Friday, December 21, 2012

The People's Gamble in the Collins Trial - 1970


The weekend before the John Norman Collins trial was to begin, news hungry reporters began writing stories about the "epic" battle that was about to occur between legal "Titans," William F. Delhey, representing The People, and Joseph W. Louisell, sometimes called "Michigan's Perry Mason," representing Collins. Each attorney had a wing man. Delhey had Booker T. Williams and Louisell had Neil Fink.

The reality of the clash was a disappointment. Jury selection took a tedious six weeks. The defense strategy was to want a white collar "college educated" jury who would be able to weigh the scientific testimony they would be hearing and to withhold judgment possibly. 

The prosecution favored a more blue collar "working class" jury who would be blinded by the blizzard of technical information and more moved by emotional arguments and appeals.

The defense kept the judge and the court clerk busy with motion after motion, until it seemed that the actual trial would never begin. Then suddenly, the defense told presiding Judge Conlin that they had a jury. 

Louisell surprised the prosecution and caught them flat-footed. Delhey and Williams were left with a handful of peremptory challenges they couldn't use. Courtroom observers scored the first round for the defense team. The press reported later in the day that this jury may be the most highly educated in Michigan state history.

By the end of the trial, the prosecution had called forty-eight witnesses in seventeen days, in marked contrast to the defense who called only eight witnesses in four days. The jury deliberated for four days before it returned a guilty verdict of murder in the first degree against John Norman Collins in the wrongful death of Karen Sue Beineman.

The prosecution's "key play" was the strategic decision by the chief prosecutor, who had the scientific background, to pass the cross-examination of scientific witnesses to his assistant prosecutor, who had no laboratory background. 

Although this might seem counter-intuitive, Delhey didn't want to "slip into laboratory language": He wanted Williams to ask questions using "layman's language" to be better understood by the layman jury, despite the high percentage of college graduates on the jury.

When the prosecution's scientific hair fiber experts were challenged and discredited by the defense's hair fiber experts, Delhey's strategy paid off. Williams took the edge off the data and focused on the testimony of the defense experts, pointing out their discrepancies and inconsistencies. In the end, the hair clipping evidence was solid enough in the minds of the jury to link Collins to his victim.

Surprisingly enough, it wasn't the scientific blood or hair evidence that convicted John Norman Collins. It was the preponderance of circumstantial evidence and the lack of a credible alibi for the critical three hour period between Karen Sue Beineman's disappearance and her strangulation death in the basement of his aunt and uncle's Ypsilanti home.