The exoneration of Tim Masters

Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters

Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters

I first learned about the book Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Tim Masters while writing about Tim’s case in the beginning of the week. I knew as soon as I saw a book had been written about the case that I had to read it. I bought the Kindle edition on and finished it in a couple of days (which is fast for me since I have two young kids and a job).

I want to talk about the book because it is well written, disturbing, and the best detailing of a wrongful conviction I have ever read. A close second is Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt – a book that examines the conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley for the murders of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Tim’s book is powerful for many reasons. The book is written in the first person. Tim begins his story by describing the beginning of his day on February 11th of 1987. He was in the tenth grade and lived in a trailer with his father in Fort Collins, Colorado. The day began like any other, but soon marked the beginning of a nightmare that would ultimately result in Tim’s wrongful conviction, his incarceration at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility (known to many as “Bueny”), and his exoneration by the attorney general’s office in 2011.

Though Tim was 15 when the body of 37 year-old Peggy Hettrick was found in a field near his home, he was not arrested and charged for the murder until 1998. By the time of his arrest for the murder, Tim had served in the Navy and had earned an honorable discharge in 1997. His father had died just two years earlier from a massive heart attack.

The pursuit of a conviction against Tim is one of the more unnerving aspects of the book. One detective in particular, Jim Broderick, stood out in his quest to arrest Tim for the murder. Broderick consistently ignored all evidence and leads pointing directly away from Tim as a suspect. He appeared to go to great lengths to suppress critical evidence in the case. For example, Broderick never informed Tim’s defense about other potential suspects in the murder (and by suspects I mean people who were far more suspicious than a 15 year old boy walking through a field near his house to catch a school bus). The prosecution hid this information as well.

Lessons Learned: The Media

Throughout the book Tim touched on various ways the media had an impact on his case. His original attorneys advised him to not to speak to the media and tell his side of the story, even though the police spoke to the press regularly. The defense’s reluctance to speak to the media, or allow Tim to do it, resulted in a very one-sided presentation of the case to the public. Tim examined the influence this had on potential jurors, writing in his book: “One woman told the court she couldn’t be impartial. She told the court, ‘I thought he was guilty based upon the paper.'”

So much for not believing everything one reads, right? However, during my own advocacy I have observed the same approach to avoiding media coverage by countless other defense attorneys. I believe that providing the public with a full picture is essential because in America criminal cases are tried in the media long before they ever play out in a courtroom. There is no innocent until proven guilty in the court of public opinion.

Hidden Suspects

The book discusses the perverted and criminal acts of Dr. Hammond who lived so close to the field where Peggy was found that his bedroom had a clear view of it. Dr. Hammond had set up a video recording device in a guest bathroom vent that recorded images of visitors using the facilities. He videotaped children as young as thirteen. When his activities were exposed the police and prosecution took action that seemed more protective than judicious. It is worth reading the book to see precisely what was done to protect this man from prosecution, and then his eventual response to the pressure (though minimal).

The same was true regarding Matthew Zoellner, Peggy’s “on again off again” boyfriend. Zoellner claimed to have an alibi the evening of the murder; however, when questioned about seeing Peggy at the Prime Minister the evening before she was discovered in the field he got the name of his own alibi witness incorrect. The alibi in question was a woman named Dawn Gilbreath, whom Zoellner referred to during questioning as “Shawn”. Dawn claimed to have left Zoellner’s residence around 3 a.m., meaning she was not with him for the entire night. The jury was not informed of this, among other things.

This is important because when touch DNA testing was later conducted on Peggy’s clothing, Zoellner’s DNA was found on the inner part of her panties, as well as on the cuffs of her shirt. The DNA was found in locations the examiners suspected the perpetrator of the crime would have touched.

Another remarkable piece of information I obtained from the book pertained to the prosecution’s file. While Tim’s attorneys worked to appeal his conviction, they sought the original prosecution file regarding his case. It turned out that the complete file had never been turned over to the defense as required by law. Thousands of pages of documents were withheld. Had Tim’s original defense had access to these files, as they should have, it is hard to imagine he would have ever been convicted.

However, having seen firsthand the injustices that have taken place throughout this country I am uncomfortable making that statement with any degree of certainty. I do feel sure of three things though. First, I know Tim Masters did not murder Peggy Hettrick. Two, I know he was relentlessly railroaded by an overzealous detective and the prosecution went along with it. Three, if the jury had access to the DNA results that eventually prompted his conviction to be vacated, he wouldn’t have been convicted in the first place.

Steve Lehto: Attorney and Coauthor

Steve Lehto is an attorney who helped to prepare and write the book about Tim’s wrongful conviction. He describes himself as “naturally skeptical” and said that early on, upon learning Tim had been exonerated by DNA evidence, he “still assumed that the case against him had been substantial enough to support a conviction.” He recognized that Tim was innocent, but like so many other people in this country he believed that when a jury convicted someone it was because there was evidence supporting the decision.

