Monday, March 26

Or Maybe I Dreamed It

What with the Spring plowing and the Spring planting and the Spring vacuuming up several hundred gallons of water in the basement--twice--I'm not quite sure whether I lost interest in or consciousness of the UCLA-Kansas game first, but I fell asleep sometime around when it stopped being competitive. When I woke up and figured out where I was CBS' 48 Hours was just starting and I decided to watch, or I decided to remain inert, or both.

I'm not an expert, but I seem to recall that CBS' 48 Hours started life as a news program. It is now Yet Another True Crime show, a sort of Forensics Files with that special CBS News Rather and Post-Rather touch that makes even the most serious story sound like it was put together by the Mall of America Promotional Kiosk Video Team with lead weights in their saddlebags. This might properly be termed the Lesley Stahl Effect. Stahl's had one prominent spot or other at the Tiffany Network for thirty years now, and if you can name something memorable she's done kindly leave it in comments and include at least two citations. She came along just as the brass at CBS News was doing a lot of soul-searching over complaints from the Right about Liberal bias. I kid, I kid. They were worried about the rags-to-riches ratings-grabbers at ABC, whose Atlas-Rocket-esque rise had been fueled in equal measure by Ur-FAUX News reportage and hiring a Million-Dollar Anchor who spoke like she had a mouthful of Slushee™. Stahl was White House reporter during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and she reported every last motherfucking decision of the former as though she was absolutely convinced Carter was a Dirty Commie double-agent but she didn't have quite enough evidence to go on air with the story. (I've come to realize only in the past few years that her sources must have included, perhaps even been limited to, Chris Matthews and Pat Caudell. In fact, she reported every story as if Caudell's polling ran the joint.)

She spent the Reagan years crowded onto his lap with the rest of the Press, cooing about how surprisingly dark his hair remained for a man his age. I swear I'm only exaggerating this a little. I wish they'd bring it all out on DVD.

Anyway, CBS' 48 Hours covered the 1969 murder of Jane Mixer. (It was a repeat of a show first aired in November 2005.) Mixer was a first-year law student at Michigan who was headed home to Muskegon for Spring Break. Instead she was found the next morning shot twice in the head and left in a remote cemetery. She'd apparently scored a ride via a campus ride board, but the young man, who was appearing in a play that night, didn't know anything about it or her. I say "apparently" because this is one of those areas where either CBS wasn't interested in the whole story or I fell back asleep for a minute because a piece of evidence--perhaps the only non-DNA evidence--which ultimately helped convict someone just sorta got left out of the story.

At the time Jane Mixer's murder got lumped in with the murders of several other young women, two in the two years previous, four more in the next four months, which came to be known in TIME-ese as "The Rainy Day Murders". A suspect was caught and convicted of the seventh. The murders stopped. So did the active investigation of the other six.

Jump forward to the Oughts, and someone--CBS "apparently" credits Detective Eric Schroeder--starts looking into the case again. Mixer's murder did not really fit the MO of the later crimes. They send out for testing non-specific DNA from her pantyhose, a towel that had been placed under her head, and a stocking that had been knotted around her neck. They also have a blood sample taken from the back of her hand. When the results came back they were in for a shock, and we'll have that story right after these messages.

Sorry. The non-specific DNA matches a 62-year-old former nurse and Navy vet named Gary Leiterman. Leiterman was in the system because he'd been caught forging a prescription for painkillers he'd gotten hooked on when he had kidney stones. Leiterman had a wife and family, and had never been in trouble otherwise. In 1969 he'd been living about twenty miles from Ann Arbor. He said he never knew Jane Mixer and didn't kill her. He was charged with first-degree murder.

The blood was another story. It came back as a match for a convicted murderer named John Ruelas. We don't know whether Ruelas has an alibi for the night of the murder; nobody seems to have asked him, since he was four-and-a-half years old at the time. The Leiterman and Ruelas cases were processed at that lab at the same time.

