Trooper Higbee Trial: When a “Perfect Storm” forms around the dead

Watching the defense cross-examination of an expert witness yesterday in the trial of NJ State Trooper Robert Higbee I glimpsed a bit of the build-up to the perfect storm surrounding the car wreck that killed two bright, beautiful young women and led to Higbee’s indictment for vehicular homicide.

  • Sidebar: Defense attorney Subin is very smart. He’s an excellent cross-examiner. Early in the trial one TruTV commentator suggested he wasn’t really competent because of a question he asked about the difference between a muskrat and a possum. But Mr. Subin has more than proved to me that he’s “clever like a fox”.”

Yesterday Attorney Subin called into question the expert’s motives for testifying as he did for the prosecution. (I know that’s what all defense cross-examinations are intended to do, but Mr. Subin did it particularly well.) Subin elicited an admission from the witness that he had actually solicited the gig. This struck me as very telling, not so much of the witness (although I imagine the jury saw it that way) as of the way a traffic accident evolves into a nationally broadcast criminal trial.

It seems to me that most nationally covered murder trials (at least the ones that don’t involve celebrities—just ordinary folks) become centers of perfect storms exactly in the way a nor’easter turned into Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm.

The Scenario (as I understand it—and I could be very wrong)

One beautiful autumn night in September 2006 two young women went out to buy milk for their grandparents’ breakfast. One was 19, a licensed driver. The other was a 17-year-old student driver who was only permitted to drive under the supervision of someone at least 21 years old. (Caveat: I am not in any way suggesting the victims should be blamed. Absolutely not. I’m only pointing out how trivial circumstances often lead to a perfect storm.)

Apparently while returning from the store via Stagecoach Road, the passenger failed to secure her seatbelt.

Simultaneously, a high-school student realized he was out after his family’s curfew. He sped home on Tuckahoe Road toward the intersection with Stagecoach Road. Unfortunately, he passed a state patrol car heading in the opposite direction on Tuckahoe Road. Go figure. What are the odds? (It was dark. The patrol car did not have its warning lights on. It was just another coincidence: it’s why the teenager didn’t recognize the patrol car until it was too late to slow down.)

The patrol car was driven by an experienced, trusted officer named Robert Higbee, who promptly followed police procedures to verify that the teenager’s car was exceeding the speed limit. He made a “K-turn” on Tuckahoe and put the pedal to the metal to “close the gap” with the speeding vehicle.

Knowing he was being clocked, the teenager foolishly (as almost all teenagers behave) sped up to try to outrun the patrol car: a simple lapse in judgment that would change his life and leave him forever burdened with a huge sense of guilt.

At the intersection of Tuckahoe and Stagecoach, the teenager tapped his brakes. The trooper saw his brake lights flicker. The teenager must not have encountered heavy traffic on the cross-street, however, because he apparently gunned it and moved quickly through the intersection.

Simultaneously, a father and son in a white van were traveling toward the same intersection and toward the speeder. But a possum just happened to cross Tuckahoe Road at the instant the speeder (using only his fog lights, not his headlights) encountered them. They must have seen the possum’s glowing yellow eyes and caught its pale, hairy body in their headlights. The father and son looked at the ugly critter and completely missed the vehicle speeding past them in the opposite direction. They thought it was a muskrat, but muskrats aren’t native to New Jersey, I don’t think. It was an odd sight, in any case, and caused them to comment about it.

The trooper had clocked the speeder on his radar at somewhere around 65 mph. To close the gap, he had to exceed 65 mph and appears to have reached almost 80 mph when he saw he was approaching an intersection. He stopped accelerating and began tapping his brakes—as any experienced driver would do to avoid skidding and losing control.

By another odd coincidence, Tuckahoe Road was wider and more heavily traveled where the trooper was than it was past the intersection, which the father and son were then approaching. And the trooper had just moments before turned off Stagecoach Road onto it, without having to stop at a stop sign, because there are no stop signs on Stagecoach at that intersection. So, not having stopped at the intersection, the trooper appears to have mistaken its nature as a two-way stop. Or it may have been that during the K-turn he missed seeing the warning sign on Tuckahoe about an impending stop. Or it may have been that the warning sign had been obscured by the speeder’s car as they passed each other. In any case, by the time the trooper saw the stop sign it was too late to stop.

