Retrial Set In Killing Of Escondido Child, Stephanie Crowe
October 21, 2013 1:19 p.m.
Mark Sauer, KPBS Senior Editor
Guylyn Cummins is a 1st Amendment attorney with Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP's San Diego office.
Related Story: Jury Selection For Richard Tuite Retrial Begins
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jury selection begins this week in the retrial of Richard Tuite for the killing of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe. The stabbing death of Stephanie Crowe happened 15 years ago in Escondido and the case has morphed into one of the most complex and frustrating legal dramas in San Diego history. Tuite was convicted of the killing in 2004 but the conviction was overturned last year. Attorneys for the mentally ill drifter say they will once again argue that Tuite is innocent and that someone else, perhaps a member of the Crowe family committed the crime. I'd like to welcome my guests. Mark Sauer is KPBS senior editor. Mark, welcome.
MARK SAUER: Good to be here, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And attorney Guylyn Cummins is a 1st amendment attorney with the Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton entertainment media practice group San Diego office. Welcome to the show.
GUYLYN CUMMINS: Thank you for inviting me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Mark, you've been covering the story for years now. Can you give us some basics about the murder of Stephanie Crowe? It happened that night inside her own home is that right?
MARK SAUER: That's right she, the family went to bed. 12-year-old Stephanie was actually dressed in her close from school that day this was a fairly poor family. She was under some covers it was very cold in the house, grandma was visiting. The girl didn't answer her alarm in the morning and grandma went to check in the morning and found her dead body. The family of course was distraught. They called 911 and when the paramedics arrived of course the girl was dead.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now at first suspicion fell on her own brother Michael and two of his friends which led to a really infamous interrogation. Mark tells about that.
MARK SAUER: That's right. The Escondido police had gotten two 911 calls from the night of the killing saying this Charlie Manson type was peering in, walking around the house just scaring them obviously enough to call 911 and officers responded. They didn't capture him that night. When the girl turned up dead the next morning the human response would be geez, we hope it wasn't that guy we didn't catch. They seem to think the house was locked up tight. Let's focus on who's in the house and they settled on Stephanie's 14-year-old brother Michael. They interrogated him deep into the night separated him from his parents, no attorney there, no parent there, and he ultimately admitted he must have killed his sister because you said so. They lied to him and said her blood was found in his room.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I understand the three boys were actually headed to trial when new evidence was found. How did the police hone in on Richard Tuite?
MARK SAUER: They did pick up Tuite the day after they were starting to interrogate Michael and two of his friends who were also to be prosecuted for that. They quickly dispatched with Tuite. The interviewed with him for about 15 min. but they kept his clothing from the night sweatpants then sent him on his way. He was a homeless man, very mentally ill. When the case was going to go to trial of course Michael Crowe and these boys had attorneys and the defense attorney insisted that they retest his clothing but not now by the poorly equipped Escondido police lab but by the DNA expert (inaudible) up in the Bay Area. And (inaudible) discovered that Stephanie's blood was on Richard Tuite's sweatshirt of the night of the crime after they know that the police contacted him the day before they had photographs of him in that clothing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the case was taken away from the San Diego District Attorney's Office.
MARK SAUER: The blood revelation brought the case against the Escondido police and District attorney's office did continue to have the case of for a couple years they were investigating it in the meantime Tuite was arrested on unrelated burglary charge. Finally after dragging their heels of the Atty. Gen. Hear Bernie Shontz convinced Bill Lockyer up in Sacramento to take the case turn the investigation over to the sheriff's department. It took another year or so and Tuite was about to get out on the burglary charge and they indicted him and arrested him for Stephanie's murder and that is the case that went to trial in 2004 that resulted in the conviction of Richard Tuite.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So that brings us up to the conviction in 2004. Now Richard Tuite, when he was put on trial in 2004 was eventually found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, Guylyn, which is a lesser offense than second-degree murder that he was charged with. What do you think, what might have resulted in a verdict like that?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: I think that's what the Ninth Circuit was concerned about when they reversed the conviction and what they said was the crime and the way she died was kind of difficult to square, if you will, because voluntary murder doesn't require premeditated intent to kill. And yet, Stephanie had nine stab wounds in her chest. And so you know, the fact that the jury had had a long time deliberating, had trouble coming to a decision and ultimately only reached the voluntary manslaughter conviction and basically acquitted Tuite of murder which is the premeditated intent to kill and I think the Ninth Circuit thought that was important.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To resolve this might be a compromise verdict?