And yet prosecutors and the lab manager insisted there was absolutely no possibility of contamination. The prosecutor, Steven Hiller, actually told CBS on camera that the blood results meant that it was four-year-old John Ruelas' blood on Jane Mixer's hand that ugly morning.

And a jury of twelve of his peers convicted Gary Leiterman of murder. Life, no parole.

Okay, the jury heard a lot more evidence than 48 Hours' viewers were ever going to, including--if the information I found elsewhere can be believed--that there was a note found regarding the ride arrangements which was identified as being in Gary Leiterman's handwriting. I haven't gotten around to tracking this down yet. There was no information about where the note was found, or when, or its provenance. But I do know that handwriting analysis belongs somewhere between Aromatherapy and the reading of bird entrails in a court of law, and probably much closer to the latter. Remember the note novella in the JónBénét Rámséy case? Three goddam pages, and an army of handwriting analysts with access to every scrap of paper Patséy Ramsey ever scribbled on, and the most they could do was not rule her in or out. For cryin' out loud. If you happen to live in a state where these patent medicines can be sold at the Bar and on the record, and you find yourself an innocent man in the dock, just smuggle in a gun and start blasting. It's your best chance.

I have no idea whether Gary Leiterman is innocent or guilty, but I do know that any reasonable juror should have discounted the lab work and any reasonable legal system would have tossed it out before it reached that point. And that's assuming the 35-year chain of evidence had every link intact, and it's assuming we believe that 35-year-old evidence was, in four instances, still identifiable, however bizarrely. There's no reasonable doubt about this?

And Gary Leiterman has already lost one appeal.

I think we come full circle here. Juries have always been capable of questionable decisions, and there's generally a built-in bias toward law enforcement and a credulity toward the charismatic panoply of modern professional power*. And that's in much the same way that CBS decided, several decades ago now, that truth was best defined according to what a sizable portion of the population would like it to be, so long as such blandishments adopted the form of professional news reporting.

*Jonathan Miller

6 comments:

julia said...

Pat Cadell?

R. V. Dump said...

One thing memorable that she's done is discover that a cute haircut goes really well with colorful earrings. And for that we will all be eternally grateful.

Anonymous said...

I always thought Dan Rather did a pretty good job of the Nick Nolte role, but that Harold Dowd is no Eddie Murphy.

Anonymous said...

Interesting but some of your facts are off. Check out www.garyisinnocent.org

dd said...

"And yet prosecutors and the lab manager insisted there was absolutely no possibility of contamination. The prosecutor, Steven Hiller, actually told CBS on camera that the blood results meant that it was four-year-old John Ruelas' blood on Jane Mixer's hand that ugly morning."

"I have no idea whether Gary Leiterman is innocent or guilty, but I do know that any reasonable juror should have discounted the lab work and any reasonable legal system would have tossed it out before it reached that point. And that's assuming the 35-year chain of evidence had every link intact, and it's assuming we believe that 35-year-old evidence was, in four instances, still identifiable, however bizarrely. There's no reasonable doubt about this?"

THANK YOU. You put exactly what I've been thinking into words!
I was blown away when I heard the verdict and started shouting at the TV. My neighbors probably think I'm insane.
Did no one on that jury understand what without reasonable doubt means?? I had hundreds of questions about the case and I, too, was shocked it even got to trial. Also, I wondered if they had talked to John Ruelas parents/guardian and asked them if there would be any possibility that their son at 4 years old could have been at or even near this graveyard 40 miles away from their home at the time, during the night/early morning. Leiterman must have had a really terrible attorney, I don't even remember his attorney at all. I remember the prosecutor all too well though. He was unbearable and it seemed like the people working on this case were trying too hard to force it to be solved. Maybe in order to benefit the image of the police department who couldn't solve or prevent the 7 co-ed murders previously. This case really just doesn't sit well with me.

Forgery expert said...

I enjoyed your entries on Toxic Words - such great thoughts and a wonderful reminder to watch the words I use - to be positive and kind and use words to build up rather than tear down. :)