Ford

Deadly crimes, seeds of doubt

Editorial Page EditorDecember 11, 2011 

Did DeMario Atwater do it? He pleaded guilty in the vicious murder of Eve Carson and is serving life in federal prison. Yep, he did it.

Did Michael Peterson do it? His lawyer, seeking a new trial after Peterson's conviction in what appeared to be the staircase slaying of his wife, hopes to raise enough doubt to set Peterson free. A death sentence was never in the cards.

Did Laurence Lovette do it? He's now on trial in connection with the Carson slaying. There's a mounting pile of evidence that Lovette took part in the crime. But because of his youth at the time of the murder, a conviction will not mean death row.

Brad Cooper? The Cary wife-killer pleaded not guilty, but the jury didn't buy it. He's sitting in Central Prison, doing life.

Down macabre memory lane: Remember William Boychuk, who threw his wife from a Cary Parkway bridge on a foggy 1995 New Year's Eve? He's chilling his way through a life sentence over at Nash Correctional, also Peterson's home of late.

Speaking of memories, Jeffrey MacDonald, the onetime Army doctor, is still trying to shake murder convictions in the "Fatal Vision" slayings of his wife and two young daughters at Fort Bragg way back in groovy 1970. The hippies did it, MacDonald claims, while his life sentence takes on new meaning with each passing year.

Alan Gell - no messing around there. He killed a man in the Bertie County town of Aulander, the jury found, and would die for the crime. Only problem was that Gell had been railroaded by prosecutors who withheld key evidence that he couldn't have been the culprit. He got off death row and out of prison, and not feet first. (Oops, he's back in the clink on an indecent liberties rap, proving nothing except that he's neither killer nor angel.)

We'll close our little survey by calling the name of Timothy Hennis, as brought to mind in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Yes, Hennis' saga got the full New Yorker treatment, in an article for the Nov. 14 edition that takes up 11 pages. It begins with a full-page color reproduction of a booking photo from the City County Bureau of Identification in Fayetteville.

Hennis, then a Fort Bragg sergeant, was boyish looking at the time of his arrest. But then it dawns on you how big he is: The height scale behind him shows him at 77 inches - a hulking blonde dude convicted in the gruesome 1985 murders of Katie Eastburn and two young daughters.

There are six people on the U.S. military's death row, at the Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Hennis is one of them. That gives him a ghoulish claim to fame, for this is his death row No. 2.

Hennis initially was found guilty by a Cumberland County jury - three counts of murder, one count of raping Katie Eastburn. (He had made contact with Eastburn, whose Air Force pilot husband was away on a training mission, when he answered an ad about a dog the Eastburns wanted to give away.) Soon he was a resident of death row at Central Prison.

There had been evidence appearing to point toward Hennis, but prosecutors overplayed their hand in the use of graphic photos, or so the state Supreme Court ruled in awarding him a new trial. The second time around, in 1989, his lawyers undermined the state's case so thoroughly that he was acquitted.

Hennis re-enlisted and finished out a 23-year Army career in good standing. After his retirement he and his family settled near Fort Lewis, Wash. But the good life came to a crashing, shocking halt.

A Cumberland County investigator learned that samples taken from Eastburn's body had not been tested for DNA, a procedure that was not well developed in the mid-1980s. In 2005 he had the samples sent to the SBI crime lab. The match came back: Hennis, to an utter certainty.

The New Yorker piece, by Nicholas Schmidle, doesn't fail to note that our valiant SBI lab was found to have misreported or withheld blood evidence in ways advantageous to prosecutors.

Could those DNA results have been similarly twisted by people frustrated that Hennis had gone free? Or could the DNA findings have reflected an instance of consenting adults doing what adults sometimes do? Not that Hennis used that excuse when the Army recalled him to active duty, court-martialed him, convicted him and sent him to Leavenworth for execution.

The magazine piece raises the issue of double jeopardy, which is complicated by Hennis' military status. But the issue that conspicuously sifts out after those 11 pages involves the accuracy and significance of the DNA findings - in the context of an SBI whose credibility took a serious hit, and of further disclosures about the tactics of prosecutors who can't stand to lose.

We understandably want harsh punishment for those who commit hideous crimes, but death is by no means the default sentence (see Atwater, Boychuk, MacDonald et al.), not should it be.

That arbitrariness, along with the chance of wrongful conviction, is a strong reason why the church-connected folks who now are trying to focus support for taking North Carolina's death penalty finally off the books have the inside track on justice.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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