MARK SAUER: Of course the prosecutors and jurors we interviewed most of the jury said, and these were in the days I worked at the Union Tribune, for the conviction and they said yes they felt terribly sorry for the man, he's mentally ill and this was in their opinion a just verdict of compromise.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now during the first trial didn't Tuite's lawyer, Mark, argue that someone else actually committed the murder?
MARK SAUER: Yes this was a trial within a trial when the defense attorney for the Richard Tuite (inaudible) again before this trial before Superior Court Judge Fred Link who handled the first case, he basically put on his own case for the prosecution. So the whole case with the blood evidence and the witnesses who put him at the scene of the crime and when the defense attorney came around they put those boys on trial at the time. So they said they had confessed and here is these interrogations and what the Escondido police had done was videotaped the entire interrogations of all three boys almost 30 hours of videotapes and they showed the jury that. This is one of the longest costliest trials in San Diego history, four months and one reason was they spent a week and a half having to jurors just look at all the exhaustive interrogation tapes that went through the night. So they got to see exactly what happened in the police interrogation room and of course since then we've seen many cases nationally, notable cases, movies have been done, documentaries about people falsely confessing to murders, confessing to crimes they didn't commit. But at the time this was unheard of and most prosecutors and police didn't believe anybody could be brought to confess to a murder they didn't commit.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In fact there was a TV movie made out of this case.
MARK SAUER: Yes, there was a Canadian production absolutely that went over this completely and since then there's been the West Memphis three and (inaudible) notorious cases in which course interrogations have led to people to admitting to offenses they did not commit.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Despite that Richard Tuite was convicted of manslaughter in the case but since then the conviction was overturned because of what some say was a minor error during cross-examination. So Guylyn, what is your take on why the Ninth Circuit overturned this conviction and Tuite's being retried?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: Well, there were two parts. (Inaudible) the Court of Appeal did say it was a minor error in that the conviction had to be affirmed on a writ of habeas corpus. The Ninth Circuit disagreed. And it essentially said you know again they had trouble squaring the actual verdict of voluntary manslaughter with the wounds that Stephanie had suffered that there were some other facts like there was lack of forced entry, the house was found dead bolted, locked and so how could Tuite have gotten in? They found it improbable that no one else would've woken up when this was happening. The most important thing was the rebuttal expert's cross-examination was cut off. And the defendant Tuite argued that that violated his confrontation clause rights and they said many times that cross-examination is the most important engine to seek out the truths so the Ninth Circuit felt like the fact that there was no complete cross-examination (inaudible) the verdict.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And by that time Richard Tuite will have served I think the bulk of his sentence which was, I read 14, I read 17.
MARK SAUER: You're right though, he has served at this point if you include the time he spent in jail before the trial which was another I don't know, couple of years yes then, of course Guylyn will tell us, but I mean 70, 80% of a sentence that's basically time served.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So why would the prosecutor, Guylyn, what would be the reasons prosecutor would choose to retry him?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: I think there are two important reasons that were given one is that the family and the public deserves to have it known you know whether someone needs to answer for this crime so that's important. Another reason that has been given his public safety and as Mark said earlier Mr. Tuite is mentally ill. This was a particularly heinous crime, so safety seems to be an important factor.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now between the time of the first early in the second trial which is about to begin, Michael Crowe, the person who had been accused of this crime who had almost gone on trial for this crime petitioned the court and was found factually innocent of the murder of his sister. Guylyn, what does that mean?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: It essentially means that there's a finding that you are innocent. So the boys were charged with a crime. Normally there would either be failure to bring them to trial, or it would end it, not as decisive a way, but to actually have a verdict that says you're factually innocent is important I'm sure to someone like Michael Crow.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how rare is that, Mark?