As he began to review the transcripts, case documents, and other materials pertaining to Tim’s case he was alarmed at what he discovered. “I was shocked at how non-existent the case really was. I had access to the case files, transcripts, everything the police had. It was a huge pile of nothing incriminating.” He added, “I never doubted he was innocent. I came to doubt whether the prosecutors ever really thought he was guilty. I believe they knew they were prosecuting an innocent man.”

Steve is primarily a litigator. However, Tim’s case has caused him to adopt a cynical view of the criminal justice system. He is particularly disturbed by “the police and how far they will go to make someone look guilty – rather than simply following the evidence where it leads.”

I asked Steve how he approached the project of helping Tim to prepare a book about his experiences. He explained that “Tim kept journals while he was in prison and after he was released. I reviewed those along with the case files (which Tim knew extensively) and then he and I spent a lot of time going over it. Tim knows those files better than the prosecutors ever did.”

He discussed the strategy behind the process of putting together the monumental amount of information in Tim’s case. “We had to come up with a way to make a huge mass of documentation and evidence accessible to the average person. The funny thing is that Tim wound up being the voice of reason. I really wanted to lay into the prosecutors and the police and Tim was the one who wanted to dial it down. The book is told from his perspective so it was appropriate to write it exactly how he wanted it told.”

I asked if Steve believed Peggy’s killer or killers would ever be brought to justice. He responded that “it is hard to say. The prosecutors and the police screwed up Tim’s trial so badly that anyone charged with the murder now could actually point to mistakes made at Tim’s trial to help their case (for example: There were other potential suspects who were never even looked at by the police. Now her killer could point to them as well and say, ‘What about them?’).”

Steve cautions that Tim’s story is not as unique as it might sound. “Tim’s story is remarkable for several reasons, one of which is that it is too common. We hear stories all the time about defendants who are convicted and then released later because of DNA or other evidence. We need to be mindful that our system has its flaws. One way to balance that is to allow for DNA testing and other methods to confirm or refute convictions.”

Regarding wrongful prosecutions and the barriers presented to those who encounter barriers to proving their innocence, such as the reluctance on the part of prosecutors to later test DNA evidence using advanced technology, Steve said, “I’ve never understood prosecutors who fight to block DNA testing. If the conviction is appropriate, the DNA will underscore that. Right?”.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, this is precisely the problem people like Darlie Routier have faced – all while sitting on Texas’s infamous death row. It is the obstacle that prevents Kirstin Blaise Lobato of Nevada from proving her innocence in court as well.

Why People Must Read the Book

The book reads like a well crafted fictional novel. The only problem is that the book is true. It is an unsettling account of a man’s conviction when there was no physical evidence suggesting he committed the crime, no eyewitness claiming he did it, no confession, and no logical motive. If the idea of this happening scares you, good. It should. This is not the kind of system that should exist in a civilized society that values human rights.

People need to read this book to develop an understanding of how and why wrongful convictions occur. Tim’s honest account of his experiences being interrogated and incarcerated are troubling and yet refreshing on account of his candid descriptions.

This book is proof that a wrongful conviction can happen to anyone, even if there is no real evidence existing to support it. It should be required reading for criminal justice and law majors, as well as any person who still believes the myth that people are only convicted by a jury when strong evidence exists to support that decision.

That myth is being systematically debunked by courageous people like Tim Masters who are not afraid to speak up about the serious flaws in the system that are preventing true justice for countless numbers of people.

In this book Tim’s voice is loud and it is clear. I urge you to read his story and share it with others.

Doubt in the Darlie Routier case: The subjective science (part 2)

Tim Masters at 15

Tim Masters at 15

Two years after providing testimony on behalf of the prosecution at Darlie Routier’s 1997 trial, bloodstain pattern analyst Tom Bevel was involved in a case where the accused was arrested, convicted, denied multiple appeals, and then granted a retrial that resulted in his release from prison three decades after the original crime occurred. The man’s name is Tim Masters and he was only 15 years old when 37 year-old Peggy Hettrick was murdered in Fort Collins, Colorado.

In February of 1987, Peggy ended her shift at work around 9 p.m. at a local clothing store. She had acquired a temporary roommate and she had given her the only key she had. Her roommate had gotten drunk and passed out, oblivious to Peggy’s banging on the door. Upon realizing she was locked out of her residence, Peggy went to a couple of bars and then returned home to get her key from the roommate. She changed her clothes and then returned to one of the bars just before midnight. Peggy did not have a vehicle and so she relied on walking or obtaining rides from others.

At the time of Peggy’s murder she was seeing a man named Matt Zoellner. On the evening in question, Peggy and Zoellner had an argument when she spotted him at the Prime Minister Pub with another woman. She became extremely upset and left. This was the last time anyone reported seeing Peggy alive before her partially nude body was discovered the following morning by a person riding a bike. She was found near a curb that led into a field, with her breasts exposed, her jeans and panties pulled down to her knees, and the straps of her purse still twisted around her arm. She had been stabbed and mutilated.

