Thursday, May 11, 2006

Worrisome Details in Case Involving Fantastic Claims

Until today I had not heard about the trial (and, now, conviction) of the Toledo priest charged with a satanic killing of a nun -- 26 years ago. See, e.g., "Priest convicted of killing nun," UPI Online (Toledo, Ohio; May 11, 2006).

The victim, Margaret Ann, a nun, was murdered in a hospital chapel. "She was murdered on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, as she prepared the chapel for holiday services. The killer attacked her in the chapel sacristy where the Eucharist was held, strangling her and then stabbing her 31 times, including nine times through an altar cloth. Those wounds [the prosecutor argued] formed the shape of an inverted cross." Harriet Ryan, "Catholic priest convicted of nun's 1980 murder," courttvnews [online] (May 11, 2006). The defendant, a priest, was the chaplain at the chapel.

The jury convicted the defendant, Gerald Robinson, of murder. The jury was apparently convinced that Robinson used a letter opener that he owned to kill Harriet Ryan. However, there are some troubling details about case against Robinson:

1. The reopening of the case against the priest was precipitated by an anonymous person who accused various priests in the Toledo area, including the defendant, of having molested that person years earlier. However, no action has been taken on that complaint.

2. A local member of SNAP -- Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests --, it appears, played a large role in getting the prosecutor to reopen the case and to investigate the possibility that Robinson was the culprit. SNAP has rarely if ever encountered an abuse charge against a priest that it disbelieves. Why was this member of SNAP interested in a murder charge against Robinson? Did this member of SNAP have a connection to the anonymous sex abuse complainant or to some other alleged victim or victims of Robinson's sexual molestation and, if so, was this member of SNAP trying to use the murder charge as leverage for possible civil actions against Robinson? What precisely was this SNAP member's role in the murder case?

3. Evidence purporting to show some sort of satanic practices by the defendant Robinson was submitted at the trial. But in his closing argument the prosecutor said "that the murder was not a satanic or ritualized killing" but that, nevertheless, "Robinson performed a 'bastardized version of last rites' on Sr. Margaret Ann.'" Id. I'm not sure there is much of a difference between these two types of alleged religious misconduct. But if there is a difference, why did the prosecutor apparently try to run away from the charge of satanic practices? And if satanic practices were not part of the prosecutor's theory of the case, why did the prosecutor offer evidence of satanic practices at trial?

4. "During the three-week trial, an expert in the occult testified that only a member of the clergy would have the specialized knowledge of Catholic rituals evidenced in the killing." Id. Are you as suspicious as I am about thus supposed expert in the occult? Is it your guess that this "expert" spouted hokum? And why is it that the prosecutor used this "expert in the occult" to testify to Catholic religious rituals instead of an expert in Catholic religious rituals, a person such as a Catholic bishop or a member of the faculty at a Catholic seminary?

5. The evidence that the killing was done in conformity with some distorted religious ritual is highly suspicious. For example, the prosecutor argued that the 31 wounds on the nun's formed an upside down cross. Was that impression -- the impression that the wounds formed a cross -- something akin to a Rorschach test? (Do you recall the highway overpass on which, it appeared -- to some believers -- that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared, at least at times? [Some people, try as they might, could not discern the image of a woman on the overpass. Other people thought they saw streaks created by rain flowing down over grainy concrete.] In these situation much depends on the imagination of the beholder.) And if the killer did make a cross, he must have been fairly clever and persistent and strong and fearless to take the time to kill the victim by precisely landing 31 stab stabs in the pattern of a cross, don't you think?

6. And what evidence was there that Robinson rather than someone else was the guy who stabbed Margaret Ann? Well, it wasn't DNA: DNA tests on Margaret Ann's clothing revealed the DNA of some third person. This, of course, doesn't prove Robinson's innocence. It is entirely possible that after Margaret Ann was killed but before her body was removed, some intruder, a third person, molested the dead body of Margaret Ann and deposited his DNA on her underpants.

7. Well, if DNA didn't identify Robinson, what did? The answer, some news reports tell us, is some creative forensic science, some of it provided by the estimable Dr. Henry Lee. But was this forensic science perhaps too creative for its own good? Consider item 1: Blood spatter evidence -- the pattern of blood spatter from Mary Ann's wounds -- was used, we are told, to help establish that the weapon used to kill Margaret Ann was a letter opener rather than a weapon such as scissors or an ordinary knife. Proposition: The pattern of spatter from a wound can discriminate between letter openers and scissors or ordinary knives. Do you believe that? Consider item 2: There was, we are told, a faint blood stain on cloth that was draped over the altar, an altar that was close to the location of the murder. A part of this faint blood stain -- which would have to have been 20 years old and might have been dry-cleaned a few times -- "bore a striking resemblance to a medallion on the priest's letter opener." Id. What do we have here -- another Rorschach test?

Based on the little I know, this is a very troubling case.

John Silber Reaps the Rewards of Scholarship

"John Silber, who was one of the most handsomely paid university presidents in the nation, has received about $7 million in deferred compensation and other benefits from Boston University since he stepped down as chancellor in 2003." Marcella Bombardieri, Rich rewards outlast Silber's reign, Boston Globe Online (May 10, 2006)