I’m not seriously following the Trayvon Martin trial. It’s heart breaking and I do have opinions and interest. I just rarely jump from one intense case in to the next. Plus this one is so divisive, I just value my relationships and don’t want to break up with anyone over it.
I did have HLN on in the background this morning as I was doing some chores and a name blasted in to my brain. Blasted from the past I mean.
Dr. Vincent Di Maio is going to be the main forensic expert for George Zimmerman in this case evidently. Vincent Di Maio got one of my sister’s killers, Rudi Apelt, convicted. His testimony is probably the one and only reason there was a two hour deliberation in that death penalty trial, with a resounding GUILTY verdict in Rudi’s trial.
Now I’ve watched quite a few trials in my years following cases now. Never, in any trial, have I witnessed such a Perry Mason moment as what occurred in Rudi Apelt’s trial. His trial, our second for Cindy’s murder, was in 1990, before the internet was really hopping. Before Court TV, before OJ, before cases having the kind of international attention they do now.
But the tale I’m about to tell you, had there been say a Websleuths forum, HLN coverage or a Wild About Trial feed/twitter following it, would have caused coffee cups to be dropped, bowls of ice cream spilled, martinis toppled, bags of M&M’s imploded, Vegemite sandwiches choked on, laptops sliding off laps as people uncontrollably stood up in shock and cats and dogs scared in living rooms traversing the globe. It was that kind of shocking, unexpected moment in a courtroom that flipped the whole game with one witness: Dr. Vincent Di Maio.
The twist here is his testimony is what convicted Rudi Apelt, yet he was called to the stand by none other than the defense team of Rudi Apelt.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
I will devote an entire blog post down the road to the stellar Catherine Hughes, our prosecutor in both of our trials, because she deserves it. But for now, I’ll tell this story that will definitely put her on your radar as someone to know and admire.
By the time Rudi Apelt went to trial for felony murder and conspiracy to commit the murder of my sister Cindy, his brother Michael had already been convicted and sentenced to death.
Now, Cathy had always told us this one was going to be harder. He hadn’t married my sister, the financial motive wasn’t as clear, his foot print wasn’t found on her face which was the one major piece of forensic evidence against his brother. She warned us all along this one wasn’t going to be so easy.
Much like Juan Martinez, Cathy Hughes sat up at that prosecution table alone. She had no second chair. Like Martinez, she had her lead investigator most days sitting up there with her. Esteban Flores in Arias, Mark “Jigsaw” Jones in both our cases. Both out of the Mesa PD.
When Cathy found out the defense would be calling the preeminent Di Maio, she was concerned. He’s a big deal. I mean, look, he’s the main witness for George Zimmerman now, all these years later. Our case was big locally, and oddly internationally because the killers are German, but not on the national stage.
I always thought the smart defense to go with for Rudi would be that his brother planned the entire thing, asked him to meet him in the desert and he showed up to find his brother had murdered his wife. So he helped him cover it up. That’s a far less charge than First Degree Murder.
But that’s not the defense they went with, thankfully. They went with the “only one person committed this crime and since he’s already been convicted you can’t even be sure our client was ever even there so he’s not guilty”. Rudi had these two big burly, bullish type, attorneys representing him. Oddly, I can’t even remember their names now. But I just always thought the dichotomy of those huge men with their huge egos on one side, and quiet powerhouse Cathy Hughes all alone on the other was just, well in the way it turned out, just rich.
Cathy kept me in the loop for many things during the year plus before the trial, and during the trial. She didn’t tell me everything I’m sure, but she kept me closely connected in the circle of info. Kind of amazing now that I think back, as I was just 29 years old. Very close in age to most of the Alexander siblings during their trial.
Cathy phoned me up one day to tell me something. She’s kind of stunned about it herself but shares it with me anyway. She tells me not to get my hopes up, but something big has happened and she has to tell someone. That someone was me.
At some point, she started getting a bit nervous about Di Maio, so she decided she wanted to know more about what she was up against. She took a weekend day and drove down to the Tucson Medical School for one purpose alone: to purchase his textbook. You see, this expert, literally had written the Handbook on Forensic Pathology.
On her own, with her own funds and on her own time, our prosecutor went the extra miles to find the key she needed toward conviction in our case.
She returned home that weekend and dove into his textbook, studying his own words, his own philosophies, his own teachings regarding crime scenes and murder victims. And then she turned the page right into what I will call “Securing a Conviction Using the Other Side’s Expert Witness and Making Him Your Own,” by Catherine Hughes with Vincent Di Maio.
What she landed on, in his own words, was the study of right handed vs. left handed stab wounds. As she delved into this witnesses learned instruction, what she found was that it was obvious that Cindy’s most fatal wound (sigh), the cut to her throat, the one that Jodi Arias repeated 20 years later, was committed by a right-handed assailant.
And what Cathy knew, having prosecuted both cases is although these two brothers shared genes, murderous greed, and sociopathic tendencies, they did not share dominant hands.
She knew that Michael was left handed and Rudi was right handed.
She also knew, without a doubt, reading Di Maio’s own textbook, that he would have to agree that it was Rudi who had committed the most fatal injury to Cindy.
And she had to keep it entirely a secret. It wasn’t new discovery in a legal sense, but it was discovery that either side could have ferreted out. But, may the best woman win. Cathy Hughes found a secret treasure buried by their very own witness, just waiting to be dug up.