MARK SAUER: It's very unusual. I know of two cases, both false accusation cases. The first is in the case of Jim White who was a Navy chief here falsely accused of raping his daughter and those are the only two in the years I've been a reporter in San Diego in 32 years covering courts often on in the time it's very unusual that you have to also note there was a federal civil case brought by the Crowe family and that case was guided by the federal judge hear Judge Rhodes and the same Ninth Circuit reinstated the case in a long 90 page opinion saying that these interrogations shock the conscience, that's very likely their constitutional rights were violated and of course ends Escondido wound up settling for $7.2 million rather than case take the case to trial on the same facts we've got the civil side and also interesting I should note the civil case was appealed by Escondido all the way to the US Supreme Court. They lost and they wound up settling. This overturning of Tuite's conviction of the criminal side was appealed by the attorney general all the way to the US Supreme Court. They decided not to take it up. So both sides of this case have been to the US Supreme Court. Very unusual.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Mark, I heard you say about the attorney (inaudible) who was the defense attorney, that there was some idea that he would use the same line of defense this time around that Tuite is innocent and that it was someone else.
MARK SAUER: These other guys did it, the boys did it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The boys did it. But you said they found the factual innocence. Guylyn will prosecutors be allowed to tell the jury that there has been this finding that Michael Crow did not commit this crime?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: You know that will be a subject of motion in limine I'm sure and obviously judge link will have to rule on that, but you know, the evidence that's other the admissions that the boys made and although I'm sure the defense attorney will use. It would strike me as unfair if the boys don't get to put on you know, the defense that in fact they were factually innocent not the defense but in fact you get to establish that during the trial.
MARK SAUER: Interesting note on that point if they do and I fully expect there will be destroyed within a trial and Brad (inaudible) will attempt to prosecute us who were the boys in this case. We interviewed most of the jurors and they dismiss that in the first hour. This was a jury that deliberated for seven or eight days and finally reached a compromise verdict we are talking about in the first are the discounted this defense theory that the boys had done it, so it's a long shot for the defense it would seem to me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so do we know whether or not the prosecutors are also going to be able to present to the jury the fact that whatever information the defense presents about these confessions that actually (inaudible) family one this verdict, the civil verdict against Escondido because of the way these interrogations were conducted?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: Normally some settlements are confidential and I don't happen to know in this case whether or not this has any aspect of confidentiality, but I would frankly be surprised if Judge Link would let the defense get too far into this. On the actions of the family.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, you know we are talking about the ends and outs of this legal case, but as I say, Mark you have followed this case from almost the time it started when Stephanie Crowe was killed. What has this done to the Crowe family?
MARK SAUER: It's been devastating. Any parent, anyone can imagine the worst thing you can happen is you find your daughter one morning lying dead on her bedroom floor, stabbed to death. Well now that is compounded by the fact that her brother is falsely accused of killing her. They have just gone through hell, this family. And they are willing to come back and testify again and defend these accusations that the defense brings again because it is so important and vital to them. Obviously they have the settlement, they are comfortable now out of the area, living in Oregon one reason is there are still people in Escondido who think the boys are guilty and they just made a new life up there. But they are willing to come back and once again make clear what they believe is absolutely the truth in this case.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And this conversation, this case has so many twists and turns. We haven't been able to touch on all of them by any means. For instance Richard Tuite actually briefly escaped while he was in custody, there was that aspect. So many of the aspects to this case, Guylyn, but one of the essential ones and Mark touched on this is, do we know more now about false confessions and has law enforcement learned from the botched interrogation of these three boys? Has there been any progress in how to handle suspects when it comes to an interrogation like this?
GUYLYN CUMMINS: You know, I certainly hope so. I was actually the media lawyer who got access to the deliberate tapes and I've watched them and I have to say as a mom of a 14-year-old at the time it was just chilling. I mean you would've felt like you had to hire an attorney for your kid immediately in the middle of the night when the police first show up and arrive. But yeah I think they've been used as training tapes in certain circumstances and obviously there is no uniformity in law enforcement across the United States but hopefully they learn from cases like this.
MARK SAUER: I will say there's a lawyer who actually had a role in this case and he taught a psych law class at UC Irvine he had me up several years in a row on this case and they used the six part series on the Crowe case just to teach these young students, many of them going to law school about false interrogation, or false confessions and the cost of shoddy interrogation so they've used this case and many other notorious cases as learning tools since this time.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as I said at the very beginning jury selection begins this weekend so we will be following this case once again. I've been speaking with Mark Sauer, KPBS senior editor and attorney Guylyn Cummins thank you so much.