The Investigation

At the time Peggy was found in the field, 15 year-old Tim lived with his father in a trailer. The residence sat atop a hill that overlooked the field. During a routine canvassing of the surrounding area, detective Linda Wheeler-Holloway, was informed by Tim’s father that he had observed his son go toward the area where Peggy’s body was found as he was walking to school that morning. The detective had Tim pulled out of class and learned that he had indeed seen the woman’s body, but he did not think it was a real person. He thought that it resembled the dolls his school used to teach CPR courses. During Tim’s bus ride to school, he told the detective he started to wonder if he had seen a body instead of a doll.

The following day, two detectives showed up at Tim’s home while he was in school. One of the detectives was Jim Broderick. They asked Tim’s father to sign a consent to allow them to search the property. Believing that neither he nor his son had anything to hide, Clyde signed the form and allowed the detectives to conduct a search. The detectives found a number of knives in Tim’s bedroom. The detectives also found notebooks containing stories and drawings that Broderick described in a report as dealing “with death and dismemberment of body parts and other graphic portrayals of people being killed and the narratives [that] describe it.”

Tim was a withdrawn teenager who used his narratives and drawings as a means of escaping. He was small, shy, and struggling with school. Though he was not violent, he enjoyed creating pictures that focused on themes such as monsters and war. He had an interest in the armed forces and liked to read about those kinds of topics.

Ordinarily a murder investigation begins with those closest to the victim and spans outwards. This was not exactly what detectives did while investigating Peggy’s murder. The police learned about her somewhat tumultuous relationship with Matt Zoellner early on. Zoellner told police that he had run into Peggy at the Prime Minister and offered her a ride home. He had been waiting for another woman at the time. He claimed to have offered Peggy a ride home but when he returned from using the restroom she was gone.

Detectives were less concerned with Zoellner and much more interested in Tim. They questioned him at length, insisting he committed the murder. Tim repeatedly informed the detectives that he was not involved. His father had signed a form that allowed police to interrogate his son for nine hours. Tim adamantly maintained his innocence, despite the use of a wide range of tactics used by the officers attempting to extract a confession.

The police had no physical evidence linking Tim to Peggy’s murder. They did not have a confession or even an eyewitness claiming he was involved. All the police had were the drawings and writings of a sullen teenager who was trying to find his place in what he probably perceived as an unwelcoming environment.

A year after the murder, a large team of police officers participated in a stake out of his residence. They even went so far as to follow him incessantly and plant a false story in the news, suggesting an arrest of a suspect was imminent. The police left copies of this story in places where Tim was sure to see them.

Police in Fort Collins were unable to make a convincing case against Tim with the evidence they had. As a result, Tim went on to graduate from high school and joined the Navy. As Tim attempted to go on with his life, one of the detectives originally involved with investigating Peggy’s murder made the decision to re-open the case.

Detective Wheeler-Holloway zeroed in on Tim once again in 1992 based on supposed new evidence involving something Tim had told a friend at his high school. When questioned about it, Tim told the police that he got the information from a classmate who had been involved in the police effort to search the field. Tim’s claims were verified. The detectives did not pursue charges as a result.

However, by 1995 Jim Broderick had been promoted to the position of supervisor. He was in charge of the Crimes Against Persons Unit at the local police department. He made the decision to refocus his efforts on the seemingly cold case involving Peggy Hettrick. Broderick still insisted Tim Masters committed the murder. One of the detectives on Broderick’s squad, Troy Krenning, did not share his supervisor’s belief that Tim committed the murder. Krenning felt that elements of the murder appeared to be too well executed for a skinny and unsophisticated 15 year-old boy.

Broderick eventually hired a forensic psychologist, Reid Meloy, at the rate of $300 per hour to analyze Tim’s writings and drawings. Meloy eventually earned more than $42,000. The psychologist indicated that Tim had murdered Peggy Hettrick as a means of committing a displaced matricide (the murder of one’s mother or a mother figure).

District Attorney Terry Gilmore was not as confident about the strength of the alleged evidence against Tim; however, Broderick took special care to convince him and assistant district attorney Jolene Blair that they were on the right path.

On August 10th of 1998, Tim was arrested for Peggy’s murder. Tim had been living in California. Following an honorable discharge from the Navy he lived an ordinary life working as an aircraft mechanic.

Enter Tom Bevel

The district attorney did not have physical evidence to present at Tim’s 1999 trial. It wasn’t that physical evidence did not exist in the case; it was that the physical evidence in the case did not match the accused. An important element of the case against Tim was convincing a jury that the murder happened in the general area where Peggy’s body was found. After all, Tim had been a thin 15 year-old teenager when the murder occurred.

