Opinion - The David Stagg Trial
January 16, 2007
by Jim C. and Don W.
Editorís Note: The October 6 trial of David Stagg ended in a hung jury. Due to the sensitive nature of the trial, authors names have been withheld for privacy. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not Camp Magazine, based on the facts of the case as they know them.
Dr. David Stagg is a tenured professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. He is a happy-go-lucky individual who never met a stranger. His calm and almost naive demeanor endears him to his friends, students, and acquaintances.
But on April 25, 2004, his life was turned upside down when he discovered the death of his dating partner of over two years, Bill Jennings, in his Shawnee, KS, home. Although this nightmare involves two men, it could happen to any person in a relationship and is a true indictment of our legal system as we know it.
David had gone to Billís house on Friday evening; there they spent a quiet, uneventful weekend until Saturday evening, when they had an argument over their relationship. Anyone who knows David well knows he always put his students first over his personal lifeóBill was jealous of that and wanted more of Davidís time. Bill also suffered from major emotional issues and bipolar-type behavior, for which he was under medical care. Bill reportedly asked David to leave, so he returned to his Kansas City apartment. After David left, Bill called him at his home to talk, and David said they could talk the next day.
The next morning he tried to call Bill three times without reaching him. Becoming increasingly concerned because he knew Billís emotional state was delicate, David returned to Billís house. When he arrived, he was somewhat relieved to find Billís car in the middle of the garage, meaning it had been moved since he left the night before. Perhaps Bill had just missed his calls. That was not so.
David discovered Billís body, and David called 911 to report what he assumed was a suicide since Bill had previously attempted suicide. The death was instead ruled a homicide. Davidís confusion on this issue was further compounded because the Shawnee, KS, police did not disclose the cause or time of death until nearly a year and a half later, in August 2005 after they had shockingly arrested David for pre-meditated first-degree murder.
Even more shocking was that on Oct. 6, 2006, Davidís trial by a Johnson County jury ended in a hung jury. Observers of the case had been surprised the case even went to trial since no evidence was presented at the preliminary hearing that connected David to the crime. It was even more surprising a jury could deadlock when the same was true of the trial. Somewhere along the way, the concepts of reasonable doubt and innocent until proven guilt were lost.
Friends of David have never wavered in their support for him. So what happened? What did one or some of the jury members disregard that the decision was deadlocked?
1. David cooperated with the police from the very beginning. He made a mistake in not getting an attorney immediately, but felt he didnít need one because he hadnít done anything wrong. He allowed the police to videotape his interview.
2. He voluntarily let the police inspect and observe his body. Later the coroner would testify that the death was a violent one and whoever committed the crime would have had blood, cuts, and bruises on his or her body. David had none.
3. Police were allowed to search Davidís residence, taking items of clothing and trash with them. His car was impounded. Experts again testified that whoever comitted the crime would have not been able to remove the blood evidence. Yet no blood or other evidence was found on him or his possessions.
4. David volunteered to take a lie detector (polygraph) test. Although he wasnít given one at the time, one was scheduled before his arrest. The police canceled it without explanation. He later was given a polygraph test and passed it. Unfortunately, in Kansas this evidence is not admissible in court.
5. When David hired an attorney, he was lucky to get Tom Bath, the premier defense attorney in Johnson County. Throughout the preliminary hearing and trial, he was able to refute prosecution claims and caught several witnesses in various degrees of incorrect and untruthful testimony. That alone should have been enough to create reasonable doubt for the jury.
6. David voluntarily gave his DNA. Blood and fingernail scrapings from Bill were analyzed for DNA comparisons. DNA experts testified they were able to identify two individuals in these samples and could specifically exclude Davidís DNA profile, The Johnson County DNA crime lab expert agreed with this finding. This means someone else had to have been in Billís house that night. That alone should have been definite enough evidence to give the jury reasonable doubt.
7. Conveniently for the prosecution, the Johnson County lab discarded the DNA evidence, so the further testing and analysis requested by Davidís attorney could not be done.
