Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Allentown Massacres

Birdwell's Defense

As witnesses, Makoul called a number of people who had heard Bryan and David make threats against their parents, but under cross-examination, some said that Ben might have been the leader of their little hate group. Then Makoul had psychologist Peter Badgio and psychiatrist Peter Bloom testify about Ben's mental state at the time of the crimes and directly afterward. Ben had developed acute stress disorder, they agreed, as a result of the murders and rather than call the police had fled with the brothers from fear that they would otherwise hurt him. The doctors also testified that IQ assessments showed that he was borderline mentally retarded.

Steinberg raised the issue that stress disorder tests must be performed shortly after the traumatic event, not a year later, so that made the results less than credible. Also, the prosecutor made certain the jury realized how silly one doctor's explanation was when he said that that Ben's use of a false name for the hotel registry was a symptom of stress. Clearly, he had done it to hide their whereabouts.

Another issue centered on Ben's girlfriend's car. The driver's side seat cover had been changed, and Steinberg believed that on the night of the murders, when he'd brought the car back before fleeing to Michigan, he'd gotten blood on it from his jeans — the very jeans that the Freemans had said they'd tossed out the car window in Ohio. But Makoul had Carol Russell, Birdwell's girlfriend, testify that she had not only thrown away the seat cover several weeks before the murder because it was dirty, but had also recognized the jeans that Birdwell wore as jeans she had washed before. She was wrong. He had indeed purchased a pair of jeans in Ohio. That did not look good for her testimony.

Dennis Freeman, victim
Dennis Freeman, victim

On April 24, for the defense, blood spatter pattern expert Neil Hoffman stated that the blood found on Ben's shirt could have been exhaled across the room by Dennis, or it could have traveled that far from the blows — about eight to 11 feet. He also testified that Dr. Barbara Rowley's blood splatter experiments were not reliable or replicable. Steinberg got Hoffman to admit, however, that he had not conducted his own experiments to prove this.

During the rebuttal of this mental illness testimony, a nurse at Lehigh County Prison testified that Ben was intelligent enough to have filled out a medical history sheet, and a school psychologist denied that he was mentally retarded. Dr. Robert Gordon, a clinical psychologist from the area and a renowned expert on the MMPI-2 personality assessment, said that Ben showed only normal signs of anxiety, nothing extreme, and, in fact, the test supported a diagnosis of a psychopathic personality. That meant Ben could probably deceive others with skill and would not be hindered by guilt or remorse. Rosen quotes Gordon as stating, "There are no signs he felt residual anxieties at the time of the crimes."

Then it was time to wrap things up. On April 25, 1996, during closing arguments, Makoul stressed that there was clearly reasonable doubt in this case. He re-emphasized Ben's low IQ and stress disorder. Steinberg argued that Ben had been a willing accomplice in three murders, but even if they believed it was only one, he was still a murderer. They sent this to the jury members, who listened to the judge's instructions and then retired to deliberate. The following day, they were ready with a verdict.

Ben Birdwell was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Dennis Freeman, but was found not guilty in the murders of Brenda and Erik Freeman. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the end, no one was convicted of killing Erik. Makoul stated that he would appeal Birdwell's conviction.

 

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