As the Peel case wandered into defense territory, Phil Weidner scored a hit. And a miss. It was all about the experts. Expert witnesses are a dime-a-dozen. There’s money in it but, more than that, professional pride. Most judges know that; good judges are always skeptical. They must be.
In taking on the prosecution’s star witness, Weidner pushed Judge Schulz for access to Larry Demmert’s alcohol treatment records. He wanted a Kentucky pharmacologist, and reputed expert on the effects of alcohol, to examine those records for signs of confabulation. Short of that, Weidner wanted the judge to force Demmert to meet with the defense pharmacologist.
The defense strategy was plain. With the medical records and a favorable assessment, they could broaden their attack on Demmert to characterize him as a man whose “addled” brain was capable of creating false incriminatory recollections.
In contradiction to the defense position, Assistant D.A. Bob Blasco called Weidner’s arguments “unsupportable.” Prosecution experts didn’t know of any studies linking alcohol abuse to long-term memory loss. “Alcoholics have never been found to be less accurate in memory than anybody else,” Blasco averred.
Within a week of the defense request, Judge Schulz ruled that he would not release Demmert’s medical records to the defense. It was a miss.
Weidner’s larger theme was official incompetence. He soon followed with a defense expert who pointed to the state’s failure to obtain fingerprint evidence, a sure sign, to his mind, of a bungled investigation.
The expert was George Bonebrake, a retired 34-year veteran of the FBI’s Latent Fingerprint Section and the man who had identified James Earl Ray’s fingerprint on the rifle used to kill Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bonebrake insisted that troopers should have tried to take prints from the Investor skiff on the day after the fire, saying that the rainfall that day wouldn’t have washed away fingerprints made by an arsonist’s fuel-soaked hands.
The former FBI agent added that he “would have asked that the skiff be taken out of the water, at least onto the dock, preferably into a closed area where I could then build a tent over the skiff so that I could process it with the superglue fuming method.”
Some Pointed Questions
On cross-examination, Mary Anne Henry tried to show how conditions on the Investor conspired against the taking of fingerprints. And Bonebrake admitted that some of the fingerprinting techniques he mentioned would be difficult to perform. The rain, he confessed, would have made it difficult to use powder for taking the prints. The laser and glue techniques he had mentioned would be difficult to achieve without taking the Investor apart — not an easy task in any circumstance, perhaps impossible in Craig.
Indeed, Mary Anne Henry was quick to remind Bonebrake that “when we tried to saw the hull of the Investor, the power saw broke.” She also reminded him that the FBI didn’t start experimenting with the superglue technique until late 1980 and early 1981. The murders took place in late ’82.
Henry added that troopers did try to obtain fingerprints from three Investor sources: The tie lines, the jerry jug spout left in the skiff and the Investor’s ship log. The only print they found, she said, was on the ship’s log. That print didn’t belong to John Peel, she said, but it couldn’t be identified further.
The jury was not impressed. They’d all seen crime dramas on TV. Taking fingerprints was like breathing. You had to do it.
This time, the miss belonged to the prosecution.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.