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.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Prosecution Team for the People vs. John Norman Collins

John E. Peterson of The Detroit News reported after the guilty verdict was announced in the John Norman Collins case that "the two prosecutors had no use for histrionics. They were concise and they were precise. Prosecutor William F. Delhey and Assistant Prosecutor Booker T. Williams came out of the trial looking more like clinical workers than dramatists."

On Sunday, May 31, 1970, two days before the Collins trial was to begin, William B. Treml wrote in The Ann Arbor News that Prosecutor Delhey was "cool, unemotional, professional. He has a fifteen year reputation for being meticulous, methodical, and calculating in the preparation of a criminal case."

Delhey was forty-five years old and had a wiry, athletic build and a penetrating voice. He lettered in football for three years at Ann Arbor High School and placed second in the 880 yard dash in the 1942 state track meet. Delhey enlisted in the Army Air Corp and took pilot training but World War Two ended before he saw any combat action.

After his enlistment, he earned a Bachelors of Science degree in 1947 from The University of Michigan. He worked as an air pollution chemist for the Ford Motor Company and took night classes part-time at The University of Detroit graduating with a law degree in 1954.

Delhey went into private practice in 1955 and became assistant prosecutor in Washtenaw County in 1957. In January of 1964, he was appointed prosecutor and won the office outright in the November elections of that year. He was re-elected in 1968. 

William Delhey was married and had two boys and two girls, ages ranging from two through twelve. Politically, he was said to be a Republician.

Assistant Prosecutor Booker T. Williams was forty-nine years old and born in North Carolina. He had combat experience in the Pacific theater of war as a sergeant in World War Two. 

Williams also worked his way through school. He began at The University of Pennsylvania in 1947-1948 and moved to Ypsilanti in 1950. He paid the bills by working as a night clerk in an Ann Arbor hotel and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1952, and his law degree in 1955, both from The University of Michigan. 

Booker T. Williams went into private practice but joined the prosecutor's staff in 1958 and left in 1960. When William Delhey was appointed prosecutor in January in 1964, Williams returned to become an assistant prosecutor.

While he was actively engaged with the Collins trial, Booker Williams had to overcome personal tragedy. During the jury selection process, his wife Arletta Marie had a heart attack. He took off nineteen days to be with her at her bedside before her death and another week to get his household of seven young children organized. Williams was the father of six boys and one girl, ages ranging from thirteen to nineteen months. 

John Peterson wrote that "Williams effectively poked holes in the scientific testimony of defense experts sniffing out inconsistencies and hammering away at discrepancies. He earned a reputation for rapid-fire, rapier cross-examination." 

Prosecutor Delhey lauded Williams for his work on the Collins' trial and said it was critical to the People's case. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lawyers for the Defense in the John Norman Collins Case

John Norman Collins' legal team - Neil Fink and Joseph Louisell - June 1970

Immediately after John Norman Collins was arrested on July 30, 1969, his mother Loretta retained the legal services of Robert Francis and John M. Toomey of Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

A week later on August 7 during a preliminary examination, Mr. Toomey told presiding Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Edward D. Deake that he had discussed withdrawing from the case with Collins and his mother. The reason given was lack of funds and Mrs. Collins' "inability to undertake further financial liability."

"John will benefit by a court-appointed attorney because this will give him the right to a lot of things, such as the court paying for independent blood tests, ballistic tests, and fingerprints," Toomey explained. "Mrs. Collins indicated that she might not be able to afford this type of work and wanted a court appointed attorney." 

The judge agreed, and on August 12, 1969, a three-judge Circuit Court panel appointed Richard W. Ryan to handle the case. Ryan asked Francis and Toomey (Collins' original attorneys) to stay on as co-counsels at county expense to assist him with the defense.

Ryan and his team were on the case for only a couple of months when Ryan began to have doubts about his client. He requested Collins take an off the record polygraph (lie detector) test. Collins agreed but Ryan refused to disclose the results. 

When conferring afterwards with the family in the judge's chambers, Ryan suggested a "diminished capacity" plea for an insanity defense. Mrs. Collins flew into a rage and fired him on the spot.

Then The Detroit News reported on November 25, 1969, that Joseph W. Louisell and Neil Fink from Detroit had agreed to defend Collins after conferring with Mrs. Collins and other relatives over a two week period. It was agreed that they were to take over the case on December 1st.  

When Neil Fink was asked by the press how Mrs Collins could afford the highest priced law firm in the state of Michigan, when she had plead poverty in open court only months before, he made no comment.

