Sunday, December 9, 2012

When Curiosity leads to Murder, Part II

To follow up with my last post, I’ve been on a few road trips which have allowed me to visit about a dozen states, their parks, national forests and national monuments.  I have many favorite sights from each state but one of the most surprising was during our visit to Wyoming a few years ago.  The surprise was the unexpected beauty we found as we traveled through the Big Horn Mountains.  It wasn’t our first trip to Wyoming but it was the first time we were heading east through Wyoming on our way to South Dakota. 
Fallen City
Another unexpected discovery in Wyoming was what appeared to be a car at the bottom of an outlook called Fallen City in the Big Horn National Forest.  To some it might not seem like a big deal but after we returned home, my curiosity got the best of me.  I had to see whether I could find any information to determine when or how someone might have ended up at the bottom of that valley.  I thought the most I might find would be an article about a terrible crash after someone missed a corner on some cold, snowy, icy night. 

I certainly did not expect to find a tale about murder; especially one that occurred three decades ago…
Imagine the mountains covered in snow on a cold fall morning when three bodies are discovered in a cook tent; the deaths presumably the result of asphyxiation caused by a faulty stove.  However, once the scene is disturbed and the bodies are removed, it is discovered the next day that the three men had actually been shot at close range. 

During the investigation about a week later, police questioned one particular coal miner.  It is unknown exactly what the miner may have told police but the following day it was discovered he had driven his vehicle off the mountain at the outlook called Fallen City.  Unbelievably, the miner survived that crash and while recovering in the hospital, he confessed to killing all three men in the cook tent.  His story was that they had stolen some of his equipment and when he went to their camp to retrieve it, he felt threatened by them so he shot and killed all three before retrieving his belongings.  There was apparently no real physical evidence to back up his story other than an item found in the cook tent which the miner claimed was his.
So what do you think so far? 

My thoughts are I can’t believe the bodies were removed before anyone saw even a glimpse of blood to give them some indication that the deaths were caused by more than just a faulty stove.  I’m thinking this is a botched investigation from the very beginning.
Once a confession is obtained, of course, the police arrest the subject and the state moves on towards prosecuting the miner at trial.  During the trial the jury heard the miner’s confession and heard first-hand from the miner what happened from his point-of-view when he took the stand and claimed self-defense.  When it was time for the judge to instruct the jury before deliberation, the defense made a point of arguing that the jury could only be instructed on First Degree Murder and not Second Degree Murder or even Manslaughter.  The argument was all or nothing and when the prosecutor was not prepared to argue why the reduced charges should be an option, the judge agreed with the defense.  This meant the prosecutor had to prove the miner killed all three men with premeditation. 

Based on the evidence, or lack thereof, this made it more difficult for the state to get a conviction and in the end the jury could not agree on a verdict.  According to some accounts, it appears the jury did not believe the miner was an innocent man but that they would have liked the option of finding him guilty of a lesser charge. 
Ending with a hung jury, the state brought the miner to trial a second time; this time in a different county and before a different judge.  Where the state may have had a chance for a conviction during the first trial, the state did not stand a chance during the second one.  It started when the judge ruled that the miner’s confession was not admissible and would not be heard by the jury.  When a jail witness popped up as an informant against the miner, the evidence the state might have had was short-lived when the judge removed the witness from the stand after discovering a state agent was in the courtroom when he wasn’t supposed to be present. 

And the case for the state just went downhill from there.  The jury learned that the bodies had been removed before anyone had even realized the men had been shot and, even worse, that the state had actually lost the bullets after they were removed from the bodies.  This time around, the miner did not bother to testify.  He just watched his defense attorney poke holes at the state’s case.
I guess you can imagine what happened next.

The second jury, while they also did not believe the miner to be innocent, decided that the state had not proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt.  They acquitted the miner and set him free. 
Did the story end there?  It depends on how you look at it.  The victims’ families still had to live with only the miner’s confession on how and why the men had to die.  They had to live with the fact that, while the miner may have been guilty of a crime, the state had not been able to put together a good case in order to convict him of the appropriate crime.  However, the story took a turn for the worse with regard to the miner, not too long after the second trial.  Apparently less than two years after the miner was acquitted, he passed away.  I don’t know how, as that isn’t clear, and whether this even brought any relief to the victims’ families, I would not venture to say. 

I’ll never know whether the vehicle we saw at the bottom of that outlook was a vehicle from a recent accident or one that occurred decades ago.  And I really can’t say whether this story is completely true or only partially true, which is why I decided not to list names of the victims or the defendant here.  But one thing this story proves is that no case is clear cut, even when there is a confession. 
And what this case showed me is that when your curiosity takes hold, pay attention. You just never know the stories you might uncover.

No comments:

Post a Comment