The prosecution called Tom Bevel to provide expert testimony. Bevel informed the jury that he believed Peggy was murdered on Landings Drive and then either dragged or carried to the location where she was found the following morning. This testimony was critical in securing a conviction against Tim. If the jury had been presented with evidence that Peggy had been murdered somewhere else and then later dumped in the field it would have become much harder to make the argument a 15 year-old boy, who still rode the bus to school, committed the crime.

Tim was convicted of Peggy’s murder and sent to prison.

Bevel would later claim that he provided the testimony he did because he was not shown all of the necessary documentation and photographs to make a correct assessment of the crime scene. In 2005, Barie Goetz who headed the crime lab at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, contacted Bevel. He showed him reports and photographs that Bevel claimed he had never seen before.

Bevel made the decision to write a report for Tim’s defense, stating that he had “serious concerns” about the evidence – or lack of it – he received prior to giving testimony. After reviewing the information Goetz provided to him, Bevel reversed his original claim that Peggy had been murdered and mutilated in the field. He said, “I do not believe all of that did take place at that juncture”.

CNN reported in 2008 that Bevel claimed “he has never experienced a miscommunication of this level in more than 35 years of testifying as an expert and as an Oklahoma City police officer, but he was reluctant to say police deceived him.” But in all honestly, how can he even be sure he has never experienced another “miscommunication of this level”?

Bevel’s claim not to have received all of the pertinent information relating to the case was a problem experienced by Tim’s defense as well. This poses even bigger questions about other convictions Bevel has helped prosecutors achieve. How many other cases did Bevel, or any other bloodstain pattern analyst for that matter, work on where importance evidence in the form of reports and photographs were suppressed by the prosecution or investigators?

And what reports and photographs was Bevel missing? Was it not apparent to him that he had not received a complete record as it pertained to the case? Did he at any time have any concerns about the information provided to him? Those are questions I can’t find answers to.

I do know that the alleged science, known as bloodstain pattern analysis, seems to rely entirely on the honesty and accuracy of the police investigation. It also relies on the credibility and integrity of the prosecutors as well. If the police and prosecutors only provide limited information to the experts they ask to testify is it really that surprising that people are wrongfully convicted? Another disturbing aspect of wrongful convictions is that they ensure those who perpetrated the crimes are free to commit future ones

The DNA Evidence

In 2007, Tim’s defense conducted testing of the clothing found on Peggy Hettrick. The testing revolved around an innovative and advanced approach to DNA testing known simply as “Tough DNA”. Selma and Richard Eikelenboom, forensic scientists in the Netherlands, were approached by Tim’s defense and asked to try to create a DNA profile based on skin cells left on Peggy’s clothing.

The couple was successful in obtaining a full DNA profile of a male. Skin cells removed from the cuffs of Peggy’s blouse suggested she may have been carried or dragged by the wrists. The same DNA profile was found on the lining of Peggy’s underwear, which had been pulled down to her knees.

The DNA did not match Tim Masters, however. Instead it matched Matt Zoellner, the boyfriend Peggy had encountered at the Prime Minister the night she was murdered.

Tim Masters after his release

Tim Masters after his release

His Release

In 2008, Tim’s sentence was finally overturned. A judge threw out the original conviction based on the evidence that was presented in support of his innocence. He was subsequently released from prison. Following his release from prison, Tim Master’s brought a civil lawsuit against the city of Fort Collins. He reportedly received $10 million as a result of settlement.

These days Tim spends time doing things he enjoys, such as working on cars. He wrote and published a book called Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters with co-author Steve Lehto. The book details his case and the barriers Tim faced in finally obtaining a new trial. He has also spoken out about his conviction.

In 2011, Tim joined a panel of speakers at the Colorado University Law School to discuss being incarcerated, his wrongful conviction, and the challenges people face when it becomes necessary to prove innocence.

I decided to write about Tim’s case for three reasons. First, his conviction was achieved through the presentation of a highly circumstantial case. The police made a rush to judgment and refused to consider other possibilities. These same behaviors have contributed to other wrongful convictions and have also played a role in suspected wrongful convictions.

Second, Tim was convicted based on expert testimony provided by Tom Bevel. Bevel’s name comes up in relation to a number of confirmed and suspected wrongful convictions. This same expert was responsible for helping police and prosecutors obtain a conviction in Darlie’s case as well. Not only has the science Bevel has relied on come under fire in recent years, but cases like Tim’s raise questions about the communication process that occurs between these experts and prosecutors.

Finally, Tim’s case is an example of how dangerous circumstantial evidence is in a murder case. Had police and prosecutors followed the physical evidence in this situation – even if it meant waiting for years until the technology became available to analyze it properly – they could have saved the city a lot of time and money. They might have apprehended the real killer. Most importantly, they might have given those who cared about Peggy a true sense of justice.

Doubt in the Darlie Routier case: The subjective science (part 1)

Example of a t-shirt with blood-spatter

The prosecution’s case against Darlie Routier, presented in court in 1997, was based on circumstantial evidence. Lacking true and convincing physical evidence directly linking Darlie to the murders of her two sons as well as the attack inflicted on herself, the prosecution focused on an approach to crime scene analysis that the National Academy of Sciences has stated is “more subjective than scientific”. That approach is known as bloodstain pattern analysis.

