Editorial Advisory: This story contains details of rape, sexual assault, and homicide.
I try to imagine myself a juror assessing the facts and the arguments in this trial.
The facts: On August 30th, 1980, 36 year-old Stephanie Sommers was found dead in an apparent homicide. A rug mounted on the back wall of her apartment’s living room hung at an angle as if it had been knocked loose. A Virginia Slims cigarette butt lay just inside the entryway. A pair of rose-tinted glasses rested in a litter box. Panties were strewn on the floor along with a broken necklace and splotches of a rust-hued liquid that appeared to be blood. The kitchen’s knife drawer was open. Down the hallway in the bedroom, a body was partially concealed by a pile of towels and sheets. Pale white legs were left exposed. A yellow hat rested on top of the pillow covering the body’s head. Under the linens, a gash marred Sommers’ pallid forehead and her skull appeared to be fractured. She was naked except for a bra. An 8.8 lb weight lay beside her cheek, and her torso had been stabbed sixteen times by the kitchen knife left resting on her chest. There were no witnesses to the crime and the police found no fingerprints to identify a suspect.
The arguments: Prosecutor Lowrie Mendoza contends that the murderer is Harold Anthony Parkinson, who lived less than a mile from Sommers but otherwise did not seem to have any connection to her. Until 2018, that is, when technological advances prompted reanalysis of the vaginal swabs in Sommers’ rape kit and turned up a semen sample. The newfound DNA matched Parkinson’s. Public defender Jesus Lopez acknowledges that the DNA evidence confirms Sommers and Parkinson had sex, but he’s quick to point out that the results are only able to prove that they had intercourse within five days of her murder, not that it was rape. Mendoza offers a surprising rebuttal: Sommers was gay. Consequently, her sex with Parkinson could not have been consensual.
“There’s absolutely no question that we have the right person here in court,” Mendoza says as she paces in front of the jury box, not a hair out of place in her ponytail or a wrinkle in her charcoal skirt. As I ponder how the jury might react to this argument, the questions that come to mind are: “Is that all they have? Surely there must have been some other physical evidence, or other information that might more specifically link Parkinson to this heinous act?”
And, sitting at the defense table, Parkinson seems confident. Now 60, he has a bushy toothbrush mustache and wears a cheap sweater-vest and slacks. Sitting next to Lopez with his eyebrows permanently raised, occasionally scribbling notes on a legal pad with a pencil nub, he looks docile enough. To convince the room that this is the same man who brutally raped and murdered Sommers, Mendoza first attempts to establish the long-deceased woman’s sexual orientation.
This turns out to be easier said than done. As one of Sommers’ former co-workers, who identifies as gay, recalls: many LGBTQ people would have kept their sexuality “hush-hush” in 1980 because “it wasn’t as free as it is now.” Sommers’ nephew Kelly, still boyish at 52, beams as he recalls talking with his beloved “Aunt Steph” for hours every Saturday, but also testifies that she could be tight-lipped about her personal life. This leaves Mendoza to rely on a string of uncomfortable witnesses to recount their deceased friend’s sex life for the jurors.
Henry Clarke and his ex-wife Emma Foster are here to testify that they had a ménage à trois with Sommers in the 1970’s. A petite woman with a swoop of blond hair and now in her late sixties, Foster fidgets and says that she and Sommers were barely acquaintances and that the threesome was an aberration – a silly experiment. “I guess we decided to fool around a little bit and it was very brief. And nothing really happened,” she says, because “it wasn’t working.” Mendoza asks what Foster means by “it,” and she dryly replies, “His manhood.” Several jurors seem to squirm in their chairs, averting their eyes with pained expressions as Mendoza pushes Foster to clarify further. She confirms that she does indeed mean her former husband’s penis.
The penile malfunction doesn’t come up when Clarke takes the stand, but he agrees that the threeway “made everyone feel uncomfortable” and didn’t last long. “I don’t recommend it,” he says with a wry chuckle. He doesn’t recall Sommers and his wife being intimate during the threesome, but thinks that he and Sommers were. Clarke also testifies that Sommers might have agreed to the threesome because she was attracted to his wife. Again, as I think about it from the perspective of the jury, this testimony certainly bolsters the notion that Sommers was not especially into men, but also opens up the possibility that she and Parkinson could have had sex for consensual reasons. Could this have been another experiment? Could she have been trying to get pregnant?
