Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Diane Downs: Her Children Got in the Way of Her Love

Preparing for Battle

District Attorney Pat Horton, along with Lane County Sheriff David Burks, hosted a press conference following Diane's arrest. Horton told the press, "The one thing that underscored this investigation is patience. The real battle...is in the courtroom."

Reporters were there by the droves, salivating over the battle indeed to come. Their newspapers and their magazines already announced that Diane Downs had been taken into custody and that, hell, the look-alike Princess Di might very well be a murderess after all. Time magazine was there, and the Washington Post was there, and journalists from city papers as far away as New York City were there. Most were professional in their reporting, while some, tabloid-like, tumbled across both Springfield, Oregon, and Chandler, Arizona, finding anyone who knew Diane Downs, or even talked to her once.

When the Eugene Register-Guard found Diane's father, Wes Frederickson, the paper noted he was gallante to the end: "If my daughter did it, then I believe, in fact, she should pay. But nothing can take away the love a father has for his kids."

In the wake of the impending trial, Diane sought as her counselor the brilliant and highly esteemed attorney Melvin Belli; because of the high profile the Downs case generated, Belli wanted to take it on. But he had personal plans, unbreakable, and would defend Diane only if the trial could be postponed a couple of months after the already-slated May 1984 calendar. The courts refused to budge. Hugi had waited long enough and delaying it might mean delaying it again for the pregnant Diane to give birth. Too much work had been expended, too many people's time to delay the inevitable.

"Fred Hugi had twenty-four volumes of evidence, statements, follow-ups, transcriptions of tapes a mountain of possibilities to be winnowed down, and shaped, and molded for his case," asserts Ann Rule in Small Sacrifices. "He would work eighteen- to twenty-four hour days. And so would the rest of his team."

Diane was forced to find another lawyer quickly. She chose criminal attorney Jim Jagger, a man noted for his down-home but effective manner.

An older Diane Downs
An older Diane Downs

What was to be a six-week trial opened May 10, 1984 in Eugene at the Lane County Courthouse, courtroom Number 3, the largest of the rooms of justice in the old building. The jury panel consisted of nine women. Judge Foote, the man who had taken Christie and Danny Downs from their suspect mother, presided. Young, intense, he was noted for his fairness.

The citizenry of the county turned out for the sensation; people across America were still divided over the guilt/innocence of Diane Downs was she a martyr or a devil? and those no-names who shared the spectator's seats with the paparazzi, the witnesses and the families felt honored.

In his opening remarks, Fred Hugi presented a motive her fixation for a married man who felt that her kids should not be part of their fantasy life and a method the .22 caliber Ruger pistol that she bought in Arizona and denied having owned in Oregon. He read passages from her diary screaming her love for a man who didn't want her as she wanted him; and, to some titillation of the court, he read aloud Diane's masturbation poem. He promised to paint over the next weeks a real picture of the cruelty that made Diane Downs tick.

Counsel for the defense Jagger conceded, in turn, that there had been an obsession, but not so dark as to have led his client to destroy the three people she loved most in the world even beyond lover her own children. He pointed to her childhood, to her alleged molestation as a child, even to her promiscuity that he saw as a relevance to that dysfunctional experience. But, a murderess? No, for he intended to show that Diane's story of a man on the Mohawk Road with a gun was not a falsehood.

Courtroom proceedings paused on May 14 so that the jurors could experience for themselves the physical scene of the crime. Hugi transported them via a chartered bus to Old Mohawk Road, parallel to the river. Though daylight, the prosecutor accentuated the state of the road at the time of the shootings, relating the ebony of that night, the loneliness, the sparks of gunfire that shattered the gloom, the high emotion. Before the day ended, jurors were then led to the county auto pound to see the red Nissan death car; he wanted them to gaze into its interior and to feel the kids' terror.

 

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