Feb 04, 2009 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
Live telecasts bring ‘black widow’ murder trial into our living rooms.
Marriage can be murder.
Figuratively speaking, we know that to be true. The pressure of fidelity, finances, the daily demands of careers, house-keeping and child-rearing, well, it’s a struggle.
While brides and grooms vow to remain true to each other “for better or for worse” and “until death do you part,” it’s all easier said than done. And for some that ultimate parting can’t come soon enough.
That’s when marriage can be murder literally.
And that’s the essence of the case against Stacey Castor.
Digital TV testimony
In the old days if you wanted to actually see and hear testimony in a local murder trial, you had to drag yourself down to the county courthouse on Columbus Circle.
Back in 1983, for instance, I took the bus downtown with my dad to catch an energetic young assistant district attorney named Bill Fitzpatrick in a battle royale against legendary defense lawyer Paul Shanahan who ably represented accused passion-killer Cynthia Pugh.
Shanahan’s booming voice and meticulous creation of reasonable doubt won a mistrial for his client before Fitz bounced back strongly to secure a conviction at the second trial.
Now, thanks to digital television technology, we can see and hear the witnesses, the attorneys, the accused and the judge right there on our living room TV sets.
For the past three weeks WSYR-TV channel 9.2HD has been telecasting the murder trial of Stacey Castor, and News 10 Now carried Castor’s testimony and the lawyers’ closing arguments. The 41-year-old town of Clay woman is accused of fatally dosing her second husband, 48-year-old David Castor, with antifreeze in August 2005.
The indictment also charges Stacey with trying to kill her daughter, Ashley, in a 2007 attempt to frame the kid for the murders of her step-father and her own father, Michael Wallace, 38, who died in Weedsport in 2000 when Ashley was just 12 years old. His body was exhumed in September 2007 and examination of the corpse indicated that he also died from an OD of ethylene glycol, the toxic ingredient in antifreeze.
District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick presented a carefully structured and convincing case, calling 44 witnesses, playing wiretapped phone conversations and unveiling the apparent suicide note which Stacey claims Ashley wrote to confess to killing the two men. The DA unraveled the complex chain of events that connected all three incidents and pointed his finger directly at Stacey even as she pointed her finger at Ashley.
Fitzpatrick’s first witness was none other than Ashley Wallace, now 21.
A Liverpool High School student at the time of her stepfather’s death, Ashley in her testimony came off as a rather clueless young lady but one with an encyclopedic knowledge of popularly abused prescription drugs.
Pills and booze
On Sept. 14, 2007, Ashley was rushed to the hospital after spending 17 hours in her bedroom. Doctors found that she had overdosed on vodka and a variety of pills, including Ambien, codeine and hydrocodone. Fitzpatrick maintained that Stacey administered the potentially deadly combination of drugs and booze.
When Stacey took the stand last week, the DA asked her if it was “normal” for Ashley to remain in bed for 17 consecutive hours. “For Ashley to be in her bedroom for 17 hours was normal. Sure, it was,” Castor said. Fitzpatrick threw her own words back at her. “Sure, it was!” he yelled derisively. “And was it normal that she was drooling?”
Stacey had made the drooling comment, she said, as a jocular “figure of speech.”
While Fitz browbeat the defendant, suggesting that she depicted Ashley as a “psychotic monster” capable of killing her mother’s two husbands, Stacey somehow maintained her composure.
Why did Stacey testify? Most murder defendants don’t. She and her lawyer, Chuck Keller, may have figured it was her only chance to connect with the jurors. It should be noted, however, that Chuck Keller is no Paul Shanahan.
To Keller’s credit, though, on Monday he delivered a cogent closing argument that raised the specter of “reasonable doubt.” His last-ditch appeal may have persuaded a few jurors to question the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence. Keller’s surprisingly effective close came after two weeks of fumbling through cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses during which Fitzpatrick belittled his opponent as less competent than a first-year law student. Then, when presenting his defense case, Keller called Stacey’s fianc (c), Michael Ochsner, who admitted lying to the grand jury about a suspicious pill bottle. Oops.
During cross-examination, the DA lashed out at Ochsner, referring to his alcohol use and an anti-Obama joke he told on a wiretap, “You’re a drunk! You’re a racist! You’re a perjurer,” Fitzpatrick shouted sarcastically. “You’re going to make someone quite a catch, aren’t you?” Keller objected and Judge Joe Fahey sustained it, one of the few times the judge ruled against the DA.
Loving mom or ice queen?
As she testified in her own defense, Stacey often used her left hand to brush her long reddish-grey hair from her right forehead. Such simple gestures coupled with her forthright manner may have convinced the jury of her humanity, but her chilly demeanor under 95 minutes of heated cross-examination by Fitzpatrick made her look like an implacable ice queen, capable of anything.
She barely flinched when Fitz had her confess to enlisting two friends to falsify and back-date David Castor’s will, suggesting her motive for offing the husbands was the more than $100,000 she’d get from their estates and insurance policies.
Yes, Castor remained cool as a cucumber and also displayed a flair for simple similes:
Michael Wallace “smoked like a chimney,” she testified. David Castor snored “like a chainsaw.” Ashley and a certain teacher were “like oil and water.”
Stacey testified bluntly about her family’s internal strife. On the weekend he died, David and she argued long and hard about the two daughters. He wanted to take a vacation without them. She wanted to bring Bree, but he refused and started slamming Southern Comfort. Sometime over the weekend his cocktails were laced with antifreeze, a type of poisoning that causes a slow and agonizing shutdown of the inner organs.
David’s favorite TV show, Stacey said, was “Dr. Phil,” and no wonder. The poor guy was probably desperate to cope with his own dysfunctional family. Those simmering in-house conflicts caught up with him once and for all on Aug. 22, 2005 when he was found dead in his bed on Wetzel Road.
Fitz’s riveting summation
Castor’s death was initially ruled a suicide, but Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh said that “very early on” his investigators — led by Det. Dominick Spinelli — suspected that Stacey, not Ashley, had a hand in David’s demise. As the investigation progressed in 2007, the DA said, Stacey decided to shift the blame to her oldest daughter and tried to kill “her own flesh and blood.”
Fitzpatrick’s riveting summation was a masterpiece of rhetoric and oratory. “It’s the little things that convict you,” he said, pointing to seemingly trivial issues such as a repeatedly mis-spelled word, the defendant’s unsubstantiated claim of a trip to the post office and tapping sounds from a computer keyboard heard in the background of a recorded phone call.
The DA repeatedly mocked Stacey’s behavior at the time of her second husband’s death and her daughter’s overdose as “That’s normal,” adding parenthetically, “I don’t know what planet this woman lives on.”
When he opened the prosecution, Fitzpatrick recalled, he had told jurors he was at a loss for words to describe the defendant. “But you can solve that problem for me,” he said, “because the word for this defendant is guilty.”
The jury began its deliberations Monday.
Stay tuned to cnylink for Tarby’s report on the verdict.