Murder in the Peace Corps
Press notification about the murder was delayed more than two weeks. And when a press release finally was issued, it went out on the American presidential Election Day, Nov. 2, 1976, ensuring the story would be buried.
Even Gardner's hometown paper, the Tacoma News-Tribune, ran only a brief obituary.
The United States government, meanwhile, hired Tonga's most prominent attorney, Clive Edwards, to represent Priven. Plying an unsophisticated panel of jurors, Edwards used an insanity defense for the first time in Tongan courts.
At nine days, it was the longest trial in Tongan history. The kingdom had only limited experience with murder cases. The slaying of Gardner was the first in Tonga in the 1970s.
Authorities in Washington were kept apprised of events at the trial with telegrams from Mary George or the defense team. The messages had an oddly rah-rah point of view. They left no doubt that Priven was the home team.
"DIFFICULT DAY FOR DENNIS," began one.
"ANOTHER DAMAGING DAY FOR DENNIS," said another.
The U.S. helped shift the momentum by flying in a young shrink from Hawaii to testify that Priven was insane.
Priven refused to cooperate with the psychiatrist, Kosta Stojanovich. But that didn't stop Stojanovich from spending several days testifying about Priven's insanity.
The primary evidence seemed to be that Priven had drawn a skull on the door of his bungalow sometime before the murder. Stojanovich judged that Priven suffered latent schizophrenia that surfaced during the violent episode.
Ultimately, the Tongan jurors were overwhelmed by the savvy case that Edwards presented on behalf of the American. They took just 26 minutes to find Priven not guilty due to insanity.