, the case wasn't seriously investigated, and Robert Taylor was not charged with causing his wife's death.

     In December 2010, medical examiner Dr. Russell Vega ruled Pamela Taylor's death a homicide by drowning. (Since Dr. Vega conducted an autopsy, I'm assuming Pamela's body had been exhumed, and that the initial autopsy had been performed by someone who had not ruled the death homicidal. It's even possible there was no initial autopsy.) The delayed manner of death ruling was followed by a criminal investigation, which in turn led to Robert Taylor's arrest on February 8, 2011. Charged with second-degree murder, he was booked into the Manatee County lockup a few days later. (He was later transferred to the Sarasota County Jail.) Since the suspect had not confessed, and there were no eyewitnesses to his wife's drowning, the case against him was entirely circumstantial.

     The Taylor murder trial got underway in Bradenton, Florida on May 1, 2012. Prosecutor Art Brown put the medical examiner, Dr. Russell Vega, on the stand. Dr. Vega testified that the drowning victim had bruises on her legs, fractured ribs, and a large contusion on her skull. Because the water was only five foot six inches deep at its deepest, Mrs. Taylor could have tip-toed out of the deep end.

     Ruth Mueller, a neighbor, told the jury that on the night of the drowning, she heard Mr. and Mrs. Taylor yelling at each other. Next came a sound consistent with a body hitting cement, then the sound of gurgling water. On one occasion, Mrs. Taylor had come to Mueller's house with a bruised and bloodied face. The witness cleaned her wounds, and escorted her back to her kitchen where Mueller saw blood stains on the wall. "Robert," she said, "look what you've done to your wife." He didn't respond.

     Another neighbor, Eric Barr, took the stand and said that just days before the drowning, Mrs. Taylor, in referring to the defendant, had said, "He's going to kill me." When the witness asked Mr. Taylor to "chill out," the defendant threatened his life.

     On Wednesday, May 2, 2012, the prosecutor played a video-tape of the police interrogation of the suspect conducted shortly after his arrest. The defendant said that he had last seen his wife at 8:15 on the evening of her death. He had been playing a computer game and she had complained that his chair was making noise. This led to an argument. According to Taylor, his wife had been drinking sherry and scotch, was drunk, and was in a "nasty" mood. (At the time of her death, the victim's blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit of .08 percent.) The next day, when the defendant got up at eight, he heard dogs barking out by the swimming pool. That's when he found his wife floating face-down in the water.

     Jennifer Fury, the defense attorney, did not put the defendant on the stand. Because the prosecution's case was circumstantial, Fury argued that the state had not proven her client's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (The case was being tried before an eight-person jury.)

     The lawyers made their closing arguments on the morning of May 4. 2012. Defense attorney Fury asked to jury to consider Pamela Taylor's death a tragic accident. The intoxicated, older woman had tripped over a garden hose and had fallen, unconscious, into the pool and drowned. The prosecution, the defense attorney said, had no direct evidence proving that Robert Taylor had caused her death.

     Prosecutor Brown presented the death as an intentional homicide motivated by money. After Mrs. Taylor's death, the defendant had received a $180,000 life insurance payout. Two weeks before killing his wife, the defendant had tried to take out another life insurance policy, but the premium check he sent to the insurance company bounced.

     The jury, after deliberating less than three hours, found Robert Taylor guilty of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced the 56-year-old to twenty years in prison.

     While I don't understand the excessive time gap between the drowning and the manner of death ruling, I have no problem with this verdict. I do have concerns about using only eight jurors in a murder trial.

      

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Arthur Morgan III: A Narcissistic, Remorseless Child Killer

     By November 2011, Imani Benton, a 26-year-old resident of Lakehurst, New Jersey, had terminated her relationship with Arthur Morgan III, the father of their two-year-old daughter, Tierra. The couple had fought constantly, and on several occasions had taken each other to court. He continued to deny the breakup even after she returned the engagement ring and the other jewelry he had given her. The two of them had also traded accusations of child abuse. As a result of Benton's domestic complaints, state child protection agents conducted four separate investigations that ended up clearing Morgan of these accusations. As a result, he continued to have access to his daughter.

