A Tale of Two Maps

Toni Lister was reported missing in Seward, Alaska, on March 7, 1982. Her body was found a month and a half later. An autopsy showed she had been sexually assaulted and brutally stabbed 26 times with a Phillips screw driver.

Nine months later, on October 26, 1982, Robert Hansen was arrested on kidnapping and rape charges — and later confessed to the brutal murders of four women in Alaska, although the known death toll is much higher (at least 17 victims). In the final days and months of his killing spree, according to autopsy reports, Hansen had gone into a frenzy of violence, not only shooting the women, but stabbing them multiple times. When asked about the Lister murder by Alaska State Troopers, however, Hansen denied it.

It wasn’t until 2007 that cold case investigators made an arrest in Toni Lister’s murder. The man they arrested was not Robert Hansen. They instead arrested Jimmy Lee Eacker, a trade school friend of Lister’s husband. He had been an early suspect.

Is it possible that police have the wrong man?

Let’s be clear. Jimmy Eacker is no choirboy. He has an armed robbery conviction. He’s a registered sex offender. At his 2007 trial, at least two witnesses testified that he’d raped and threatened violence against them during the ’80s. He acknowledged he’d had sex with Toni Lister on the night in question. Beyond that, he claims he can’t remember killing Toni Lister because he was high on mushrooms.

To complicate matters, the critical DNA evidence in the case — the DNA that tied Eacker to Lister’s murder — was seriously compromised. More specifically, it was contaminated to the point where more than one person’s DNA was found. Several factors were involved, including sloppy lab work. The judge, upon learning of this, threw out Eacker’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

That’s where the maps come into play.

When Hansen was arrested, troopers found aviation maps at his home with hand-drawn markers on them. Those markers later proved to be spots where Hansen victims would be discovered. Once troopers started unearthing bodies, Sgt. Glenn Flothe created a parallel aviation map, marking spots that Hansen had “missed.” Flothe also color-coded his map, with blue marks for victims Hansen acknowledged killing, yellow for those he denied.

There are key differences between those two maps. Flothe’s map has more markers than Hansen’s. Including one very near where Toni Lister’s body was found (#23) — a marker missing from the Hansen map.

Glenn Flothe’s cryptic note about #23? “Denied.” Indeed, the Flothe map shows that Hansen claimed only one of the Seward markers represented a victim. The sole exception was Joanna Messina (#17), whose body was found in… 1980.

So by his own admission, Hansen had been in the Seward area as late as 1980 — and routinely visited Seward in the ’70s, during which time police have evidence of at least one kidnapping and rape (1971). There are also two very suspicious Seward disappearances (1973, 1975) that Hansen denied; suspicious because Hansen was known to be in Seward both times. Troopers speculate that Hansen denied those presumed murders because the victims weren’t prostitutes.

Could Robert Hansen have killed Toni Lister? Yes. Could Jimmy Lee Eacker have killed Toni Lister? Yes. Anyone else? Maybe.

The lesson? If you are going to go cold-casing, don’t cut corners on the lab work required to pinpoint the DNA. After thirty years, memories go bad. DNA evidence is not always perfect or pristine, but carelessness in the lab can be prevented.

AST Version of Hansen’s Flight Map (portion)

Sgt. Glenn Flothe's version of Hansen's flight map

Hansen’s Flight Map (portion)

Hansen's original flight map

That Pesky DNA

In these pages, we’ve written about the impacts of faulty memory on criminal cases. We’ve talked about faulty lie-detectors and faulty software used to find lies in “emotional speech.” We have also written about false confessions. We’ve even written about unexpected reactions to violent situations, reactions that, as it turns out, do not fit the TV prescription for guilt or innocence.

Since these behaviors are often fundamental to the arrest and conviction of criminals, they are essential to any consideration of the criminal justice system. When they go wrong, justice is thwarted.

That’s where DNA comes in. It wasn’t that long ago that DNA testing was introduced into criminal proceedings (and I recall my co-author asking at the time what cops could do to challenge it). Now, some twenty plus years later, it is “taken for granted” as a scientific way to show the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime.

As the Innocence Project reports, since 1989 there have been 281 post-conviction exonerations in the U.S. In 45% of those cases, the DNA identified the true suspects or perpetrators. According to the Innocence Project, moreover, we find that:

About 80 percent of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing were single perpetrator crimes. About 75 percent of the single perpetrator crimes involved eyewitness misidentifications (60 percent of the total), and about 75 percent of them were non-homicide cases. In about half of the single perpetrator cases, the real perpetrator has been identified.

Sounds pretty much like a slam dunk. Find the DNA and let somebody wrongly accused go free. Turns out it’s much more complicated. You knew that, right?

Let’s consider the case of Michael Morton, who served 25 years in Texas prison for his wife Christine’s murder. Morton has consistently maintained his innocence, saying his wife was murdered by a third-party intruder. He said that DNA testing would prove it.

For more than six years, the Innocence Project has been seeking access to DNA testing on a stained bandana that was found on an abandoned construction site approximately 100 yards from the crime scene… On June 20, 2011, a testing laboratory issued a report finding that the bandana contained the DNA of a man other than Michael, along with Christine’s blood and hair. The male DNA was put though the national DNA database and has been linked to a convicted offender.

Why did it take so long? Texas District Attorney John Bradley blocked the introduction of DNA evidence. Worse, it now appears that other evidence was suppressed. Exculpatory evidence that pointed toward a third-party intruder. It seems that the prosecution had already made up its mind that Michael Morton had beaten his wife to death because she refused to have sex with him on his 32nd birthday.

Ok, not as bad as the “witch” accusations and “sex-starved-she-devil” tag that Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini put on Amanda Knox, but… That pesky DNA turned up there, too, didn’t it?

More interesting to this crime writer, though, is what such old, old, old evidence does to the prosecution of the criminal case. As Brandi Grissom, writing for The Texas Tribune, notes in her spot-on coverage of the Morton case, “Key witnesses may have moved or died, documents could have disappeared, and evidence-collection standards are now much stricter.”

The new defendant’s lawyer, Russell Hunt, Jr. — who has the task of defending his client against a 25-year-old crime — concurs, saying: “People change over time. People’s memories change over time… Physical evidence gets moved. Physical evidence is stored in different ways.”

It won’t be a slam dunk. But it should have been. Should have been, except for cops and prosecutors making up their minds and putting blinders on to prevent any doubt from creeping in. Stop it, already.