The “Beauty Queen” Murder Case: I hate it when they call it that.
It really has absolutely nothing to do with the case. But it sure sells “widgets”. It just goes to show you how hard it can be to get a fair trial when the media, especially the silly social media, decides they are experts on something they know nothing about. They are so good at doing that, after all.
The heavy hitters came out in force for Peggy’s case. They just couldn’t get enough of the idea that a “Beauty Queen” had committed murder. That was so much more interesting than the boring presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial.
Of course, the trolls followed, with their ill-informed and idiotic observations. They seem to deplore our Constitutional Rights even more than the media does (except for the second Amendment, their favorite).
I knew it was going to be big the day I was sitting in a legal conference in Seattle. Several lawyers came up and wanted to high-five me for the work I had done earlier that week persuading a judge to release Peggy to allow her to go on an extended interstate trip.
She needed to take care of some loose ends she had left behind when she was suddenly and unexpectedly arrested for a murder that had occurred almost a decade earlier, a crime she did not commit.
That kind of thing tends to disrupt your schedule.
It turns out that the Release Order had gone viral. Since I pay little attention to that kind of thing, I was shocked to see my name all over the Guardian on the laptop of the lawyer sitting next to me.
In the end I actually enjoyed working with some of these guys. We barely said a word during the entire pre-trial publicity phase, which is my Standard Operating Procedure in every case.
I’ve had several cases that received national attention and have learned that Silence is Golden when dealing with media during this phase of the case.
When Dateline came out with their show, I knew I had made the right decision. It was embarrassing. Too bad, as I really liked the producer, who I met during Jim Huden’s trial, where I was spending a lot of time listening to testimony and scratching my head over what any of this had to do with my client.
Some of the other media coverage is so bad that it makes me wince to even try to watch it. I was unable to read Ann Rule’s book after trying to get through a few paragraphs, even though it is all about one of my cases and has lots of photos of me in it.
Egotism can only take you so far.
But 48 Hours was a joy to work with, extremely professional and courteous. After some serious soul-searching, Peggy agreed to talk to them, simply because she wanted to have her story heard.
They did a great job with their analysis and we were pleased that they did not turn it into a sensational misrepresentation of the facts – as virtually everyone else had done.
I can’t really talk that much about the details of my cases, unless I am talking about information that is a matter of public record; especially when it comes to evidence or legal analysis or theories of liability, which makes it easy to talk about Peggy Sue Thomas’ case, since precious little of that existed.
What did exist were hordes of morons, from cops to trolls to small town reporters, eager to try and convict poor Peggy Sue for a crime she did not commit, based on the more headline-grabbing aspects of the prosecution.
The fact that Peggy had been a beauty queen or that she had been married to a famous rich guy seemed much more important to everyone than the evidence and forensics (or lack thereof, as I like to say in Closing Arguments), which is pretty logical, since there was no real evidence or forensics worth a hoot.
I learned a lot while representing Peggy Sue; but not about murder cases, since I have handled a ton of those, both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney.
What I did learn about is how the media operates, how they are more anxious to sell ad space than they are to search for the truth; which is where I came in.
Peggy herself said it best: The only thing she was guilty of is poor taste in men.
Turns out Peggy’s boyfriend, Jim Huden, was “caught holding the smoking gun”, so to speak, that killed poor Russel Douglas. There was ample evidence of that. About the only evidence there was that Peggy was anywhere near that gun was the fact that she knew Jim. And she knew Russel’s estranged wife, Brenna.
It was a classic case of Guilt by Association.
Eventually it became clear that the prosecution based their theory of the case on the idea that if two of her friends did something criminal, Peggy must be guilty of participating in the crime.
Why? Because she knew them. That was a lot easier for them to prove than proving that Peggy actually did anything wrong.
It happened to me once in high school, when a bunch of my friends got into trouble for egging houses. I was home doing homework at the time. But just because my friends had been involved, their moms were convinced that I was the ringleader of their silly escapade. They wanted someone to blame. At least my friends didn’t murder anybody.
With so little evidence, I was anxious to go to trial and teach the prosecution some lessons. However, you never know what might happen in trial. I never tell my clients that I will win (or lose). Any lawyer who says something like that is committing malpractice. There is simply no way to know.
What I do tell them is that they are free to hope for the best; my job is to prepare for the worst by analyzing evidence and legal theories and preparing to make every valid argument available based on that. Anything less would be doing them a disservice. I need to anticipate every possible bad thing that might go wrong during trial.
This analysis begins with whether or not the trial is going to be fair.
Peggy maintained her innocence throughout this case. In the end she was faced with the prospect of an unfair trial in front of a jury whose brains had been hopelessly polluted by years of biased and inaccurate media coverage.
She could roll the dice and take her chances of spending the rest of her life in prison. Or she could take a sure thing: A Plea Agreement for four years, with no possibility that the judge could override it.
She wanted to be free to see her daughters marry and have babies, so she took the compromise deal. She wasn’t happy about it, and the moronic trolls weren’t happy about it. But that’s the definition of a good compromise; something from which everyone walks away unhappy.
People often ask: if she was NOT guilty why did she accept the deal?
Ask yourself that before you ask me. If you were charged with a crime you did not commit, but the entire world had already made up their minds that you were guilty, how would you feel?
Would you want to risk dying of old age in prison? Or would you want to take a “sure thing” that would mean that in a few years you would be free to be with your family?
It’s not an easy choice, especially when they can sell more widgets talking about a murderous Beauty Queen rather than talking about a biased and unfair system where the media tries and convicts you before you ever have your day in court.