     On November 15, Morgan's boss at Creative Building Supplies Company in Lakewood, New Jersey fired him.

     On November 21, 2011, just eight hours after he had called Imani Benton a bad mother and a whore, Morgan made arrangements with her to take Tierra to see a movie about dancing penguins. Four hours after Morgan promised to return the toddler, the girl's mother called the police to report Tierra missing.

     Police officers from thirteen New Jersey law enforcement agencies looked for the girl and her missing father. The search came to an end when searchers found Tierra's body in Shark River Park twenty miles north of her Lakehurst home.

     Homicide investigators believed that Arthur Morgan had dropped the girl's car seat, with her strapped into it, fifteen feet into a creek that ran below an overpass. The partially submerged car seat had been weighed down by a car jack. The drowned girl, still wearing her Pink Hello Kitty hat, had landed in three feet of water. (According to the father who did not deny throwing his daughter off the bridge, he heard her scream as he got back into his car.)

     After leaving his daughter to drown in the creek beneath the overpass, Arthur Morgan drove to a friend's house where he had a few drinks. The next day, he boarded a train for San Diego, California.

     At four in the afternoon on November 29, 2011, agents with the U.S. Marshals Service arrested Morgan at a house in San Diego. (He was arrested on a federal unlawful flight to avoid prosecution warrant. These UFAP warrants are dismissed after the fugitive is returned to the local jurisdiction.)

     Back in New Jersey a few days after his apprehension, Morgan faced the charge of first-degree murder. Over the objection of his court-appointed lawyer, the arraignment judge set Morgan's bond at $10 million. Peter J. Warshaw Jr., the Monmouth County prosecutor in charge of the case, said he would seek the maximum penalty of life without parole. (New Jersey abolished the death penalty.)

     The Arthur Morgan child murder trial got underway in a Freehold, New Jersey Superior Court on March 12, 2014. In his opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor Warshaw accused the defendant of killing his daughter simply because he was angry that Imani Benton had ended their relationship. According to the prosecutor, Morgan killed Tierra to get back at his former girlfriend. Mr. Warshaw called the killing a "knowing and purposeful murder" motivated by pride and revenge.

     The public defender told the jurors that her client was merely guilty of reckless manslaughter, a lesser degree of criminal homicide that carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Given the undisputed facts of this case, that would turn out to be a hard sell.

     The murdered girl's mother, Imani Benton, took the stand as the prosecution's star witness. To the jury, Benton read a letter the defendant had sent her from the San Diego jail shortly after his arrest. In that letter, Morgan, in justifying the murder, accused members of Benton's family of abusing Tierra. He referred to their behavior as "heinous and depraved." Morgan also blamed the girl's mother for her death: "You should have come with us to the movie. It would have been so different, I'm sure. That was the plan, to go as a family."

     Regarding the defendant's self-serving letter, Imani Benton testified that, "If I would have gone to the movie, we wouldn't have gone to the movie. We all would be dead."

     One of the defendant's co-workers at the Lakewood lumber yard testified that Morgan had been paid every Tuesday, and by Friday, he was broke. According to Tulio Bazan, the defendant spent a lot of money on clothes. "He showed me the Gucci sunglasses, a Gucci wallet, and the Gucci shoes." Morgan told the witness that the wallet itself cost him $400.

     In mid-April 2014, the jury in Freehold, New Jersey, following a short period of deliberation, found Arthur Morgan guilty as charged.

     Six weeks after the guilty verdict, at his May 28, 2014 sentence hearing, the convicted murderer apologized to Imani Benton for the breakdown of their relationship. (He didn't apologize for killing their daughter.) "I want to say I'm sorry for the deterioration of what I thought was a beautiful friendship between the two of us that blossomed into a daughter. For anybody that was truly affected by this, I hope we can all heal from the situation, knowing that Tierra is in a better place." (In other words, he was the victim in this story.)