And just at that exact instant, the van in which the two young women were driving entered the intersection.

The father and son were at that instant stopped at the stop sign, facing the intersection and the approaching patrol car. They didn’t see the girls’ white van until after it was hit by the patrol car.

The trooper, though, must have seen the girls’ white van just a split second before he entered the intersection, because black-box data shows a brief attempt to accelerate past the intersection to avoid the collision.

Were the girls speeding a bit? Who knows. It might explain why the father and son didn’t see their headlights approaching the intersection. Or maybe the men were simply still distracted by the possum and by the rapidly approaching headlights of the patrol car, which they could tell wasn’t prepared to stop at the stop sign.

Would a more-experienced van driver than a student driver have slowed slightly at a dangerous intersection near her home? Would a more-experienced driver have known how to swerve or brake effectively? I don’t know. But it’s possible that a more-experienced driver would have been injured rather than killed in the crash.

The impact was great. The girls’ van was spun around. By the odd circumstance that the passenger wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, she became a projectile of sorts, forcing the driver’s upper body, as well as her own, through the open driver-side window—open no doubt because it was a beautiful, early autumn night. They had no chance to survive the impact.

An Accident Becomes A Crime

Why was it that Trooper Higbee was charged with reckless homicide in this case? That’s the real question. What made this tragic accident into a nationally broadcast murder trial?

Yesterday, the cross-examination of the expert witness gave me a clue to the way some perfect legal storms form.

As I understand the testimony, the trooper was driving a 2005 model Ford Crown Victoria, which just coincidentally happened to be the first model patrol car equipped with a drive-train black box to track speed and braking during collisions. If the Wall Police Blotter (which claims to oppose police corruption) is correct, it appears that this fact was discovered only after the trooper’s attorney sought an injunction for the data from the “restraint module” that records whether or not seat belts were being used. Yet another odd circumstance.

Apparently, Ford’s attorneys put Mr. Subin in touch with Ford engineers, including two engineers involved in testing and evaluating the new black-box technology. I believe one of the engineers was the expert-witness who testified for the prosecution yesterday. In any case, somehow (through discovery perhaps) the black box became state’s evidence, not defense evidence.

In addition, at some point the two engineers also conducted tests on the Ford Crown Victoria’s braking distance. I’m just speculating, but I wonder if their braking study wasn’t what attracted defense-attorney Subin to them in the first place. (Perhaps we’ll hear more about this braking study in the defense case, although Mr. Subin said yesterday that the engineers did not study the exact model of Ford Crown Victoria the trooper was driving that fatal night.)

Subsequently the expert witness resigned from Ford to go into business as a consultant on black-box data—just one of those odd things that happen all the time. Then, in early 2007 when Trooper Higbee was arraigned, apparently one Ford engineer was disqualified for some reason from serving as an expert witness in the trial. So, the expert witness contacted the prosecutor and offered his services, as a newly available independent consultant.

In other words, another domino in the chain fell—because this new consultant was hungry for work he became an expert witness in the trooper’s trial. And because he was new in the field, his expert credentials were a bit shaky and his experience testifying before a criminal jury was scanty. And he made the mistake of seemingly supporting the prosecution’s view of the black-box data, rather than supporting his own findings.

This sequence of events is probably typical of the perfect-storm series of events that led to the trial. The first domino in the chain, I imagine, was the family’s anguish and anger over their daughters’ deaths, which eventually swirled into yet-another victims’ rights campaign. When the public identifies innocent victims like these, the public wants a guilty party—in this case the trooper who was performing his duty, not the speeder who initiated the trooper’s high-speed “closing of the gap,” because the speeder was nothing but a typical teenage boy, but the trooper was a trooper.

Then, too, the accident came after years of complaints about the risks of high-speed chases throughout the nation—not to mention incidents of racial profiling by NJ state police.

