Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Allentown Massacres

Final Step

Judge James Diefenderfer presided over the murder trial for Nelson Benjamin Birdwell III, beginning with jury selection on March 25. He did not allow any testimony about Ben's skinhead involvement, which took some of the wind out of Steinberg's argument, but Steinberg also knew he had a death-qualified jury who might deliver a death sentence. Makoul's defense strategy was to show that Ben had an IQ of 78, which made him borderline mentally retarded. In addition, after the murders he had suffered from acute anxiety disorder, which had fueled his decision to accompany his cousin to Michigan.

On April 9, the lawyers made their opening statements. Steinberg said that Ben had been an active participant in the murders, as indicated by the blood spatter on his shirt and by statements in the Freeman brothers' confessions. Makoul pointed out that Ben was mentally retarded, a follower, and had happened to walk into the master bedroom when David had swung the weapon that had killed Dennis Freeman. He argued that Ben suffered from acute stress trauma from having witnessed this.

Steinberg had a number of telling circumstantial points: the clerk who saw Ben purchase a new pair of jeans in Ohio, consistent with the Freeman brothers' tale, and another clerk from a Holiday Inn where Ben had the presence of mind to give a fake name. Inconsistencies in Ben's statements to others about his involvement were also brought to light for the jury.  And then there was the blood evidence.

The crime lab technician testified about the DNA procedure that had determined that Dennis Freeman's blood was found on Ben's T-shirt. She said the drops could not have traveled very far, so he had to have been close when the impact was made. To test this, Dr. Barbara Rouley had covered wood with a thin layer of horse blood and plastic. She hit the wood with a baseball bat and observed how far the blood spattered, and then analyzed patterns that appeared on poster boards and t-shirts that she'd set up. Makoul got her to admit that she probably didn't hit the wood with as much force as the boys had used to hit the bodies, implying that the blood could have traveled farther than her experiment indicated. She also had not used the same type of weapon.

On April 17, Steinberg brought Ivan Smith to the stand. Smith told of his prison conversation with Ben about the murders, and described Ben's lack of remorse. Makoul wondered why Ben would have told Smith anything at all, placing his testimony into doubt. It was also clear that Ben had never admitted to Smith that he'd killed any of the victims. So that seemed a wasted witness.

Dr. Isidore Mihalikis testified to the causes of death, and that there were three different weapons, and therefore three different people involved. David had given a statement that he'd used the baseball bat, so that left a pickax handle or a metal bar for another perpetrator to have used. The pickax handle was found to have the blood of Erik and Brenda, and possibly Dennis, on it. Clearly, from blood evidence, David had been part of Dennis's murder. So was someone else. Or Bryan and Ben, only Ben had Dennis's blood on his shirt.

After a few more witnesses, the prosecution rested. Makoul told the press that Steinberg had presented a case of "total confusion" that had proven nothing. Now it was his turn. But if he hoped his own experts would clarify things, he was mistaken.