     As one might expect from a narcissistic sociopath with a god-complex, the convicted murderer whined about the media coverage of the trial. He said he didn't like newspaper photographs that depicted him as either angry or inappropriately jolly. He informed the court that had he known that reporters would make negative comments about his designer court room attire, he would have dressed more modestly.

     The complaining sociopath also rambled on about how badly his murder victim had been treated by members of Benton's family. He contrasted that behavior to how, before he murdered his daughter out of wounded pride, he had been such an excellent father.

     Judge Anthony Mellaci, Jr., before handing down Morgan's sentence, lamented that New Jersey no longer imposed the death penalty. "You'd be candidate number one for it's imposition," he said. "Your actions were horrific, unthinkable and appalling. This child was alive when she was placed in the water in pitch darkness. She had to suffer the unthinkable action of having water rush in and fill her lungs while strapped into that car seat. This child suffered before she died."

     Judge Mellaci sentenced the remorseless sociopath to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Bobby Wilson Murder Case

     About 6,000 people live in Spanish Fort, Alabama, a Gulf Coast suburb of Mobile on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. In the early morning hours of August 11, 2007, Spanish Fort police officer Steve McGough pulled into Wilson's Service Center for gas and a cup of coffee. When McGough walked into the convenience store he found the owner, Arthur "Bobby" Wilson, slumped over the counter. The officer grabbed hold of the bleeding 71-year-old and helped him onto a chair. Mr. Wilson had been beaten in the head with a blunt object, and robbed. As the officer called in the robbery and assault, the victim made "gurgling sounds," and mumbled incoherently. Four months later, Mr. Wilson died from his head wounds. The victim had been unable to describe or name his assailant. The robbery/assault case had turned into a murder.

     In December 2008, shortly after Bobby Wilson's death, Baldwin County prosecutor Michael Plyant charged Leslie Eric Buzbee with capital murder in the case. Police arrested the 23-year-old and hauled him to the Baldwin County Corrections Center in nearby Bay Minette, Alabama. The murder suspect remained in custody without bail.

     Detectives had learned that days before the robbery/assault, Buzbee, who lived ten minutes from the service station and knew the victim well, had asked Mr. Wilson to cash a check. According to the police theory of the case, when Bobby Wilson refused to cash Buzbee's check, the suspect assaulted him with an aluminum baseball bat the victim kept on the premises. The authorities were convinced that Buzbee, high on cocaine and in desperate need of money, assaulted Mr. Wilson out of anger and the need for cash to support his drug habit.

     Leslie Buzbee's trial got underway on May 4, 2009 in Bay Minette. His attorney, John Beck, exploited the fact the prosecution, without the murder weapon, physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime scene, a confession, or an eyewitness, had an extremely weak, circumstantial case. As it turned out, Attorney Beck was right. Four weeks later, the judge declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach an unanimous verdict.

    Following the hung jury, prosecutor Plyant decided to try again. The second trial, which commenced in August 2009, ended prematurely when the judge declared a mistrial on a procedural issue.

     On August 8, 2009, the Baldwin County prosecutor took a third run at Leslie Buzbee. Without new, incriminating evidence, the third jury to be empaneled in the case, after four hours of deliberation, found the 25-year-old defendant not guilty. Buzbee, having been incarcerated in the Baldwin County Correction Center since December 2008, walked free. (The double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution protects Buzbee, regardless of what new evidence might surface, from being tried a fourth time for Mr. Wilson's murder.)

     Following the not guilty verdict, in response to a reporter's question about whether the authorities would re-open the murder case, prosecutor Plyant said, "The investigation is done because we tried the person we believe did the crime."