But the gasoline on the embers in this case is clearly the media. If TruTV hadn’t decided to televise the trial gavel-to-gavel and CNN hadn’t decided to provide a daily live feed via the Internet from the courtroom, I would never have heard of this case. So, how did CNN’s TruTV senior vice-president and producer, Tim Sullivan, happen to hear about this case? Was he simply surfing the net on the prowl for a good story? Or did someone in Cape May, NJ, contact him? And if so, who? And why?

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Trooper Higbee is a classic case of “wrong place at the wrong time.” And I honestly hope he’s acquitted.

But Trooper Higbee isn’t the first person to be caught up in a perfect storm. Remember Dr. Sam Sheppard—the original fugitive? He was convicted and only released from prison years after his conviction because of a Supreme Court ruling concerning adverse publicity surrounding the trial.

How can you explain the publicity over a non-entity like Casey Anthony except with a perfect-storm scenario? The media are holding the spotlight to her. I can only guess that some reporter in Orlando first caught wind of the story and brought it to national attention as a career move. Ms. Anthony is young, white, and attractive—a perfect “eye of a storm.”

The only reason Stacy Peterson’s disappearance became national news was that it occurred only shortly after a jogger named Alma Mendez went missing and then was found dead in a forest preserve in the Chicago suburbs near the Petersons’ home. And all this came after Lisa Stebic disappeared from her home not far from the Petersons earlier that year. Media “journalists” were already swarming around the Chicago suburbs and stumbled across the missing woman case.

It was the perfect set-up for another perfect storm: an arrogant suburban husband who just happened to be a cop with a beautiful, young, missing wife.


Blatant Book Promotion: Free Murderous Reads

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They are short stories. That means they’re short enough to read on a cell phone or Blackberry.

Eight Suspicious Deaths, Bizarre Murders, Strange Murderers—almost all with a touch of hope in the end:

  • One murder by mastiff
  • One murder by wine
  • One murder by icicle
  • One madwoman sold to a traveling, railroad brothel in the Old West
  • One pre-DNA blood-factor whodunit
  • Two near-perfect murders by someone who knows forensics
  • One murder by nightmare

Hope Schreiner Verdict and Appeal

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.

Phil Spector, Lana Clarkson, Angie Zapata, and Allen Andrade

“Dr. BLT”’s comment on the Phil Spector verdict reminded me of something that crossed my mind during the first trial. To put it simply, I wondered why Spector wasn’t charged with a hate crime. Now, in Colorado a man named Allen Andrade is on trial for the hate-crime murder of a transgender person named Angie Zapata (currently being covered on TruTV).

First, let me remind you that I know nothing about either of these cases that I didn’t see or hear in the media. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a very opinionated former juror.

During the first Spector trial, I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms. Clarkson might be lesbian. The idea put a slightly different spin on the events of the night that ended in Ms. Clarkson’s murder. Remember, she mistook Mr. Spector for a woman and had to be told who he was and what gender he was. Second, she was quite tall, taller than Spector—statuesque enough to have played the “Barbarian Queen” and (suggestively) a small part in “Little Man on Campus” (2000). To me it was clear that Spector was humiliated by the incident and probably invited Ms. Clarkson home with him to make sure she understood how greatly she had mistaken his manliness. So, if she was not the sort of woman who was inclined to try to “sleep her way to the top,” what if Spector was doubly infuriated that night when she refused his advances? What if she told him she preferred women?

If so, it seems to me the prosecution could have charged Spector with a hate crime, as well as second-degree murder. Furthermore, it seems to me Ms. Clarkson’s sexual orientation might have been used effectively by the prosecution as a strong indicator that a homicide occurred, not a suicide. Under those circumstances it would have been clear that Spector was the person who felt wounded and angry at life that night, not Ms. Clarkson.

The question of Ms. Clarkson’s sexual orientation aside, I am torn about the whole hate-crime issue. My biggest concern is that women are never  included in the groups that deserve the special protection of hate-crime legislation. But frankly most rape-murders are nothing if they aren’t hate crimes against females. And in the Spector case, it was always clear to me that Phil Spector hates women.

For that reason, the Andrade trial seems a bit odd as a hate-crime trial to me. If Angie Zapata weren’t biologically a male, she wouldn’t have been protected by the Colorado hate-crime law.