It wasn’t new evidence, it was simply a new interpretation of the evidence.
She told me the whole story and because she’s such a humble person, she kept saying “there’s no way I’m going to get away with this. They have got to figure this out. It’s just too obvious”. So she never allowed herself to fully embrace that she was going to bury this cocky defense team using their own shovel.
I, on the other hand, never doubted it for a second. I just knew she would pull it off. She was my hero.
Cathy wins by being smart. Not arrogant, not aggressive but she’s just too damn smart for most opponents.
So when she heard Di Maio would be available for a pre trial interview she used her wits in strategizing that too, so as to not tip her hand. She invited him to meet her at her office in podunk Florence AZ where our trials were held. It’s a tiny town. A prison town.
She carefully chose her clothes, her demeanor, her attitude with one goal in mind: to disarm this esteemed expert forensic pathologist. She dressed, as she described to me “like a country bumpkin” with no makeup, a simple “house dress”, and opened her beautiful blue eyes wide fawning over him, asking for his autograph. Playing the role of someone who would get his attention as a small town adoring fan, not a tough as nails Prosecutor who was going to, the next day, kick his ass all over the desert and back to Texas.
Di Maio takes the stand that morning, with all his bravado and hubris, surely going to convince this jury that the defendant is not guilty. That he couldn’t possibly have committed this crime, as only one assailant was involved. That’s why they brought him. For his expertise, having reviewed the crime scene, to testify that in his expert opinion, just one assailant was involved. And obviously, since that person is already convicted of the crime, done deal.
And that is exactly what he did after they spent an hour or so just determining how much of an expert he is! His academic background, the hundreds of cases he’s worked on, all his books and publications. He’s a big shot and he knows it.
One assailant, here are the facts for this, he’s already been convicted, done. Case closed.
Oh hello Ms. Hughes, of course I remember you my small town country bumpkin big fan.
Then Cathy Hughes reaches into her bag below her desk and pulls out his textbook fluttering with yellow Post It notes piercing out from all its pages.
No one sees it coming. She starts slowly, asking him about his book in general. His belief in his own words, his belief in his own science, his belief in his own opinions.
Then she opens right to the Chapter on right vs. left handed wounds. Blindsiding the entire courtroom and sucker punching the witness with one turn of a page. My stepmother later described the defense team as both immediately turning grey. They clearly had no idea this was even on the table much less getting ready to be served, cold.
Initially Di Maio was defensive, obviously caught off guard. No one had prepared him to even consider this as an issue. OBJECTION! Oh yes I’m sure they wanted to object to make her stop. To mitigate the bleeding of their case all over the courtrooom. Too late.
She methodically led Di Maio down a garden path using his own words and graphic images as breadcrumbs escalating and amplifying her cadence straight to these words (paraphrased to the best of my recollection).
“So, Dr. Di Maio, now that we know you are the pre eminent expert in forensic pathology and now that we’re all acquainted with your textbook theories on right and left handed stab wounds, would it be your expert opinion that this fatal wound was committed by a right handed assailant?”
“Yes it would be”
“Then Dr. Di Maio, if I could tell you I can prove, which I can, that the defendant’s brother, Michael Apelt is left handed and the defendant is right handed, would it be your opinion that the right handed defendant committed this crime?”
OBJECTION! Overruled. (Cathy Hughes of course had video ready to be fired up of Michael Apelt writing with his left hand in court that had aired on local news–a videotape she’d borrowed from me)
“So Dr. Di Maio, knowing you are one of the world’s most well known experts in Forensic Pathology and seeing you’ve already told the jury that only one assailant committed this crime, would it be your expert opinion that it was the right handed defendant Rudi Apelt (as she does one of those round house arm swings with a pointed finger directed straight at Rudi) who committed this murder?”.
“Yes it is”
The jury later told us they took half an hour to come to their Guilty verdict but they wanted to make it appear they’d taken deliberations seriously so they took two hours. They apologized to us for it “taking so long”.
Rudi was sentenced to death right along with his brother. He was let off death row 18 years later on a mental retardation claim but that’s another blog post.
I just found that Di Maio’s testimony was used as part of an “ineffective assistance of counsel” appeal:
3. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
The theory of Rudi’s defense was that Michael killed Cindy before Rudi arrived at the murder scene. To bolster this theory, the defense called Dr. Vincent DiMaio, a forensic pathologist, to testify that Cindy’s wounds (both bruises and knife wounds) were consistent with a single assailant. Dr. DiMaio also testified, on direct examination, that the assailant was probably right-handed. The prosecution further explored this on cross-examination and then called two witnesses â a documents analyst and Anke Dorn â who testified that Michael is left-handed and Rudi is right-handed. Instead of helping the defendant’s case, Dr. DiMaio’s testimony could have damaged it. Defendant claims that the presentation of damaging evidence, as well as counsel’s failure to file a timely notice of appeal from his conspiracy conviction and sentence, constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.
Cathy Hughes was offered many promotions from that one moment. I’m sure from her successful prosecution in both our cases but that one shining moment is something none of us involved will ever forget.
I love her dearly and thank God we were so fortunate to get her as our prosecutor. For that moment and the many others we’ve shared in friendship all of these years.
Dedicated to Cathy Hughes, one of the best people I will ever know.