Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CSI and Me

by Kathryn Casey

A few years back, I sat across a desk from Henrico Police Captain Jan Stem in his Richmond, VA, office, talking about the Piper Rountree case. Rountree (photo left), a Houston attorney, was charged with murdering her ex-husband, University of Richmond professor Fred Jablin (with Piper in photo right below). It was a particularly violent conclusion to a War-of-the-Roses-style divorce, two years of domestic warfare. Rountree hadn’t liked the outcome of the divorce; a self-envisioned super mom, she’d lost custody of the couple’s three kids. The police figured that she’d attempted to right what she perceived as a great wrong by ambushing Jablin in the family driveway while their kids slept upstairs in the house.

Yet another example of how motherly love can go tragically askew.

Talking with Stem that day, it was obvious that the evidence against Rountree relied heavily on such modern-day devices as cell phones and the Internet. It got me thinking about how many of the cases I now investigate rest on evidence unheard of when I started writing about crime fresh out of journalism school as a fledgling reporter for Houston City Magazine back in the eighties.

At the appropriate moment, I asked Stem, a middle-ager like myself, who’d been in the crime game for a couple of decades, to quantify for me how much the cop business had changed throughout his career. Stem ran a thick hand through his soft brown hair and frowned. Shrugging, he said, “Old fashioned police work is still important, but almost everything’s different these days.”

The case, the subject of my book Die, My Love (HarperCollins 2007) is fascinating, full of twists and turns and terror in the night. But that day in Stem’s office, another murder was on my mind as well, the first murder case I ever covered, the one we at Houston City called the “Piney Woods Love Triangle.” It happened in and around a small East Texas middle school, back in the mid-eighties. The victim, Bill Fleming, was a young football coach. The accused was none other than the principal, one Hurley Fontenot, a courtly man with an East Texas drawl. Both Fleming and Fontenot were married, and both had affairs with the school secretary, a pretty, dark-haired woman with a self-effacing manner, Laura Nugent.

There’s no doubt that the prosecution had a circumstantial case: Fontenot and Fleming had been feuding over Nugent for months. Testimony pegged the principal as the last one seen with the coach the afternoon he disappeared. But there was potential forensic evidence as well: Bill Fleming’s decomposing body found dumped in a deserted oil field, nearly a week after the murder, and human blood spray in the inside of the 4H camper Fontenot had on his pickup that weekend. The truck and camper were cleaned at a car wash the day after Fleming’s disappearance, but police found diluted human blood collected on the truck axle as well.

But remember, this was 1984, a lifetime ago in the CSI business.

I spent seven weeks in a Livingston, TX, courtroom as prosecutors and well-known Houston defense attorney Dick DeGuerin battled it out. Today it would be a simple matter. Even with a single bone or a wad of spit, DNA could be collected and mapped, compared to the blood in the trailer and on the axle. Back then, however, DNA was just a theory. At that time – and remember this is just a little over twenty years ago – police labs couldn’t even type blood from a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition. The bottom line: Prosecutors had no way to convincingly tie the blood inside the trailer and on Hurley Fontenot’s truck axle to Bill Fleming.

Still, we’re talking about human blood, not something normally found inside a trailer or sprayed inside a camper. And there must have been a considerable amount to mix with the car wash water and collect on the axle. How could the defense explain that? For much of the trial, I thought the blood evidence would be the prosecutors’ ace in the hole.

The defense attorney offered an alternate possibility. The blood didn’t belong to Bill Fleming at all, DeGuerin countered. Family-man Hurley regularly used the trailer and pickup to transport household garbage cans to the dump. Inside were plastic bags, some of which contained his wife’s menstrual pads. That wasn’t all. When DeGuerin asked Mrs. Fontenot some rather embarrassing questions, she explained that she was enduring what women today call menopause and which they then euphemistically referred to as “the change,” and that she was thus experiencing an unusually heavy flow.

Although I never quite understood how blood could have not only come off the pads, but leaked through garbage bags and the garbage cans, so much that it splattered inside the trailer and collected on the axle, I guess the jury did. The four men and eight women charged with deciding his fate acquitted Hurley Fontenot.

Hurley wasn’t a healthy man. He had heart problems, and not much later he died. No one else was ever prosecuted for Bill Fleming’s murder. Whenever questioned about the case, prosecutors said they believed they had the right man but simply lost in the courtroom. To this day, DeGuerin says he doesn’t believe Fontenot committed the murders. But, of course, we’ll never know. With Fontenot acquitted and deceased, there’s no reason to do DNA on Bill Fleming or the found blood, that is if any of the evidence even remains stored in a cold case box.

So, when I sit back and look at a case like Piper Rountree’s, as fascinating as it is, with all the advantages of modern police work, I can’t help but recall the decades-old murder of Bill Fleming. It reminds me how long I’ve been covering courtrooms, and how many safeguards science offers today to ensure that a jury’s decision is based on real evidence. When done correctly, modern science has the power to free the innocent and condemn the guilty.


Leah said...

But wouldn't you like to have any remaining DNA tested just because there is a possibility it would solve the case?

Kathryn Casey said...

I would. I've asked about it a couple of times, but I was always told that it wasn't in the cards. The county wouldn't spend the money on what they see as a closed case.

Jan said...

It's wrong to consign old cases to the round file. The families and friends left behind as walking wounded have to deal with the aftermath of murder for the rest of their lives. If there is any possibility that they might at least get some answers to their questions, it should be pursued.

Anonymous said...

He was aquitted. There is no way his family would allow him to be exhumed. They cant try him again and he is dead.

Its not an old case its a closed case. They had the guy but he got away with it.