In 2010, the Texas Observer pointed out that three confirmed wrongful convictions had resulted from “flawed blood-spatter evidence”. This says nothing about how many wrongful convictions have taken place as a result of subjective bloodstain pattern analysis that have not yet been confirmed, or have not received the kind of attention that some cases do.

Along with the above information, the Observer published a detailed account of the conviction of Warren Horinek. Horinek was a less than sympathetic individual who was indicted by a grand jury on suspicion he murdered his wife, Bonnie. He claimed his wife committed suicide in the family home on March 14th of 1995, after the two had become severely intoxicated during an earlier night out.

An investigation into the alleged suicide resulted in a shared conclusion on the part of the police sergeant responsible for supervising the investigation, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, the crime scene investigator, and the local district attorney: Horinek’s wife committed suicide using a firearm.

Fort Worth district attorney, Mike Parrish, declined to bring charges against Horinek. He later told the media, “I always thought that it was a suicide…still do.”

Bonnie’s parents did not accept their daughter had taken her own life. Despite a history of depression in the past, they did not believe she was distraught enough during the time period surrounding her death to do something that extreme. Moreover, Horinek has a history of being both obnoxious and sometimes violent when he had too much to drink.

When the district attorney refused to bring charges against Horinek, Bonnie’s parents hired a lawyer who found a way to pursue charges without the assistance of the district attorney. Texas law allows any individual to bring evidence in front of a grand jury to seek an indictment. It is a well known fact that when a grand jury is presented with evidence, it is easy to get an indictment. This case was no exception.

However, the district attorney continued to refuse to prosecute Horinek. He claimed he had an ethical duty to refrain from charging a person with a crime when he believed that person was innocent. As a result, the district attorney’s office in Tarrant County assigned two attorneys working in private practice to fill in as special prosecutors. These attorneys had access to resources the district attorney’s office would not otherwise have had.

Everything was backwards at Horinek’s trial. The people who ordinarily testify on behalf of the prosecution testified on behalf of Horinek’s defense. This included, but was not limited to the sergeant in charge of the investigation, the district attorney who refused to seek charges in the first place, and the crime scene investigator. It was a situation that should only exist within an episode of the Twilight Zone.

For the majority of Horinek’s trial it appeared that he would be acquitted. Even the foreman of the jury would later reveal that an acquittal was imminent.

That is, until Tom Bevel took the stand.

Before Tom Bevel ever testified at Darlie Routier’s trial, he testified at what may only be described as the “bizarre” trial of Warren Horinek. Though bloodstain pattern analysis has been used since the late 1800s, it was and still is rarely used as the primary evidence against a defendant. It is often used to strengthen a case that is already based on physical evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints.

In 1996, when Bevel took the stand to testify that Horinek murdered his wife and that this contention could be confirmed through bloodstain pattern analysis, the National Academy of Sciences was 13 years away from publishing a report that outlined the serious limitations of using this approach to crime scene analysis. The jurors who listened to Bevel found his testimony credible and convincing.

Bevel stated that tiny bloodstains on the shirt Horinek was wearing on the evening of his wife’s death could only have resulted from a “high velocity occurrence”. He claimed the cause of the bloodstains was Horinek’s use of a gun. He argued that Horinek’s repeated attempts to administer CPR were not the cause.

The jury subsequently changed their mind about Horinek’s innocence and convicted him of murdering his wife. They did this based on Tom Bevel’s testimony.

The Observer wrote, “Most criminal justice experts believe that flawed forensic evidence – and overreaching expert witnesses – have sent thousands of Americans to prison for crimes they didn’t commit”. The article went on to state that a number of commonly used sciences presented in United States courtrooms, including bloodstain pattern analysis and arson investigations, are really just “junk sciences”.

Jim Varnon was one of the officers who responded to the scene. He believes that Horinek was wrongfully convicted and has put together extensive evidence countering the bloodstain pattern analysis presented by Bevel. He has been fighting to prove Horinek’s innocence ever since.

Horinek has since tried to appeal his conviction. In late 2011, the Observer provided an update on his case, explaining that there were two hearings in 2011 that occurred in reference to his case. Three forensic experts “testified that overwhelming evidence points to a suicide”.

However, despite this and the fact that Bevel has been involved in other suspected wrongful convictions, including one in which a convicted man was later exonerated, Horinek remains imprisoned in Texas.

There are similarities in the case of Warren Horinek and Darlie Routier. Both cases were based on circumstantial evidence. Both prosecutors presented Tom Bevel’s “expert” testimony regarding bloodstain analysis. Both crime scenes contained evidence that supported the convicted person’s version of the events – claims that Bevel used a science that has substantial limitations to discredit.

