Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Double Jeopardy: Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis

Found Guilty, Then Acquitted

Gary Eastburn with surviving daughter Jana.
Gary Eastburn with surviving daughter Jana.

The Army could have court martialed Sgt. Timothy Hennis, but because the crimes against Kathryn Eastburn and the children occured off-base, they chose to let the case go to the Cumberland County Superior Court in the summer of 1986.

Lead prosecutor Willam VanStory offered Hennis a plea bargain; Hennis refused. VanStory mounted a case that suggested that Hennis had returned to Eastburn's home because he was attracted to her and knew her husband was away, and that he turned violent when she rebuffed him.

Gerald Beaver and Billy Richardson -- the lawyers that Hennis's father, a retired IBM executive, had hired -- fought the accusations in vain. After a three-week trial and ten hours of deliberation, the jury found Hennis guilty on three first-degree murder charges and one rape charge.

During the sentencing hearing, Beaver and Richardson showed a series of photos meant to depict Hennis as a kind, loving family man and thus spare his life. The judge nonetheless sentenced him to death.

An anonymous writer once sent him (and the sheriff's office) a letter confessing to the murders, but Hennis spent years on death row in Raleigh, NC. His lawyers kept fighting.


In 1988, the North Carolina State Supreme Court announced that it agreed with Sgt. Timothy Hennis's lawyers: The graphic photos of the crime scene and of the bodies of Kathryn Eastburn and her two oldest children had unfairly influenced the jurors. Hennis won the right to a retrial.

Hennis's attorney Gerald Beaver resumed his role. He established that there was a mysterious stranger who may have committed the crime: The Eastburns had been plagued by threatening phone calls for months before Hennis met the family. There were blood stains and hairs at the scene that belonged neither to the victims nor the accused. The extreme brutality of the crime suggested someone with a longstanding anger toward the family, not a man miffed at a singular rejection of a casual sexual interest in his victim. The anonymous confession letter that Hennis had received in prison helped too.

The defense also attacked the witnesses' credibility. Patrick Cone had had trouble with police. Lucille Cook had at one point denied recognizing Hennis from the ATM.

Calvin Colyer and John Dickson, prosecutors for the 1989 trial, seem to have been overconfident. They failed to convince jurors that Beaver's arguments didn't hold up. Hennis got off.

He returned to the Army and was soon promoted to staff sergeant. He was shipped to Saudi Arabia, then to Somalia, then to Fort Lewis, Washington. (Capt. Gary Eastburn, after finally making the delayed transfer to England, eventually moved to Puyallup, Washington, never realizing he was just miles from the man he still believed killed his wife and daughters). In 2004 he retired.

Meanwhile, developments were afoot that could snare Hennis after all.

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