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Timothy Hennis finally gets what he deserves
The wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly, but they eventually come to their destination. After 25 years, they've parked right on top of Timothy Baily Hennis and he's probably finding it pretty hard to breathe right now.
On May 9, 1985, a Cumberland County sheriff's deputy entered Kathryn Eastburn's home near Fort Bragg, NC because neighbors heard a baby crying inside but they couldn't get anyone to come to the door. He found Eastburn and two of her three daughters, ages 5 and 3, brutally murdered in their beds. She had been raped and then stabbed 35 times. Her infant daughter was in her crib but unharmed. Her husband, Gary, was a captain in the army and was out of state on a training deployment.
Investigators soon arrested army sergeant Tim Hennis for the crime. When he was tried, prosecutors presented this scenario: Hennis had visited the house a few days earlier because the Eastburns were about to be transferred and couldn't take their dog. He answered their "free to a good home" ad in the classifieds and decided to come back to the house later to rape Kathryn Eastburn. He was found guilty and imprisoned. Defense attorneys argued that gruesome crime scene photos were show on a screen right over the defendant's head. The appeals court agreed that was prejudicial and sent the case back for a re-trial. Hennis was acquitted the second time around.
After this, Capt. Eastburn gave an interview to a local reporter and told him that he had decided to get on with his life. A Catholic, Eastburn had forgiven Hennis and said that his remaining daughter was too precious to spend his life wrapped up in anger over his wife's murder.
After he was acquitted, Hennis returned to the army and served until 2004, when he retired. But prosecutors and the sheriff's department in Cumberland County were still interested in him. They pulled out the evidence investigators had gathered at the scene and sent it off for DNA testing. It nailed Tim Hennis to the wall. Now all they had to do was get him into a court of law and let the jury do the rest.
They couldn't call him back into a Cumberland County court because of double jeopardy - you can't be tried twice in the same jurisdiction for the same crime. But Hennis was in the army at the time of the murder and still subject to the code of military justice. The army recalled him to face a court-marital in 2006. He was convicted last week and yesterday he was sentenced to death by lethal injection. Justice has finally been done.
The permutations this case has gone through have been riveting, they even made a made for TV movie about it. I lived in Fayetteville at the time of the murder and knew a few people associated with the prosecution and the press that covered the trial. They've shared some interesting analysis of the trials and revealed a few intriguing things that didn't come out in court:
- They said police speculated privately that Mrs. Eastburn likely stayed silent throughout the attack, so as not to wake her children and put their lives in danger, too. At least it save the life of her baby.
- Investigators also uncovered information that this was not the first time Hennis had been involved in a rape. Two women were brought in from out of state to witness the end of the first trial. Neither had cases against Hennis solid enough to be brought to trial, but prosecutors thought that the sight of them in the courtroom might make Hennis a little nervous. After the women showed up in the courtroomm defense attorneys decided not to put Hennis on the stand.
- In the first trial, the case went to the jury the Friday before 4th of July. The judge held the jury over the weekend to deliberate. On July 4th, they came back with a guilty verdict. Right after it was read Hennis' wife Angela was heard to say: "Good, that's over. Now we can go to the beach." After the sentence was read yesterday, it's reported that she cried softly. Maybe she had planned to spend Easter weekend at the coast but couldn't make it because of the trial.
- At the time of the first and second trials, DNA evidence had not be judged to be admissible in North Carolina courts and prosecutors decided not to introduce it and make State v. Hennis a test case. There was too much on the line for that.
- During his first two trials, Hennis maintained that the only time he was in the Eastburn house or had any contact with the family was the visit he made about the dog. Then authorities submitted the evidence and found that the sperm found in Mrs. Eastburn was his. The argument at the court-martial that the that Eastburn and Hennis had been having an affair and the sperm was from an earlier encounter just didn't hold water.
- Hennis' defense in the first two trials was paid for by his dad, who was
a bigwig at IBM at the time. There were reports his dad cashed out his entire
retirement so his son could have two of the best criminal trial
attorneys in the state, Billy Richardson and Gerald Beaver. When he was
hauled before a court-martial he could have hired a private lawyer who
specialized in military justice for his defense but he didn't have the
financial resources he'd had before and a military lawyer defended him. He did a good job but just didn't have the specialized training of Mark Waple, a Fayetteville attorney whose handled hundreds of courts-martial. Had Hennis had the funds, Waple would have defended him.
- Of his original attorneys, Richardson was the younger of the two and the one who spoke to the press most often. He has always maintained that Hennis was innocent. Beaver was older and more experienced. When asked after the second trial about the guilt or innocence of the defendant, he said that it was his job to make the state prove their case and that prosecutors had failed.
In 1989, Hennis managed to walk away from the murder charges against him. He probably felt pretty cocky to have gotten away with murder. He's been a good boy since then with not so much as a parking ticket. However, in the early 90's when DNA evidence was ruled admissible in a court of law, Hennis had to have started living with the fear that his case would be re-opened. Even if he didn't realize that he could be called to a court-martial, there must have been some uneasiness for him. That discomfort has been nothing compared to the agony the Eastburn family went through. Hennis will be put to death in a humane way. I don't think the uncertainty that Hennis must have experienced after his 1989 acquittal and then his subsequent court-martial and as well as his death sentence equals what Kathryn Eastburn and her two daughters went through that night. This sentence is just, but it can never be fair. Timothy Baily Hennis saw to that.