Blood on Sheets: The Juror Investigates

In the Dossett-Leath trial, forensics expert Celia Hartnett testified about blood stains on a pillowcase. Briefly, the essence of the trial is whether a Tennessee man committed suicide with his head lying on his pillow or his wife murdered him while he was sitting up in bed.

Ms. Hartnett testified that her lab received a blood-soaked pillowcase, but crime-scene photos show the pillowcase fairly unstained except with blood spatter, indicating the victim’s head was lying on it when the fatal shot was fired.

I have many questions about how forensic scientists examine blood stains. Earlier I posted a list of abuses of science in court, and abuses numbers 11 and 12 are blood spatter and blood transfer analysis. In the Dossett-Leath case I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t x-ray the pillowcase to reveal the blood spatter stains beneath the second layer of soaked-in blood. Scientists have examined textiles with x-rays for decades (the Shroud of Turin, for example). Art historians routinely x-ray old oil paintings (dry oil and pigment on canvas) to find layers of paint and to reveal the underlying sketches or over-painted, older images (recently a supposed portrait of William Shakespeare was x-rayed).

Frankly, as much as I admired the way Ms. Harnett testified in the Dossett-Leath trial, her failure to x-ray the pillowcase makes me wonder if the underlying blood-spatter stains were truly exculpatory of the defendant. Alternatively, perhaps it’s just another case of the fuzzy junk science involved in blood-spatter analysis.

Another question I have about the analysis of blood on textiles has to do with how much of the textile is subjected to analysis. It has always seemed to me that if blood stains were large, only a small percentage of the blood would be analyzed for blood type and/or DNA. Without some sort of systematic, thorough, spot-analysis technique, it seems that a second person’s blood could be overlooked. The O.J. Simpson murder trial is an example: the blood stains around the bodies of the two victims were huge. While the investigators identified mixtures of blood, I have always wondered whether they actually found all the types of blood present.

(I speculate about this in my story, “The Odds of Death,” in THE EVIL THAT MEN DO [Light Pages, LLC, 2008]. BTW: This is “Read an E-Book Week,” and for the rest of the week this short-story collection is available, free, from Please download a copy. Fans of forensics may enjoy not only “The Odds of Death,” but also the final three short stories, two of which are satires of criminals who try to outsmart forensics and of forensic experts who think they know it all.)

The Final Bullet: Dossett-Leath Trial

Well, it just goes to show you: you can’t rely on snippets of a trial to reach a conclusion about it. In the Dossett-Leath trial I had not heard until today the facts about the “final bullet.” Now I’m very puzzled indeed.

Prosecution expert, Donald Carmen, testified that the revolver used to kill the victim was loaded with two different types of bullets (identifiable only by the casings?). The fatal bullet had one type of casing, but the casing found in the “twelve o’clock” position in the chamber was of a different type. Based on this, Carmen argued that a bullet fired into the mattress was the final shot fired, not the bullet that killed him. If so, the death could not have been suicide.

Defense expert, Celia Hartnett, testified that in her opinion the bullet in the mattress was the first bullet fired. But I did not hear an explanation from her of the bullet casings.

Why wasn’t the issue of matching the bullets with the casings raised at trial? I know it’s possible to match a bullet with the tool marks on the inside of a gun barrel, that is, that they can match bullets and casings with guns. But can they match casings with bullets? If so, did the crime lab match the bullets in the Dossett-Leath case with the casings found in the gun?

It sounds to me as if the forensic investigators relied on the position of the casings in the gun chamber to decide the order in which the bullets were fired. But unless they can match the casings with the bullets, it doesn’t mean a thing.

Or what am I missing? I will definitely have to research this issue. It makes for a great fictional plot.

Suspicious Laundry or Just Dirty?: Dossett-Leath Trial

This morning Beth Karas of CNN made a fascinating comment about the Dossett-Leath case: an investigator noted that a clothes drier was running when he arrived at the scene of the crime.