     The Wilson murder case, from an investigative point of view, produced a suspect, but didn't feature enough hard evidence to support a conviction. Had Bobby Wilson, before he died, been able to communicate with the police, the outcome of this case might have been different.

     On December 31, 2012, officers with the Mobile Police Department arrested Leslie Eric Buzbee in connection with a series of residential burglaries and thefts from vehicles. Officers found cocaine and drug paraphernalia in his car. At the time of his arrest, Buzbee was the subject of several burglary warrants issued out of Baldwin County. He was back in jail, but not for murder.

     In May 2013, while out on bond for the December 2012 case, Buzbee was charged in Baldwin County with second-degree receiving stolen property. (As of this writing I can find no disposition of these cases on the Internet.) As for Bobby Wilson, no one has been held accountable for his murder.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The William Keitel Murder Case

     William Keitel and his wife Michele were married in 1989. The couple resided a few miles north of Pittsburgh in Ohio Township, Pennsylvania. In October 1996, following a tumultuous marriage and two children--William, 5 and Abbee, 3--William and Michele separated. Shortly after the split, Michele, 35, became engaged to Charles Dunkle, a 34-year-old from nearby Moon Township.

     In the evening of New Year's Day 1998, 45-year-old William Keitel sat in his Mercedes in the parking lot of the Stop 'N Go convenience store on Mount Nebo Road. He and his father, William Keitel senior, were waiting for Michele to arrive with the children pursuant to an a prearranged exchange. As on numerous occasions in the past, Michele had either forgotten about the exchange or was late.

     At nine-thirty that night, after William called the police, Michele, accompanied by the children, her father, and her fiancee, pulled into the convenience store lot.

     As William pulled out of the Stop 'N Go parking lot with his children in the car, Michele saw that he was armed with a handgun. (William had been issued a permit to carry the .38-caliber revolver.) Screaming that he had a gun, Michele ran after the Mercedes as it eased back onto Mount Nebo Road.

     William, realizing that his estranged wife was chasing his car, pulled into a neighboring beer distributorship parking area and climbed out of his vehicle with the gun in his hand. As Michele, her father--Mr. Charles Walker--and Charles Dunkle rushed him, William shot Dunkle in the chest at close range. With Michele on her knees next to Dunkle's body, William placed the barrel of the .38 to her forehead and pulled the trigger. When Mr. Walker tried to disarm William, the father-in-law was shot in the stomach.

     Michele Keitel and Charles Dunkle died on the beer distributorship's parking lot. Charles Walker survived his bullet wound. The Keitel children witnessed the mayhem a few feet away from their father's car.

     Charged with first-degree murder of Michele Keitel, third-degree murder of Charles Dunkle, and the aggravated assault of Charles Walker, William Keitel went on trial in Pittsburgh in October, 1998. His attorney, William Diffenderfer, presented a case of self defense that included putting his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. Allegheny County prosecutor Edward Borowski, in the murder of Michele Keitel, sought the death penalty.

     The jury, following the one-month trial, found William Keitel guilty as charged. The jurors, however, rejected the death sentence by an eight to four vote. In January 1999, Common Pleas Judge Jeffery A. Manning sentenced Keitel to life in prison without parole. Three months later, prison administrators assigned him to the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale located in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.

     In 2010, William Keitel's 18-year-son, a high school senior, died when his car collided with a telephone pole.

     At one in the afternoon of August 2, 2013, after returning to his cell following a work assignment, William Keitel's 43-year-old cellmate beat him severely. The 59-year-old convicted murderer was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Altoona, Pennsylvania where, nine days later, he died from the beating.

     The federal appeal of William Keitel's conviction and sentence pending before the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia died along with him. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Peter Lizon: The Husband From Hell

     Peter Lizon, a 37-year-old native of the Czech Republic, lived with his wife Stephanie and their one-year-old son along a rural road in Leroy, West Virginia not far from Charleston in the western part of the state. The front yard to the rundown house featured a pair of signs that read: "No Trespassing," and "Guard Dog on Duty." The couple raised chickens and goats.

