Hope Schreiner’s appeal of her conviction for the murder of her husband was rejected by the Vermont Supreme Court in December, 2007.
However, if I had been on the jury in the original trial, I would have held out for “not guilty because of reasonable doubt.”
A brief summary of the case: Hope Schreiner was accused of drugging her husband one morning, then leaving the house to play tennis and run errands. When she returned, he was “still alive” and standing outside the house. She picked something up and bludgeoned him to death. An hour or so supposedly passed before she called 911.
I found the prosecution case to be weak in terms of circumstantial evidence, and I don’t like the sort of “direct evidence” used against her (namely, confessions to people who were not law enforcement officials). Why? Well, because law-enforcement officers are trained to elicit and evaluate guilty statements, but neighbors are not. And even the cops sometimes elicit false confessions.
However, the basis of the appeal seems to have been a convict’s accusation of someone else. But I can’t believe that should be sufficient cause to overturn a jury’s decision. That, of course, is ridiculous. I’m sure the Vermont Supreme Court did what was legally correct. Unfortunately, it means Ms. Schreiner will die in prison unless someone else confesses.
What particularly bothered me about the prosecution’s case during the trial was the lack of evidence of time of death. As I recall (perhaps imperfectly), the coroner never took the liver temperature. The body had lain outside in the sun for several hours before it was moved to the morgue. The coroner who went to the scene of the crime claimed the body was warm, indicating recent death, but the coroner’s report didn’t take into account an ambulance driver’s claim he had to crack the victim’s jaw to try to resuscitate him (indicating the beginning of rigor mortis at least an hour before the coroner arrived).
In lieu of a better assessment of the time of death I would have said that the jury should have viewed the evidence in the light most favorable for the defendant, and I would have said Ms. Schreiner’s alibi covered the range of time when the victim could have died.
Furthermore, all her so-called confessions sounded to me either like false confessions or confused “excited utterances.”
One witness, for example, heard Ms. Schreiner say something about finding her husband alive and using a bag. What this has to do with murder, I can’t imagine. The prosecution spun the words (perhaps misheard or misremembered by the witness) to mean that the defendant had put a bag over her victim’s head to smother him, even though the coroner found no evidence of asphyxiation. (I swear—they thought it highly ominous that a bag had blood in it—the scene was bloody.)
Then, too, the police never found the murder weapon. Without knowing what it was, how could a juror say conclusively that Ms. Schreiner had the opportunity or the physical capacity to inflict the wounds?
I also would have discounted the so-called confessions. People make false confessions all the time. The witnesses against Ms. Schreiner were very peculiar: her supposed lover, her daughter, so-called friends, and a landscaper who claimed he was sure the weapon had been a “potato hoe.” A potato hoe? I assume this has a long handle. How could anyone knock a man to the ground with a long-handled tool and then bludgeon him to death with it?
The case also seemed needlessly confusing: there was evidence of a heavy dose of drugs in the blood but that was not the cause of death. The cops found a bloody bag, but its use had nothing to do with the cause of death. The cause of death was trauma to the head, but the cops never found the murder weapon.
There was a “dog that didn’t bark,” too. Hope Schreiner’s son. Why didn’t he testify in her favor? Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Well, it makes a fiction writer speculate, in any case. My novel VERDICT DEJA VU speculates about a case rather like this—and rather like the Raynella Dossett-Leath case, too.