The very group that claims Tom Bevel as a charter member known as the Scientific Working Group on Bloodstain Pattern Analysis (SWGSTAIN), “recognizes that the opinions of bloodstain pattern analysts may contain an element of subjectivity”.

Really? In light of this information, one has to ask just how reliable a conviction is when the weight of the prosecution’s case rests on this type of “science”. One also has to wonder just how many people convicted based on this science are truly innocent.

In the next article I will describe the case in which Bevel’s testimony helped to send a juvenile to prison for life, without the possibility of parole. This same teenager grew into a man behind bars, but was exonerated based on an advanced approach to DNA testing.

The wrongful conviction of Kirstin Blaise Lobato

Kirstin Blaise Lobato

Kirstin Blaise Lobato

In the 1990s, wrongful convictions seemed a rarity. They were deemed by many as an aberration, resulting from corruption or extreme ineptitude on the part of police and prosecutors. In 1988, the documentary The Thin Blue Line detailed the story of Randall Dale Adams who was charged and convicted of murdering a police officer in Dallas, Texas. Adams was on death row for 12 years before his sentence was reduced. He remained in prison for another 8 years before he was finally released.

Ironically, the man who prosecuted Adams is the same person who defended Darlie Lynn Routier in 1997 – the Texas mother accused of murdering her two children and perpetuating an attack on herself to mislead investigators. Evidence in the Routier case points to a rush to judgment as well.

Wrongful convictions pose many problems. First, when the wrong person is accused and convicted of a crime it means the person or people who committed the crime go free. Second, wrongful convictions rob people of their lives and deprive their families and friends of opportunities to share meaningful experiences outside of the prison setting. Third, every wrongful conviction further erodes the American justice system – stripping it of its integrity and fundamental purpose.

Kirstin Blaise Lobato’s case is a salient example of a wrongful conviction. Kirstin goes by her middle name, Blaise. She has been incarcerated for 11 years for a crime she did not commit. While you have probably read those exact words many times, let me assure you there is no other case quite like Blaise’s.

I will begin telling Blaise’s story by detailing events that took place in the summer of 2001. Blaise graduated from high school in the spring of 2000. By the summer of 2001, she had fallen in with a somewhat rough crowd and was using drugs. An incident in late May of 2001 marked the beginning of a dramatic change in Blaise’s life, however.

By late May, Blaise was staying in Las Vegas with one of her friends. She was getting out of her car in the parking lot of the Budget Suites Hotel on the eastern side of the city when a large man suddenly attacked her from behind. Blaise was thrown to the ground and as the man knelt down, preparing to sexually assault her, she pulled out a butterfly knife she carried for protection. She attempted to stab the man in the general area of his groin, which provided her with an opportunity to escape her assailant.

Kirstin Blaise Lobato at 18

Kirstin Blaise Lobato at 18

Many people who have experienced any type of sexual assault refrain from reporting the incident to police. Sometimes the person confides in friends or family members about the experience. Blaise shared the details of the attempted assault with at least five people, including her father. She described her assailant as “really big” – approximately 200 lbs and over 6″ tall.

By the beginning of July, Blaise was determined to make positive changes in her life. She made the decision to leave behind the lifestyle she had adopted in Las Vegas and move to Panaca to stay with her father, stepmother, and sister – 170 miles away.

On July 5th, Blaise’s stepmother accompanied her to the doctor. Blaise had not been feeling well. The clinic drew her blood and asked her to provide urine for a 24-hour urine test. The blood and urine tests showed that she had used cannabis, but there was no indication she was using meth. This would later become an important detail.

For Blaise, July 8th was a relatively uneventful day. As many as thirteen friends and family members saw and spoke to her throughout the day and well into the evening. Her car remained parked in front of the her family’s home.

However, 170 miles away in Las Vegas, 44 year old Duran Bailey had a markedly different kind of day. By around 10 p.m., a man who was dumpster diving contacted police to inform them he discovered a body. The person discovered was Bailey and he had been beaten and stabbed to death.

Bailey’s murder was especially brutal. Bloody foot prints were found on his torso and leading away from his body. In addition to sustaining what was later described as “blunt head trauma”, Bailey’s penis had been amputated. Semen was found in the man’s rectum, but did not contain sperm and so it could not be tested for DNA at the time. Fresh looking tire tracks were observed in the immediate area as well. Police collected chewing gum that was on the cardboard box used to conceal Bailey’s body, along with cigarettes and other items in the area.

An early lead examined informally by detectives pertained to a woman named Diann Parker and a man named Steven King. Parker had previously reported having been beaten and raped on July 5th by a man she later identified as Duran Bailey. In Parker’s original report she gave the names of a number of Mexican males who warned Bailey to stay away from her before he raped her. The detectives conducted a criminal background search on the men and turned up nothing. Astonishingly, they did not pursue the lead any further.