     On June 18, 2012, 43-year-old Stephanie and her husband were in Parkersburg, West Virginia about 50 miles south of Leroy. Peter had come to town to return a rototiller he had rented from the Bosley Rental & Supply Company. After Peter returned the item, Stephanie came back to the store alone. Walking with a pronounced limp, she said she wanted to get away from her husband, and asked if she could hide in the building until he left town. She did not want anyone in the store to call the police.

     When she came out of hiding, an employee of the rental store gave Stephanie the address of a local domestic violence shelter, and money for cab fare. Again, the obviously battered woman asked that no one call the authorities.

        At the domestic violence shelter, Stephanie, using a false name, informed her hosts that her husband had kept her in chains for ten years during which time he tortured her with hot clothing irons and frying pans. He had hobbled her by smashing her feet with a hay bailer, and periodically stomped her feet to keep them mutilated and swollen. With her ankles in shackles, she had given birth to a fully developed stillborn child whose corpse had been buried on their property. Her one-year-old son had been born at home with her in shackles. The child had never been seen by a physician.

     An employee of the shelter took 45 photographs of Stephanie's scars and bruises that included burns on her back and breasts. After being examined in the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital, the women at the shelter purchased Stephanie a bus ticket to her parent's home in Alexandria, Virginia. She refused the ticket because she didn't want to abandon her son who was home with his father. Someone at the shelter called the Jackson County Sheriff's Office.

     On July 5, after sheriff's deputies searched the house in Leroy, and seized, among other things, a Sunbeam iron, they arrested Peter Lizon on the charge of malicious wounding. Incarcerated in the South Central Regional Jail under $300,000 bond, Lizon denied physically abusing his wife.

     Lizon's attorney, Shawn Bayliss, told local reporters that the allegations against his client were the "fabrications of a fertile imagination or a feeble mind, one of two." The attorney (I presume court appointed) didn't stop there. "My client's spouse," he said, "has never even filed a petition seeking a domestic violence protection order. She would say, and he [Peter Lizon] would agree, domestic violence has not been part of his history." Attorney Bayliss, advertising himself as the man to see if your wife accuses you of assault, in explaining away the evidence of abuse on Stephanie Lizon's body, said, "But in the most common terms, not every injury is intentional. Not every bruise is the result of some violent act. The point of all that is, don't rush to judgement until you know all the facts." The attorney's remarks infuriated domestic violence protection advocates who worried that such statements discouraged battered women from coming forward.

     On the morning of Friday, July 13, 2012, Peter Lizon appeared in the Jackson County Magistrate Court in Ripley, West Virginia for his preliminary hearing. He sat at the defense table with two attorneys. An obviously frightened Stephanie Lizon took the stand, and in response to prosecutor Katie Castro's questions, denied that her husband had physically abused her. She explained checking into the domestic violence center under a false name as simply a ploy to avoid arguing with her husband that day in front of their one-year-old son. When asked how she had acquired the burn scars on her back and breasts, the witness said they were the result of accidents. And what about her swollen and mutilated feet? And the shackle scars on her ankles? Were these from accidents as well? Yes, answered the witness.

     Following the testimony of witnesses from the rental store and the domestic violence shelter, and the introduction of the 45 photographs depicting Stephanie's scars and bruises, the magistrate bound the case over for trial. Jackson County prosecutor Katie Castro would have to make her case through third-party witnesses, and the physical evidence of abuse.

     Craig Tatterson, the special prosecutor in the case, in August 2012, moved to have the charges against Peter Lizon dropped. According to Tatterson, because the statements made to the women at the Family Crisis Center are hearsay and could not be used in court, there was not enough evidence for the state to go forward with the case. In October 2012, a grand jury sitting in Jackson County refused to indict Peter Lizon. The local prosecutor decided not to present the case again and dropped all charges.