Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Prosecutor's Conundrum in the John Norman Collins' Cases

The Burden of Justice
Of the seven young Michigan women thought to be the victims of a sadistic serial killer in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor areas in the late sixties, only one case was brought to trial, the murder case of Karen Sue Beineman on July 23, 1969.

Arrested on July 31, 1969 was an Eastern Michigan University junior named John Norman Collins studying to be an elementary school teacher. From the second floor courtroom of the Washtenaw County Building in Ann Arbor, Collins was found guilty of Miss Beineman's premeditated murder in the first degree on August 19, 1970. Nine days later on August 28, 1970, Circuit Court Judge John W. Conlin sentenced Collins to life in prison without possibility of parole. After twenty years of serving his life sentence, Collins could be eligible for a pardon by a sitting Michigan Governor. That is Michigan law.

Washtenaw County Prosecutor William F. Delhey made a deliberate decision not to prosecute John Collins for the other sex-slayings he believed Collins to have committed. The law enforcement community was confident that they had the right guy for the murders. The elusive serial killer was finally off the streets and the string of vicious, motiveless killings had come to an end after a reign of terror spanning three violent summers.

Because prosecuting the Beineman case was the most expensive criminal proceeding in Washtenaw County history to date, many people believed the other cases were not prosecuted solely for economic reasons, leaving the grieving families without answers. Somehow, the institutional belief that the greater good of the community had been served was little comfort to them. They had lost a loved one.

Taking exception with that point of view is Cris Bronson, a former secretary in the office of Prosecutor William Delhey during the span of the trial. She recently shared her insights with me regarding Delhey's decision not to prosecute Collins for the remaining murders.

"This oversight was not due to negligence or incompetence on the part of William Delhey. Nor was it about the amount of money which would be spent prosecuting John Norman Collins (for the other murders). Mr. Delhey had a strategy which was designated to keep Collins in prison for the rest of his life. Further prosecution was designated to occur successively if there was any risk that Collins was to be pardoned or otherwise released. This decision by William Delhey may have given rise to doubt over Collins' guilt in the other cases. But not so!

"Mr. Delhey had prosecuted another murderer of several individuals, throwing the full weight of each murder in one case against the defendant. The offender pleaded guilty by reason of insanity. Some time after this multiple murderer was committed, the State of Michigan changed its laws regarding those offenders who plead insanity defenses and were remanded to mental hospitals for the rest of their lives. The intent of the new law was to prevent mental health facilities from acting as prisons. The result in this specific instance was that this multiple murderer was released onto Michigan streets.

"Mr. Delhey tried to refile criminal charges against this defendant because the time for filing an appeal in the case had long run out. But the circuit court judge who had been assigned the second trial threw the case out as 'double jeopardy.' State and Federal laws prohibit charging an individual twice for the same crime once an official decision had been rendered in the first trial. Prosecutor Delhey was mindful of this and was determined that Collins would stay behind prison bars in Michigan to serve out the full measure of his sentence - life in prison.

"With respect to the law, the public release of evidence collected in the murders of the other victims held in abeyance cannot be made public. But Mr. Delhey had enough evidence to bring charges for each successive case as follow up to prevent this serial killer from being released to harm anyone else again. Although these cases are cold, they still remain officially open. There is no statute of limitations on murder."

There you have it. The State's evidence in these other cases would be inadmissible in court if the chain of custody were broken or if the facts were released to the public. This evidence will likely never be revealed, even after fifty years or when all the parties to these cases have passed on.