8. A fresh drink glass was found on the countertop in Billís kitchen. (Given Billís housekeeping practices, dishes were either immediately washed or placed in the dishwasher after use, as was testified by stateís witnesses.) The fingerprint samples taken from this glass did not match Billís or Davidís prints. Twelve other fingerprints that were not Billís or Davidís were found but not tested further in the investigation.
9. Prosecutors claimed a suicide note found at the crime scene was composed by David on Billís computer. Yet the defense attorney was able to show numerous other suicide notes found on the computer that contained many of the same words and phrases that were present in the note the prosecutors think was forged. Prosecutors also alleged that David wiped his fingerprints from the keyboard to cover up his use of the computer, even though their own fingerprint experts had testified at the preliminary hearing that fingerprints generally donít adhere to keyboard materials. Thus, Bill could easily have been contemplating suicide that night, since he was in a depressed state of mind and had been drinking a lot.
10. The time of death was also a point of contention. The prosecution claimed Bill had to have died around 12:30 am Sunday morning; the defense claimed Bill died around 3:30 am, based on the amount of alcohol he had consumed. Tests of Billís blood alcohol content at the time of death indicates metabolism rates that support the later time of death and were confirmed by both state and defense witnesses.
11. During the first year after Billís death, detectives apparently informed the Jennings family they believed David had murdered Bill, but they couldnít prove it. They convinced one of Billís sisters to talk to David with a secret recording device set up on her phone to try to trap David into some sort of admission. Instead, David remained consistent and the tape reaffirms his innocence.
12. Apparently the prosecution and some of the jury felt if David didnít do it, then who did? Since when is it the job of the defendant to do the policeís job of finding the killer?
David had no motive. Investigators contend Davidís motive was the finality of the relationship; however, witnesses who were friends of the couple testified their breakups were an established pattern and were always mended. David also did not gain financially from Billís death. Forensic evidence eliminated him as the killer. Bill was known to have outside sexual interests because David was not meeting all of his emotional and physical needs. Billís car had been moved. It is simple to assume he had someone over after David left, and it got out of hand. He could have picked someone up or had someone over that he already knew. It is not the responsibility of the defendant to determine what Happenedójust that he didnít do it, which this case has proved.
These are just some of the many issues ignored by some of the jury and the prosecution. Many more exist but these alone should be enough to confirm reasonable doubt in the jurorsí minds.
The bottom line is that in a rush to judgment, the police department did a poor investigation at the crime scene. Assuming they ďhad their man,Ē they failed to do many of the normal procedures that should have been doneómany that would have helped prove Davidís innocence. The prosecutorís office apparently felt it was more important to try anyone, even the wrong person, rather than dismiss the case due to lack of evidence. (The issues in this case are similar to those in John Grishamís new nonfiction book, The Innocent Man and to the subject matter of an editorial by defense attorney Wm. David Langston in the Kansas City Star on Friday, December 15, 2006.) Some of the jury disregarded not only specific evidence but also scientific evidence that specifically exonerated the defendant.
Thus, an innocent man is facing yet another trial (scheduled for Feb. 26, 2007). A hung jury is the best the prosecution could have hoped for. Yet prosecutors generally have better luck in second and third trials because defendants either run out of money or lack the resolve to continue the fight. So taxpayer money continues to be wasted as the prosecution continues toward a second trial of this innocent man.
Backed by the university where he works, and hundreds of friends and former students who have contributed both money and support, David knows he must continue the quest for exoneration. Although he is depleting his savings and his reputation is tarnished for life, he knows he didnít kill Bill. Since the police investigation focused on implicating David and the Johnson County Crime Lab was not completely forthcoming in the analysis of the DNA that was presented in the trial, the murder will probably never be solved. There is little hope of diversion unless someone voluntarily confesses.
David has always maintained he wants not only to be exonerated, he also wants to know who murdered Bill.