Ms. Karas points out that most drier cycles last only an hour or so. If a drier was running shortly after Ms. Dossett-Leath called 911, the question is when it was started. The defendant claims to have been away from the house from 9:00 a.m. to about 11:20 a.m. The only innocent explanations would be either that the drier had a very long cycle (or a timer?) or that the defendant started the drier as soon as she got home and before she found the body. Unfortunately, the investigator failed to ask about this (maybe it takes a woman to wonder about clothes driers).

What interests me is how often washers and driers filled with laundry are found at the scenes of crimes. If I remember correctly, investigators found a washer filled with damp clothes at O.J. Simpson’s home on the night of his ex-wife’s murder. They found the same thing at Scott Peterson’s on the night his wife disappeared. They found the same thing in Hope Schreiner’s home after she reported finding her husband bludgeoned to death.

The implication is that killers know enough these days to wash the bloody clothes they wore when they committed their crimes. (No one, apparently, believes that some people wash their clothes frequently.)

In the Dossett-Leath investigation, the cops tested the washing machine for blood but not the drier or its contents. This, of course, was an oversight. But I wonder what value such evidence would really be. I believe that laundry products, such as OxyClean, destroy blood. (Enzymes destroy blood.) Melanie McGuire  was convicted of sawing her husband’s body up in a bathroom where no blood was found, presumably because—as a nurse—she knew how to get rid of blood.

In most domestic violence cases, trace evidence on clothing can easily be explained—it isn’t suspicious. At best, laundry is merely suggestive: it might suggest an unexplained change of clothes, for instance. Or something totally unexpected might be found in the laundry, like leather gloves.

But, in the Simpson, Peterson, and Schreiner cases, the discovery of clean laundry hardly “aired any dirty laundry” in my opinion. On the other hand, the running drier in the Dossett-Leath case cries out for an explanation, given that the defense relies heavily on an alibi.

Is this another situation in which the courts expect jurors to use their common sense? Or if the jurors hold this against the defendant, would it be considered to be a case of wild speculation?

Many followers of this blog seem interested in what to wear to jury duty. I wonder if I should write a post about what to wear when you discover a body.

Jury Request in Dossett-Leath Trial

According to CNN’s Lisa Bloom and Beth Karas, yesterday the jury in the Raynella Dossett-Leath trial asked to hear the 911 call in which the defendant hysterically asked for help to be sent to the scene.

This suggests to me that at least one juror has bought into the prosecution’s assertion that the defendant ought to have had blood on her whether or not she was innocent. As a nurse, they claim, when she found the body she instinctively (and by training?) would have gone to her husband’s assistance and possibly even held him close to her. Instead of being an exculpatory fact, the lack of blood on her clothing is being used against the defendant.

Earlier, I said that jury questions during the testimony had convinced me that at least one juror had already convicted the defendant. This 911 tape request reinforces my belief that the best outcome the defense can expect is a hung jury.

When the 911 tape was first played in court, I noted that it sounded as if Ms. Dossett-Leath was calling for help for her husband. This struck me as odd: surely even a non-medical person would have known a man lying with open eyes and a bullet hole in his forehead was past help. Of course, she might have been calling for help for herself. It’s hard to tell. The tape isn’t clear.

I dislike the way the courts (lawyers and judges) make blanket statements about the way a person should behave in a crisis. I’ve been through crises—I know how people react: people react in unique ways. Everyone is different. We are all unique. For example, the first responder found the defendant lying face down and silent on the lawn (if I heard correctly). But as soon as he or she touched Ms. Dossett-Leath she began to wail. The prosecution thought this suspicious, too. But I can assure you that someone who learns of the death of a loved one goes through a rollercoaster of emotions: it is very stupid to think you can tell how a person feels during such times by the way she is behaving.

This is why I’m addicted to courtroom drama: as a writer, I try to observe human nature closely. I want to depict people as we really are, not as TV commentators stereotype us and not as we are reduced by psychologists to “personality types.” The Dossett-Leath case is a rich and complex human tragedy.

The request for the 911 tape, tells me that a few jurors are buying into the prosecution’s arguments Personally, I found much of the state’s closing argument offensive—reminiscent of a witch hunt, literally. Court is no place to call upon Satan. (Is this an appellate issue? Can the State of Tennessee tell a jury to send a defendant to Hell?)

