Water Closet Drowning Death Revisited
A few years ago there was a “Forensic Files” show on Court TV (now Tru TV) regarding a drowning death in a water closet. I was featured on the show and testified at the trial.
That “Forensic Files” episode is still periodically shown on Tru TV, and I normally get a phone call or e-mail that someone saw me on television. If you care to catch it, the episode is called “High and Dry.”
The “Forensic Files” producers found the court case by reading this magazine. They surf the Internet looking for articles on interesting court cases involving forensic evidence. I originally wrote a column on this legal case after I testified in court. The column got so long that I had to split it into two columns (that ran in February and March of 2003).
Some Case BackgroundI received a call from a district attorney asking if an adult could drown in a water closet. I responded not without someone holding his or her head under water. Otherwise, it was physically impossible. The same cannot be said for small children.
When the DA explained the case, I understood his question. A husband claimed he found his wife in the bathroom, drowned in the water closet. She was throwing up after having overdosed on prescription drugs in an effort to commit suicide. At least that is what the husband said. The husband tried to perform CPR, but she was already dead.
The DA thought the story didn’t add up. He surmised the husband tried to kill her by giving her an overdose of drugs. She woke up and went to vomit the drugs in the water closet. The DA believed the husband panicked and forced her head under water until she drowned.
It should be noted the wife had planned on leaving her husband the next day when he was at work. It was assumed he found out about her plans.
This was a murder case where no eyewitnesses testified, and there were no confessions. The case hinged on the forensic evidence against the husband.
The husband was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison in Wisconsin without parole. After numerous appeals, he remained a convicted murderer. Before “Forensic Files” airs a show, all appeals must be exhausted. The producers actually waited a number of years before they filmed the show.
When I was asked to appear on the show, I thought it would involve an hour of filming. Seven hours later, they filmed everything you can imagine, including doing silly things to make the producers happy. After numerous takes walking past water closets, I found out I am not an actor.
Unfortunately when the show appeared, it was not as much about the forensics that I wrote about in my column. There was a heavier concentration on the sex angle. Sex sells. During the trial, the sex angle was not that important. It was mentioned, but it wasn’t what convicted the husband. Having the water closet present in the courtroom helped to have the jury understand how you cannot drown in the water closet without someone holding your head under water.
Unexpected TwistAs it turns out, Court TV played a role in eventually having the murder conviction overturned on appeal. One of the experts who testified at the murder trial was appearing live on a murder trial being shown on what was then Court TV. I happened to be watching the show in my hotel room. When I heard the expert’s name, I said, “Hey, that’s the same guy that testified in our trial in Wisconsin.”
As I watched him testify, the defense attorney went on the attack. During cross-examination, the defense attorney accused the witness of lying about his credentials. The defense attorney presented the proof that he was lying. That is when I thought, “Oh no! What about all the other trials that he testified in?”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed that the witness also lied about his credentials in our trial. The court overturned the conviction, even though it believed his testimony was unnecessary in obtaining the murder conviction.
Shortly afterwards, I received a call from the DA. The husband was out on bail and there would be a new trial. The trial was scheduled for the end of this October.
The DA asked me to simply repeat the testimony I had given almost eight years earlier. After all, nothing had changed in the forensic evidence.
I will have to say I wasn’t looking forward to another murder trial. It is eerie testifying when the person you believe is a murderer is sitting about 25 feet away from you. But, if that is what it would take to put him away for life again, I was willing to do it.
I knew that the forensic evidence was very strong. There was no way in the world a jury would not reconvict him. In addition, plumbing code requirements helped to support the forensic evidence.
The New OutcomeI received a call about the case recently, and apparently everyone else thought the forensic evidence was too strong. The husband appeared in court and pled guilty to a lesser crime of manslaughter. He will still be incarcerated for many years, but he will be eligible for parole. His sentencing is scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving.
This draws to an end my first murder trial. By pleading guilty, the husband admitted he killed his wife. Even a smooth-talking husband couldn’t get past the forensic evidence that proved his guilt.
It’s a tragic story, but at least justice has prevailed.