Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Double Jeopardy: Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis

Third Time's the Charm

Timothy Hennis in court.
Timothy Hennis in court.

By 2004, new DNA technology meant that it would be possible to determine with near-certainty whether the semen left in Kathryn Eastburn's body came from Timothy Hennis. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't matter much. Typically, Hennis's acquittal wouldn't permit a second trial.

But a controversial 1987 precedent asserted that the military could court martial its members even if they'd already been tried in civilian court.

The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office sent the new DNA evidence incriminating Hennis to the Army. In 2006 the Army recalled the retired staff sergeant to active service at Fort Bragg -- and they promptly charged him with a triple murder.

Prosecutors Capt. Matthew Scott and Capt. Nate Huff based their case at Hennis's 2010 court martial around new technology. The key piece of evidence was DNA collected from semen in Kathryn Eastburn's vagina after her death in 1986. At the time, the DNA was useless. But in 2010, State Bureau of Investigation forensic analyst Jennifer Hooper was able to testify that the odds were 12.1 thousand trillion to one that the DNA belonged to Hennis rather than to anyone else.

Prosecutor Captain Nate Huff
Prosecutor Captain Nate Huff

Hennis's defense attorney, Frank Spinner, insisted that, while the DNA evidence showed that Hennis and Eastburn had had sex, it didn't mean it was non-consensual. Forensic examination hadn't shown any specifically rape-related injuries (not that this is unusual in rape cases), and the DNA match itself didn't prove that Hennis had raped Eastburn much less that he had killed her and her children. As the statue of limitations on rape had passed, he wasn't being retried on the rape charge.

Much of Spinner's defense was repeated from the second trial. He brought up the blood and hair at the scene that belonged to a never-identified figure and didn't match Hennis. He tried to minimize the reliability of the witnesses who'd seen Hennis near the house or using Eastburn's ATM card.

Yet the witness testimony and the DNA evidence conviced the jury, made up of Hennis's fellow soldiers. They found Hennis guilty on three counts of premeditated murder. Like the first time around, the defense's attempt to portray Hennis as a committed family man and soldier failed. Only a two-thirds majority is required in a court martial; that the verdict was unanimous meant that Hennis would receive the death penalty. He was also dishonorably discharged and stripped of his rank and military pay and benefits.

His team appealed the verdict.

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