The Jury Questions the Witness: Dossett-Leath Trial

The trial of nurse Raynella Dossett-Leath is addicting. Today the jury questioned one of the investigating officers and, again, they asked “what inquiring minds want to know” (as opposed to what the lawyers want them to know). A CNN Open Court commentator acknowledged what I suggested yesterday, namely, that jury questions give the lawyers “a clue” as to what they’re thinking.

One question had to do with whether the victim was right or left handed. The answer was that the officer “had heard” he was right handed (a rather vague response, IMHO). Then the CNN commentators opined that a right-handed man would not have shot himself over the left eye. Huh?

How many mysteries you’ve read hinge on which side of the body stab wounds appeared in and whether the assailant was attacking from the front or rear—thus proving to the Sherlocks that the killer was either right or left handed?

I’ve read so many that it seems like a cliché to me: if the wounds are on the left side of the body and the assailant was in front of the victim, then the assailant was probably right handed.

So, a man who holds a gun up in front of his face is going to angle the barrel toward the left side if he’s right handed. (Of course, the trajectory of the bullet has to match this theory, too.)

PS: I suspect that at least one juror has already condemned the defendant. Yesterday someone asked if the drugs (found in the tissue during the autopsy) could be put in food and not be tasted—in other words, could the defendant have spiked her husband’s scrambled eggs? Today someone asked if gunshot residue would be present on someone’s hands if they were wearing gloves—in other words, just because the defendant had no GSR on her doesn’t mean she’s necessarily innocent. Since most of the Open Court commentators already think she’s guilty and at least one juror seems to, too, I think the defense has an uphill battle. (And I can’t imagine that a jury in a rural community would not be aware this defendant is also under indictment for another crime.) The defense  lawyer is going to have to put on a stunning case and then a closing argument as eloquent as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He’s going to have to show that the drugs came from somewhere other than the hospital where the defendant worked. He’s going to have to demonstrate that whatever the victim ate for breakfast could not mask the taste of the drugs. More difficult is the issue of “no gloves were found.” He’s been trying to convince the jury that the police investigation was sloppy and incomplete; how is he going to suggest that it was at least thorough enough to have found GSR-covered gloves if they existed?

A Real Courtroom Drama and No One Seems to Care but Us Mystery Mavens

Raynella Dossett-Leath is on trial in an upscale area of rural Tennessee, but it’s far from high-profile, even on CNN (try to find a video clip). As a mystery writer, I find this trial particularly intriguing. It has all the characteristics of a classic murder mystery and potentially of a classic courtroom drama, too. The defendant is an attractive, older widow and professional nurse. Her attorney is a passionate, folksy Southern gentleman. The defendant’s step-daughter to me appears to be out for revenge (which is understandable if her father was murdered), and possibly for more (a multi-million-dollar estate). And the jury isn’t supposed to know it but the defendant is under indictment for killing her first husband, too, and also has an arrest record for attempted murder with a firearm.

But the jury isn’t supposed to surf the web, and unfortunately (as we all know) many jurors do.

The defense opening statement hinted at plenty of reasonable doubt and at least two alternative theories of the crime: suicide and murder for hire. If I were a mystery writer I could weave a classic mystery from this material. Oh, that’s right! I am.

(Older women make fascinating mystery characters. They turn stereotypes upside down. Some people find them inherently sympathetic, others despise them. In my forthcoming novel, The Juror Investigates: Verdict, Déjà Vu [Light Pages, LLC] a “well-preserved” Cuban grandmother is accused of murdering her husband by puncturing his skull with an unknown blunt instrument. The juror who hangs the jury in the woman’s trial is forced to pursue the truth after the judge declares a mistrial. She is “Miss T. Iris Ginge,” who is featured in “The Odds of Death” [see The Evil That Men Do])

Speaking of stereotypes, defense attorneys have a particularly difficult task in adjusting their rhetoric to accommodate a defendant like Nurse Dossett-Leath. Nurses haven’t always fared well in the public imagination (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). And jurors don’t expect to see a well-groomed, gray-haired, attractive woman sitting in the defendant’s chair.