Serology: It's in the Blood
Ambiguous Evidence: Suicide or Murder?
Robert Perry was found shot to death on March 29, 2001, in a back bedroom of his mobile home in Kamiah, Idaho. He was 83 and had been suffering from terminal throat cancer. Robert Perry's 57-year-old nephew, Craig Perry, claimed to have found him while Craig's girlfriend, Carol Flynn, then called 911 to report the suicide. The police arrived and filmed the scene for analysis, which was used when suspicions grew that this incident was no suicide.
Kamiah Police Marshal David Hasz described the scene later in court: The body lay on the floor, facing the bed. Blood was coming from the back of the frail man's head and a .22-caliber long-barreled pistol lay near his feet. A deck of playing cards was scattered on the floor near him. Perry clutched an oxygen tube in his right hand.
Craig and Carol gave their statements and seemed quite upset, but the police had doubts when those statements seemed inconsistent with the crime scene. Their reservations deepened as the pair altered some details of their stories. Craig indicated that his uncle had made an earlier comment that he was going to "end it," and Craig had tried to joke with him about it to dissuade him, saying he did not want to clean up the mess. They also said they'd found him on the floor, but then changed that to finding him slumped over on the bed, so close to the floor they couldn't believe he was still sitting. Carol indicated that Craig then went to embrace the man, and finding him dead, placed him on the floor.
Prosecutors believed Craig Perry shot his uncle, and six months after the incident, Craig Perry was charged with second-degree murder.
At the trial in June 2004, the background came out. A month before the death, Craig had moved in to the trailer to care for the ailing man, and a few weeks later, Carol had joined him. At the time of the incident, both had been in the front room. Carol said she had heard a loud pop and asked Craig if he had heard it. After he asked her what she was talking about, they both heard a second one and rushed to the room.
The defense argued that Robert killed himself because he was suffering and felt like a burden to his family. Each side called experts to interpret that evidence, most specifically the wound pattern and blood spatter evidence.
The bed, complete with the same bloody sheets, was brought into the courtroom, with the blood-spattered headboard. Craig Perry's pants were also entered into evidence, as they bore blood spatter as well.
For the prosecution, Rod Englert, a blood spatter analyst, reconstructed the event before the jury, using a stand-in person to represent Robert Perry. He said that the fine mist of blood on Craig's pants was not a transfer smear from having handled the body but blowback from the spray released upon impact from a bullet, which meant that Craig was nearby when Robert was shot. The fact that he had blood on his pants but none on his shirt seemed to contradict his statement that he had hugged his uncle when he found him.
In addition, Englert evaluated the blood on the bed and said that the man could not have been shot while sitting there with his head slumped, because blood would have hit his legs, and there was none found in those areas. Blood found on the side of the bed indicated that Robert had been seated on the floor, leaning on the bed, when shot. Blood on Robert's hands, Englert said, indicated that it was impossible that he had shot himself. It seemed instead to have come from contact with blood on the floor.
However, the pistol was not tested for fingerprints, and no tests were done for gunshot residue in the bedroom or on Craig Perry, so important evidence for reconstruction was lost. (A crime scene processor claimed the lab used did not accept gunshot residue tests.) Also, no second bullet was recovered from the scene, though two shell casings were.
Pathologist Dr. Michael Cihak, who performed the autopsy, demonstrated how the pistol had to have been held to make the wounds he found on the righthand side of the back of Robert's head. He seemed to think it was unlikely that anyone would have chosen that position to shoot himself, and showed how awkward it was.
However, Cihak had already changed his own findings once, based on reports. He had located one large bullet fragment and several smaller ones in the skull, and when he learned that one casing had been found, he said he had one bullet. But when he later learned that two had been found, he changed that to say that one bullet alone could not have caused the wound he found.
Despite his findings, he admitted on cross-examination that suicide could not be ruled out.
His testimony was echoed by Dr. Vincent Di Maio, chief medical examiner from San Antonio, Texas, and nationally renowned expert on gunshot wounds. He believed that someone other than the victim had shot him, and said that only five percent of suicidal shots are behind the ear. He did not believe the man could have fired twice in succession.
To counter that, the defense called surgical pathologist George Lindholm, who testified it was possible for a man to shoot himself twice with that caliber weapon, because he might not lose consciousness the first time. Lindholm also said that, when shooting with two hands, turning the weapon upside down, it was possible to shoot oneself that way.
Stuart James, a blood spatter pattern expert from Florida, interpreted the exhibits differently. He stated that the blood on Craig's pants could have come from the blood spewed when his uncle coughed, a frequent occurrence during the days leading up to the incident. He did not think a .22-caliber would necessarily produce that kind of blowback. In addition, expelled blood resembles high velocity impact spatter.
James had done an experiment to support his analysis. He withdrew his own blood, put it into his mouth, and coughed against the same type of material from which the suspect's pants were made. The droplets he produced were similar in size and shape to those found on the pants. When questioned, he said that the velocity of his cough would have been similar to that of Robert Perry.
In further support of suicide, Craig claimed that he had no motive to kill his uncle. The man had no money, and Craig loved him like a father. In fact, after his own father had died, his uncle had raised him. Medical records indicated that Robert's illness had grown worse, and his home nurse reported that he had rejected traditional cancer treatment. Two days before he died, he had coughed up blood and gone to the hospital, where doctors were unable to do anything for him.
Hours before Robert died, Carol Flynn called the hospital to report that he was having trouble breathing. That same day, she had called 911 to say he had shot himself.
Another witness said that Robert was predominantly left-handed, but had used his right hand to shoot. A neighbor and a hunting companion agreed that he was ambidextrous. Both of these witnesses had heard Robert speak about committing suicide.
Numerous character witnesses testified that Craig was a peaceful man who had loved his uncle and would not have shot anyone. He paid for all his uncle's expenses and took care of his needs, from feeding him to getting him into bed. There was no evidence that he considered his charge a burden. A nurse said that Craig had remained positive that Robert might survive, despite the poor prognosis.
In support of the homicide theory, there was testimony that, while Robert had grown worse, he was taking simple medicines and resisting making discussions about his will. He got angry with his nurse and told her, "You already have me in the grave," an indication that he was fierce about living. Police found a newspaper article about assisted suicide in a suitcase, along with power of attorney documents.
Also, when police had asked Craig Perry to leave the trailer on the day of the incident so they could investigate, he yelled, "You think I killed him, don't you!" Then after being confronted with the blood analysis evidence, Craig changed his statement about hearing two pops to hearing one and then running to the bedroom — presumably to imply that he arrived in time for the second shot.
A witness also testified that when she found the second cartridge under the playing cards, Craig threw it away, saying the police must not need it.
Clearly, the crime scene was poorly processed. Overlooking a cartridge near the body and declining to do any gun shot residue analysis, which may have resolved many questions, cloud the issue.
On June 25, 2004, after two days of deliberations, the jury announced its decision: Craig Perry was acquitted of killing his uncle. Even the blood spatter evidence was ambiguous enough to allow for reasonable doubt.