Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cary Stayner and the Yosemite Murders

Update from May 2002 to September 2002

The death-penalty trial of Cary Stayner was moved from Mariposa County to Santa Clara County, CA. In May, 2002, Stayner pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1999 murder of three tourists in Yosemite National Park. In mid-July of 2002, the trial began in Judge Thomas C. Hastings' courtroom with the prosecution team headed by George Williamson and the defense team headed by Marcia Morrissey.

On Monday, July 22, the court heard the former motel handyman's taped confession, which he had given to FBI agents.

According to Fresno Bee reporter Cyndee Fontanta, "In the taped confession, Stayner calmly reviewed how he strangled 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso in a motel bathtub near Yosemite National Park. How he sexually assaulted Juli Sund, 15, for hours before spiriting her away from the motel room she shared with her mother, 42-year-old Carole Sund, and friend Silvina.

"And then, not as calmly, how he carried Juli — "kinda like a groom carrying a bride over the threshold" — to a lonely vista point near Lake Don Pedro, pledged his love and then cut her throat as the sun lightened the sky." Stayner's confession to the strangulation murder of Carole Sund had been played to the court the previous week.

Victims Carole & Juli Sund, Silvina Pelosso and Joie Ruth Armstrong
Victims Carole & Juli Sund, Silvina Pelosso
and Joie Ruth Armstrong

The issue was no longer who committed the murders but whether Stayner was insane at the time and whether the confession to the FBI agents was coerced. Stayner is serving a life sentence for the Yosemite Park murder of Joie Ruth Armstrong. The issue of whether Stayner's confession was coerced seemed to be resolved when on July 24, the court heard the recorded demands that Stayner made to the FBI agents that he wanted satisfied before he would give them his confession.

Stayner demanded that his parents be given the reward money, that he be incarcerated at a prison near his parents' home, and, to Stayner's detriment, that he be given a large cache of child pornography. Previously, the defense had maintained that the FBI had coerced Stayner's confession. In the end, Stayner confessed without the promise of child pornography or reward money for his parents.

Cary Stayner, mugshot
Cary Stayner,

After days of hearing the prosecution characterize Stayner, 41, as a cunning, cold-blooded killer, Judge Thomas C. Hastings' court was presented with the defense testimony regarding Stayner's state of mind when he committed the murders.

First, the defense called Dr. Jose Arturo Silva, whose testimony the Fresno Bee's Cyndee Fontana described thusly, "In the constellation of mental illness, Cary Stayner alone apparently could fill the sky. His enduring preoccupation with the creature Bigfoot. The prophecies of Nostradamus. The nightmares of disembodied heads, the lack of empathy toward others, the violent fantasies of child rape, the obsessive hair-pulling and more...a stew of disorders such as pedophilia, voyeurism, social dysfunction, violent fantasies, mild autism, and even a family tree laden with sexual abuse and mental illness."

For the next two weeks, the court heard a group of experts testifying to Stayner's lack of criminal culpability due to brain abnormalities and mental illnesses.

In mid-August, two experts debated the photos of Stayner's brain and sharply disagreed. Dr. Joseph Wu, an expert called by the defense, saw abnormalities that could account for Stayner's violent tendencies, whereas Dr. Alan Waxman, called by the prosecution, saw nothing special to explain Stayner's behavior.

Ultimately, the closing arguments would present two very different views of Cary Stayner — a cold-blooded murdering sexual predator and a mentally-ill victim of child abuse who was overcome by his disabilities.

Morrissey, referring to the testimony of the defense medical experts, said on August 21, 2002, claimed that Stayner was a long way from being the organized, sophisticated serial predator that the prosecution suggested.

As reported by Court TV and Associated Press: "In his rebuttal of the defense's closing arguments on Thursday, August 23, 2002, prosecutor George Williamson said there was overwhelming evidence to convict Cary Stayner of first-degree murder and six special circumstances that could trigger the death penalty.

Cary Stayner escorted by deputies (AP)
Cary Stayner escorted by
deputies (AP)

Williamson said defense lawyer Marcia Morrissey had to "blow smoke" because she didn't have facts or the law to support her claims that Stayner was too crazy to have the intent to kill required for first-degree murder.

Monday, August 26, 2002, the jury in the Stayner case took less than five hours to find him guilty of three counts of first-degree murder, for which he may face the death penalty. He stood emotionless as he was convicted of the murders of Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso.

While there were weeks of testimony during the first phase of the trial regarding Stayner's sanity, the second phase of the trial requires that the prosecution prove that Stayner was sane and the third phase of the trial will determine his ultimate punishment.

Dr Park Dietz (CBS)
Dr Park Dietz (CBS)

The defense team lost its bid to prevent Dr. Park Dietz from testifying for the prosecution. Dr. Dietz is a well-known forensic psychiatrist who has testified in a number of major cases, including the Andrea Yates case.

Winning a case with an insanity plea is usually quite difficult. The defense called Dr. Allison McInnes, assistant professor of psychiatry and human genetics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NY. Dr. McInnes addressed the issue of Cary Stayner's bad genes, which was described by Fresno Bee reporter Cyndee Fontana:

"The story of Cary Stayner's family tree rose in bursts of bright color from a white horizontal chart.

"Yellow for psychosis. Green for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Red for substance abuse. Purple for pedophilia. Even more colors for more mental diseases ranging through four generations down to Stayner himself — the fruit of a family gene pool marked by psychiatric disorders. "

It is Dr. McInnes' belief that Stayner was legally insane when he committed the murders of the four women in Yosemite. Prosecutor George Williamson lost no time in challenging the credentials of Dr. McInnes in a rigorous cross examination.

Didn't Stayner know that he was killing human beings? Didn't he understand that his crimes were legally wrong? Dr. McInnes answered in the affirmative.

Dr. Park Dietz made a very strong showing. "He knew what he was doing was wrong," Dr. Dietz said emphatically. In his extensive testimony, he pointed out that the murders were planned, carried out with deception, covered up and lied about. Dietz called Stayner "one of the higher-functioning criminals" he had encountered.

On Monday, September 16, 2002, the jury determined that Stayner was sane at the time of the murders. This decision took the jury less than four hours to make.

CNN reported Wednesday, October 9, 2002, the jury recommended that Cary Stayner should die for killing three Yosemite National Park tourists in 1999, rejecting defense pleas to spare a mentally ill man twisted by genetics and a traumatic childhood.

After six hours of deliberation, the jurors rejected the option of recommending life in prison. Sentencing was scheduled for Dec. 12, and an appeal is automatic.

The courtroom was silent after the decision was read. Stayner showed no visible reaction.

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