Instead, police decided to zero in on a far less likely and improbable scenario. It began with a conversation between Dixie Tienken and juvenile probation officer Laura Johnson. Tienken allegedly told Johnson that one of her former students told her she cut off the penis of a man who attacked her. Johnson then relayed this information to one of the officer’s investigating Bailey’s death on July 20th. She identified the woman in question as 18 year old Kirstin Blaise Lobato and she gave the officer information about where Blaise was living.

A preliminary background check on Blaise revealed that when the teenager was 6 years old she had been sexually assaulted for nine months by her mother’s boyfriend. This was information the police discussed with Blaise when they later questioned her.

The police felt they had solved the mystery behind Bailey’s brutal homicide. Blaise did not confess to the murder, but did describe the attack that took place in late May. It did not concern them that Blaise was only 100 lbs, or that a significant number of people could confirm she was in Panaca during the time in question. They also were not fazed by the fact that the attack she described to them during questioning occurred a month before Bailey’s murder, and involved the description of a man who was much larger and taller than Bailey. Moreover, the attack on Kirstin happened in a completely different part of Las Vegas.

Another problem was the claim that the two events were the same. The time difference between the events of one month was not the only distinguishing factor. The outcome of the first consisted of both people leaving the situation very much alive. The second resulted in a murder. The police felt these two incidents were the same and that instead of fleeing the scene leaving a man alive, Blaise had viciously murdered the man without leaving any shred of evidence linking her to Bailey or the scene. But the theory simply did not fit the evidence, nor did it make any sense.

Police seized her vehicle and searched for blood. A preliminary analysis of the car revealed that there were spots that could potentially be blood; however, further analysis determined they were not as a number of substances will test positive in preliminary tests but turn out to be something else entirely. None of the DNA collected at the crime scene matched Kirstin. The police did not find any physical evidence linking her to the crime or to the Las Vegas area when the murder occurred.

The only thing the police had was a girl who reported fending off a would-be rapist with a knife about one month before Bailey’s murder. Later it would be speculated that Blaise went to Las Vegas to obtain methamphetamines and was on some kind of meth-induced binge when she murdered Bailey. The problem is that blood and urine tests conducted in the days prior to the murder refute this contention. Alibi witnesses stating Blaise was in Panaca also shed considerable doubt on the prosecution’s case. Many of these witnesses were not allowed to testify at Blaise’s trial.

The presumption of innocence is a basic rule applied to criminal procedures in the United States. In the state of Nevada, “every person charged with the commission of a crime shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved by competent evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.” When it comes to jury instruction in a criminal case, Nevada statutes require juries to receive a specific description of reasonable doubt. No other substitute is allowable by law. According to NRS 175.211, the description reads as follows:

1. A reasonable doubt is one based on reason. It is not mere possible doubt, but is such a doubt as would govern or control a person in the more weighty affairs of life. If the minds of the jurors, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, are in such a condition that they can say they feel an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge, there is not a reasonable doubt. Doubt to be reasonable must be actual, not mere possibility or speculation.

The prosecution did not present an argument to the jury that erased reasonable doubt. In fact, their entire case was built on speculation, hearsay, and possibility. The prosecution told the jury the attack on Blaise in May was really the same incident in which Bailey was murdered. This was despite the fact that many people corroborated Blaise’s claim she was in Panaca in the time period surrounding the murder. Nevermind that the shoe or boot prints found on the body and leading away from the scene were much too large to belong to Blaise, or that there was no physical evidence linking the young woman to the murder even though a plethora of evidence had been collected. The tire tracks found at the scene did not match Blaise’s car either.

There are many more details about this case and all of them further point to Blaise’s innocence. In fact, Hans Sherrer from a site known as Justice Denied took the time to detail this troubling case in a book that is available online. For those who are interested in learning more about this case I highly recommend reading his account (click here to download).

Blaise was eventually given a retrial. She was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter using a deadly weapon, along with sexual penetration of a deceased person. She received a 13 year minimum sentence, with a maximum of 35 years. Though she will be eligible for parole at the 13 year mark, the system has failed Blaise many times before. The system has failed others in the past and will continue to fail people until wrongful convictions are openly acknowledged and much is done to correct the problem.

Efforts on behalf of a group of Blaise’s supporters have helped to bring this case to the attention of many. A petition was launched by Michelle Ravell, asking the current Clark County District Attorney, Steven B. Wolfson, to allow DNA testing in Blaise’s case. The Innocence Project has even agreed to pay for the testing if DA Wolfson allows it. Over 143,000 people have signed this petition, but Wolfson has thus far refused to allow testing.

Michelle became involved with this case because her son had met Blaise the weekend before she was arrested. She remembers what transpired following her son meeting the young woman well. “When he came home he said to me, ‘Mom, I just met the woman I want to marry.’ This was a real shock to me because he had never said those words about any woman before,” Michelle explained.