The Detroit Free Press reported the next day that "Mrs. Collins, who is a waitress, reportedly has received a pledge from a national magazine for a large sum of money in exchange for the exclusive rights to her son's story." No evidence of such an offer exists. 

Enter the man who has been described as "Michigan's Perry Mason," Joseph Louisell, the Detroit area's Mafia mouthpiece. In the decade before the Collins' case, he was best known for defending reputed Mafia figures including Pete Licavoli, Anthony and Vito Giacalone, and Matthew (Mike, the Enforcer) Rubino. All of these men were identified as Mafia chieftains in testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1963.

The fifty-three year old father of ten, five boys and five girls, Louisell  had a "hefty figure" with a "round jowly" face that was familiar to Detroit courtroom observers who watched him build a strong reputation as a prominent criminal lawyer.

He gained fame for his successful 1949 defense of Carl E. Bolton and Carl Renda, both charged with shooting United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther in the back.

Another notorious case was the acquittal of blond and beautiful Nelle Lassiter, who was charged with conspiring with her lover to dispose of her husband's body, used car dealer, Parvin (Bill) Lassiter.

Some of Louisell's critics have complained of his courtroom theatrics. "All trial lawyers are ham actors at heart. Especially me, I guess," he said. "Normally 65% of my practice is in civil and corporate law. That's where the money is. But criminal law has some kicks. That's for fun." 

Neil Fink was a thirty year old junior partner in the firm of Louisell and Barris. He assisted his senior partner and handled all the pre-trial examinations and defense motions. 

He stayed active in the case while his boss was recuperating from a heart attack he had on February 2, 1970. Louisell's doctor said he would permit Louisell to return to work on April 1. Fink handled the entire Collins case load for a couple of months

Rumors circulated about how a waitress at Stouffer's in downtown Detroit could afford such a high priced legal firm. Just for the record, Mrs. Loretta Collins refinanced her home in Center Line for an undisclosed amount to pay for the estimated $15,000 it would take to cover her son's legal fees. 

(Next post: The Prosecution Team for the People against John Norman Collins) 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The John Norman Collins' Prison Papers

Blocking the facts and details of the John Norman Collins coed killer case, through the trial and sentencing, has been a time consuming and tedious process. But bringing out the voices of the past by reconstructing the dialogue of the witnesses' testimony from newspaper reports of the day has been insightful and fascinating.

Working with old information and with what we've learned about this case since the seventies, an account is starting to form which will give a more textured and resonant picture of the trial than the phonetically transcribed court transcripts would have, which incidentally were unavailable to me. The Washtenaw County Courthouse Records Department has "purged" this case from their files.

My researcher, Ryan Place from Detroit, and I are entering uncharted territory now - the John Norman Collins prison years. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we were able to secure a thousand prison documents from the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

Once we paid our tribute ($500), we were sent a box full of unsorted photocopies which had to be categorized, placed in chronological order, and thinned of duplicate copies. Of the one-thousand photocopies we purchased, only about three-hundred are useful to us, and many of them are routine paperwork of little or no interest to the general reader. 

The good news is that now I have a manageable amount of information to work with, and a picture of John Collins' years behind prison bars is beginning to take shape. 

When we saw the initial amount of prison materials, we hoped that we had received the full sweep of his four decades in prison at Marquette, Jackson, and several other Michigan correctional institutions, including a short stay at Ionia, which houses Michigan's mentally ill and deranged prison population.

But there are huge gaping holes in the chronology of his many years in prison. Still, there is some interesting factual information to be found among the routine and often sketchy paperwork. 

Something missing is any information on John Collins attempted prison breaks, especially a tunneling attempt he made with six of his prison inmates. They tried to dig themselves toward an outside wall of Marquette prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 

Discovered by a prison guard on January 31, 1979, Collins and six other convicts had dug nineteen feet toward an outside wall within thirty-five feet of freedom. They had been scooping out handfuls of sand since the previous summer. 

The prisoners were charged with breaking the prison's rules but little more is known about the incident. There must have been an investigation, but we don't have any evidence of any. Were escape charges ever brought against them? I'd like to know more and will pursue it further.

It would have been nice to get a well-organized and concise information drop from the Michigan Department of Corrections, but they aren't in the business of helping me do research for my book, In the Shadow of the Water Tower.

It is the search for knowledge that drives me and my researcher to uncover as much about these matters as we possibly can and to shed light on this dimly remembered and deliberately shrouded past.