The couple is followed by a neighbor who testifies that Sommers once said, “You know I’m gay,” during a dinner gathering. And Sommers’ former apartment manager Jennifer Warren testifies she knew her tenant was a lesbian. When asked why she’s so certain, a smile blooms on Warren’s deeply wrinkled face and she says, “We made love.”
By the time she finishes with her witnesses, Mendoza has made a strong case that it was unlikely that Summers had consensual sex with Parkinson. But has she convinced the jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the encounter was forcible? It really is hard to know. As Judge Kathleen Kennedy reminds the jury, however, they must base their verdict on the evidence alone. Seated at a desk covered in a menagerie of animal figurines, she says, “Your job is not to decide the case based on who you feel sorry for.”
Lopez dismissively summarizes Mendoza’s argument as “lesbian + sperm = rape,” which he equates to claiming that “2 + 2 = 5.” Lesbian math aside, Lopez points out to the jury that Mendoza has only told them part of the story, conveniently leaving out the fact that Sommers was briefly married in the early 1970s. Suddenly, the certainty of Parkinson’s guilt is less of a foregone conclusion than it seemed only moments before. Lopez contends that it’s tenuous to hinge a homicide conviction on a presumed sexual preference when sexual orientation is a spectrum that often defies attempts at neat categorization. Certainly, being a lesbian and being married to a man aren’t mutually exclusive, but this key point may muddy the waters just enough for the jury to find reasonable doubt. Is it entirely out of the realm of possibility that Sommers had a one-time encounter with a man a few days before she was murdered by someone else?
At this point in the trial, I might well be tempted to accept Lopez’s argument if I were seated with the jurors. But I’m not. We may be watching the same witnesses and hearing the same arguments, but as an observer, I remain in the courtroom when the jury leaves. It’s during one such break that I learn something the jury doesn’t know – something that Judge Kennedy has forbidden them from knowing: Parkinson is already serving time for another murder. His cheap clothing has been provided by the court to take the place of his blue prisoner’s jumpsuit. Judge Kennedy has deemed Parkinson’s conviction inadmissible, in accordance with federal evidence rules which allow that “the court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of…unfair prejudice.”
In other words, if a jury knew that Parkinson was already guilty of one murder, they would likely be biased in favor of finding him guilty of a second. After all, everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and being convicted of one murder doesn’t guarantee Parkinson is guilty of another. Still, knowing what I do about Parkinson, it’s certainly harder for me to presume his innocence.
Judge Kennedy has also instructed the jury to ignore Parkinson’s decision not to testify in his own trial. It’s easy enough for a jury to assume that if someone is innocent, they have nothing to hide and should be eager to state their case. There are good reasons for a defendant to avoid testifying, however, starting with the fact that they simply don’t have to. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not the defense, and defendants can easily find themselves outmaneuvered by prosecutors and forced to incriminate themselves. Still, I have to wonder if the jury will speculate on Parkinson’s silence as they disappear into the bowels of the courthouse to begin deliberating.
Maybe Lopez is right, and lesbian + sperm alone doesn’t = rape, but what about lesbian + sperm + prior homicide conviction + lack of an explanation for how Parkinson had consensual, unprotected sex with a purportedly gay stranger fifteen years his senior? With this knowledge, I have moved firmly into the category of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” But it’s nearly impossible to separate my view, having all of the information, from how I would view it as a juror with limited information. Knowing what they do, how will the jurors decide? Will they struggle to synthesize fact and argument into a clear assessment of Parkinson’s guilt? In spite of Judge Kennedy’s admonitions, will they ask themselves how the state got Parkinson’s DNA to test it against the crime scene evidence? Will they assume that the People had access to his DNA because Parkinson was already incarcerated on some other criminal conviction? Or will they hold Parkinson’s decision not to testify against him?
After four hours, the jury announces they have reached a verdict. Mendoza cautions Sommers’ family that whatever happens, they must not react. The court clerk reads the verdict: guilty, including the special circumstance allegations of murder during the commission of a rape and use of a deadly weapon. Parkinson’s face remains stony, his eyes vacant. He now faces life in prison without parole. Judge Kennedy dismisses the jury, reminding them that, “You can never wait too long for justice.” In front of me, one of Sommers’ family members nods in relief, and Mendoza flashes them an encouraging smile. Her strategy has paid off.
Some of the names in this story have been changed for privacy.