Michelle had no experience when it came to dealing with the justice system, but upon Blaise’s arrest and subsequent conviction, she felt compelled to do whatever she could to help the young woman. She sat through the first trial and felt strongly that Blaise had been wrongfully convicted. “I couldn’t let it go,” she said. “I believe that the universe gives you what you are meant to have, and it is your job to accept it with joy and grace. I knew that I had to do something to right the wrong. I did research on the internet for hours on wrongful convictions. I wrote others. I wrote Innocence Projects…I wrote Justice Denied. A friend of mine helped me put up the first website.”

Michelle then came in contact with Helen Caddes who offered to provide her skills and expertise in relation to putting up a really good website, containing detailed information about Blaise’s case.

Helen first learned about Blaise’s case when she discovered Michelle’s first website. Helen described the relationship, stating, “Michelle and I have worked as a team to raise awareness about Kirstin’s case for almost 10 years now. We have been guests on radio shows to discuss the case, Michelle has been interviewed by local news media, I gave a speech at a juvenile justice conference in Las Vegas in 2003 and we are both active participants in wrongful conviction communities online. I gave a presentation about Kirstin’s case in a roundtable event at my college a number of years ago and did pamphleting on campus (Middle Tennessee State University). We’ve made stickers, t-shirts, business cards and bumper stickers to help raise awareness.  Most recently, we delivered the petition to District Attorney Steve Wolfson with a number of supporters, friends, and family members present.”

Helen corresponds with Blaise and describes her as “one of the most caring, intelligent and wonderful people” she has ever met. Helen has connected with Blaise and her story for her own personal reasons as well. “As a survivor of sexual assault at the age of 16, Kirstin’s story touched me deeply – it could have been me, as far as I was concerned, had I been able to defend myself when I was attacked just as she was.” She added, “If I had defended myself, I too could have been framed and convicted of an unrelated murder – as strange as it sounds, that’s what happened to her. That’s one reason I’m so dedicated to pursuing her freedom.”

Having gone through the experience of petitioning a prosecutor myself in the past, I was curious as to whether Michelle’s petition effort was at all successful in motivating the DA to test the DNA. Michelle responded: “The only effect that it has had on the DAs is that they have become even more negative. It disgusts me that these people whose job it is to see that justice is done, are not willing to do that. The DA that has signed the legal briefs in Kirstin’s case has lied so many times to the press, saying that she ‘confessed’, which is not true at all, and they are even lying to the Nevada Supreme Court in their briefs. They say that the DNA is from a trash enclosure and won’t produce anything because anyone’s DNA could be there,” she said. “The DNA that we have requested to be tested isn’t just garbage that was laying around in a trash enclosure. All the items would have been touched by the person who committed the crime.”

Michelle sees no logical reason for the district attorneys to continue to fight the testing. It would be at the expense of the Innocence Project and it would provide answers in a murder that has claimed more victims, through the misuse of the legal system, than just Bailey.

Michelle spends up to three hours a day on Blaise’s case. She helps to raise awareness, answers questions, and works with others like Helen Caddes to find new ways to keep the public informed about what has happened to Blaise. She has become convinced that Blaise is merely one of many people wrongfully convicted in America’s criminal justice system. She is committed to finding the time, in between other life and family obligations, to work toward correcting serious problems in the legal system.

Supporters ask the DA to allow DNA testing

Supporters ask the DA to allow DNA testing

I asked Michelle what people can do to help her in this quest for justice. She asks that people sign the petition asking the DA to allow testing. She would also like for people to reach out to Blaise and tell her she has support. People may also help to fund her commissary account as it helps her pay for basic items. It also helps to keep her spirits up. Other ways that people can help include assisting Michelle and others in financing a billboard or two, printing t-shirts, yard signs, and other promotional materials.

People may even help by sharing articles, the petition, and promotional items regarding to case on Facebook and other social media sites. Contacting local and national news media is yet another great way to get the word out about Blaise’s case and to help educate the public on wrongful convictions in general.

“Contact public figures,” Michelle added. “And ask them to get involved in her case, either by speaking out about it, recording a  song about her case, etc. Contact investigative journalists (the few that still exist that actually research and tell the truth) and ask them to write a story about her case. Talk to everyone you know and forward her website, Facebook page, and information to them to raise awareness.”

Blaise’s case is particularly disturbing because a woman who fended off an attempted rape was later victimized by the same system that is supposed to protect victims of violence. When she was arrested for Bailey’s murder, she was working on turning her life around. She was surrounded by people who loved her and cared about her well-being. Those people have also suffered as a result of Blaise’s conviction.

All the people who love and support Blaise just want her to return home. Helen described her future hopes to me, stating, “My dream for Blaise is for her to be free, to have her dreams come true and for her to be truly happy one day, despite all she has been through.”

Anyone reading this has the power to help make that a reality.

Blaise (right) and her younger sister Ashley

Blaise (right) and her younger sister Ashley

Please help Blaise achieve the freedom she deserves!

Blaise’s website is here:

Sign and share her petition here:

Join the Facebook group geared toward advocacy for Blaise:

Read the book (very detailed, with timelines, pictures, and other information):