In a typical murder trial, a jury reads the autopsy report, studies crime-scene photographs and listens to a pathologist discuss in detail the cause of the victim’s death.
But in what lawyers refer to as “bodyless” murder cases — cases in which a victim’s body is never found — prosecutors don’t have the option of bringing those key pieces of evidence into the courtroom.
Sedgwick County prosecutors last week filed their own bodyless case against Buddy A. Jones, who is suspected in the disappearance of Michelle Rawls from her south Wichita home in July. Wichita police have said little about the case other than that the two did not know each other, and that a rug is missing from her home.
Murder cases in which no body was found are set to go to trial this summer in Butler and Stanton counties.
A review of murder cases in Kansas in which no body was found shows that prosecutors who have taken a risk and filed such a case have generally fared well. Prosecutors know going in that if they lose before a jury, the case can’t be retried if the body turns up after the trial.
“As a prosecutor, it’s not something that your prefer and not something you take lightly,” said Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield, who is preparing for a June trial in the case of a Rose Hill man who has been missing since 1997.
“It’s important, when the case is in the right posture, to proceed even if you don’t have a body,” she said. “You know a murder has occurred, and you can’t let a murderer get away with it because there’s no body.”
At least four Kansas inmates are serving life sentences in bodyless murder cases. A fifth was paroled in January after serving more than two decades in prison.
Over the years, the Kansas Supreme Court has issued rulings in several bodyless murder appeals, but the court does not track the number of such cases that are filed, said Supreme Court spokesman Ron Keefover.
“It’s rare, but it’s certainly not unheard of,” he said.
Wichita lawyer Jack Focht was appointed special prosecutor in a Kiowa County case that the Kansas Supreme Court said was the first in Kansas to result in a murder conviction when not even a part of the victim’s body was found.
Focht said the defendant in the case was the grandson of a wealthy 78-year-old woman who disappeared at about the same time her house burned down. Focht said he had to prove not only that the woman’s remains were not in the ashes, but that she was killed by the grandson so he could inherit her estate.
“She lived in a town of eight people,” Focht said. “They said they all saw her all the time. Then all of a sudden, she just wasn’t anywhere.”
Focht said he did not take the filing of charges in the case lightly.
“When you have that kind of case, the potential for error is just great,” he said. “You could be wrong as hell.”
The defendant in that case, Michael Duane Pyle, has spent the past 35 years in prison serving a life term for first-degree murder.
Wichita lawyer Dan Monnat, who will be a defense attorney in the upcoming Stanton County case, agreed that courts should be extremely cautious when dealing with bodyless cases.
“Such cases are classical circumstantial-evidence cases — and with all circumstantial cases, there is a great risk that an innocent person will be convicted,” he said.
“There is no eyewitness. There is no direct evidence that the accused person did it. There is not even direct evidence that a death occurred.”
Perhaps the most notorious of the state’s bodyless cases involved serial killer Richard Grissom, who was convicted in 1990 of murdering three Johnson County women whose bodies were never found.
Joan Marie Butler, 24, disappeared on June 18, 1989. Christine Rusch and Theresa Brown, both 22, were last seen eight days later. Grissom also was the only suspect in the death of Terri Maness, 25, who was strangled and mutilated in her southeast Wichita apartment on June 6 or 7, 1989.
Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison prosecuted the case when he was Johnson County district attorney. He said it wasn’t a difficult call to file charges against Grissom when investigators realized he could be an active serial killer.
“We had plotted his activities, and in our opinion he was on a killing spree at the time,” Morrison said. “We thought he was killing women about once a week. There was clearly some urgency for us to act.”
When the case went to trial, Morrison said, the lifestyles of the victims helped convince the jury that they were all dead.
“We had three women who had just dropped off the face of Earth,” he said. “They were all very stable. They all had jobs. They all had families, and they all had no history of disappearing.”
He said the trial was anything but routine.
“In most murder cases, you find a body and you start working backward,” Morrison said. “Bodyless murder cases are different. What you do is work in reverse. You start with the last time they were seen, then work forward. I think it’s an extra challenge, but it’s not insurmountable.”
The Butler County case involved the disappearance of Franklin “Pinky” Harrod, a former custodian for the Andover school district who was last seen on July 29, 1997.
Investigators said he was shot to death in a plot hatched by his wife, Kelly Bishop. She was sentenced to 32 months in prison last year after pleading guilty to solicitation of attempted first-degree murder. Prosecutors said Bishop persuaded Jerry and Tammy Trussell to kill Harrod.
Tammy Trussell, the person authorities say shot Harrod, was sentenced to 136 months, or just over 11 years, after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
Jerry Trussell is scheduled to stand trial in June for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and aiding and abetting. Investigators think Harrod’s body was buried near the Walnut River and was probably washed away in a 1998 flood.
Satterfield said she ultimately decided she had to file charges without a body.
“It’s not the preferred course, but when you have exhausted everything and you’re confident the person was murdered, you try the case with what you have,” she said. “The murderer can’t go free just because the body can’t be located.”
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The Wichita Eagle – By Hurst Laviana