Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Case Of Preston Hughes III: Stabbings Redeaux

In Stabbings Well Done I contrasted Preston's descriptions of how he stabbed Shandra and Marcell against the description of the wounds provided by the ever-so-helpful fill-in medical examiner. I contrasted, without comment, simply by posting excerpts from case documents. I asked readers to draw their own conclusions and to share their thoughts in the comments.

The first comment out of the block was brilliant. I concede my assessment of that comment may be somewhat inflated. Perhaps declaring it brilliant is merely a self-flattering form of confirmation bias, since the commentor anticipated much of what I planned to write in this post. In any case, I decided to use that comment as the template for this post. I begin by repeating the comment in toto.
The confessions are a lie. If Preston did kill Shandra and Marcell, he didn't do it the way he claimed. 
(a) He claimed he stabbed at Shandra 6 or 8 or 10 times, but Shandra was stabbed just twice. 
(b) Marcell's wounds are very similar to Shandra's. One to the left side of the chest, one to the left side of the neck. This would be an incredible coincidence if Preston were really just blindly stabbing. 
(c) The wound on Marcell's neck was from an instrument that travelled "slightly upwards". Unless the attacker was REALLY short, Marcell probably wasn't standing when he was stabbed in the neck (contrary to Preston's confession). 
I know nothing about stab wounds, but the confessions seem to describe a passionate, angry attack, and it looks to me like this attack was very deliberate. (Maybe a stab wound to the chest to disable each victim and then a stab wound to the neck to kill them?)

I will now deconstruct.

The confessions are a lie
"If Preston did kill Shandra and Marcell, he didn't do it the way he claimed."

I'm pretty sure no one is going to argue that point. Not only do Preston's two confessions fly in the face of the physical evidence, they fly in the face of one another.

Another way of describing a lie is to say the statement is false. Preston Hughes provided not just one, but two false confessions. The question is: Why?

Hughes claims he signed the confessions under threat of physical violence, even death. I assume the Houston police deny that. However, even if the Houston police were to suddenly admit they threatened Hughes' life, it is certainly no guarantee that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would grant Hughes a new trial. I refer you, as I have done previously, to the case of Cesar Fierro.
The opinion ... accepted the trial court's conclusion of law that "there was a strong likelihood that [Fierro's] confession had been coerced by the actions of [Mexican] police and by the knowledge and acquiesence [sic] of those actions by [El Paso police officer] Det. Medrano." However, though acknowledging that Fierro's "due process rights were violated", it concluded that "the error was harmless" and denied the motion for a new trial.
See also my posts here and here. The good news is that Fierro is unlikely to be executed. The bad news is that Fierro is unlikely to be executed only because he has literally gone insane while being locked in a concrete box by the people of Texas.

But I digress.

Some argue that Hughes lied during his confessions because he was trying to mitigate the charges against him. Reader and frequent commentor Mike, for example, wrote:
To a jury it's not going to matter too much. They are going to first look at it as Preston hedging his punishment. The first story was "hey it was self defense" with the hope of just getting parole. The second time was "hey I was just acting irrationally" a 20-40 year sentence, but if he had said, "I stabbed them execution style" he's going to get life at best or a visit to sparky.
I'll concede that once someone believes they are going down for the crime, they may indeed attempt to mitigate the damage by claiming self defense or temporary insanity. It seems to me that might be a relatively common occurrence.

This argument does not, it seems to me, hold in this case. Preston didn't mitigate his legal situation with his confessions. He aggravated them, and substantially so. Read on.

He claimed he stabbed at Shandra 6 or 8 or 10 times, but Shandra was stabbed just twice.
That is true, but the situation is worse then that. He said he stabbed the person who came up behind him twice before realizing it was Shandra. Even after he realized it was Shandra, however, he just kept stabbing. 

There goes his self-defense. He confessed to stabbing Shandra even though he knew it was her. Then he makes himself as unsympathetic as possible by adding that he went home, turned on the television, and checked the football score. It's almost as if someone who wanted him convicted was writing it for him.

As a public service, in case any of you find yourself in Preston's spot, I offer a better self-defense argument.
Someone grabbed me from behind. It was dark. I had no warning and I simply reacted. I pulled my knife and stabbed once, maybe twice. I can't remember. Then I ran home. I didn't know it was Shandra. I didn't know I hurt her. I swear.
It has the advantage of being consistent with the facts, at least as they relate to Shandra. By sticking to the facts, Hughes could have mitigated his crime rather than aggravating it. I suggest Hughes didn't stick to the facts of the crime because Hughes didn't know the facts of the crime.

Marcell's wounds are very similar to Shandra's
Also true. In his first confession, however, Hughes didn't even mention Marcell. When he included Marcell in his second confession, after the police cleverly noticed he had said nothing about a double homicide in the first, Hughes obligingly told them he had stabbed Marcell an unknown number of times even though he realized it was Marcell. Not only are the wounds similar, Marcell's incorrect explanations for how he created them were similar.

But wrong.

The second confession, according to those of the Reader Mike camp, is where Hughes was converting from a self-defense to a temporary insanity plea. Two problems there. First problem is Hughes never made any such claim during either confession. Second problem is Hughes never made any such claim during trial. From Hughes v. Quarterman (2008):
At the guilt-innocence phase of the trial, Hughes took the stand in his own defense. He denied that he killed the victims, claimed that he was framed by the police, and testified that he confessed to the crimes only because the police officers struck him and threatened him, causing him to fear for his life. The jury found him guilty of capital murder.
Rather than cleverly mitigating his alleged offense during each of his confessions, he claimed he knew who he was stabbing in each instance, and he claimed he stabbed them more times than they had in fact been stabbed. Once again, it seems as if Hughes had no idea what had happened, and that his confessions were worded by someone who wanted to see him convicted.

Marcell probably wasn't standing when he was stabbed in the neck
The same thought had occurred to me. In fact, I suspect neither Shandra nor Marcell was standing when their neck was cut. To understand why, I'm going to show once again a gruesome photo from my post Pools of Blood.

That's what you should expect to see if someone with a severed carotid artery is standing. When a carotid is severed, it spurts blood. From the substitute ME's trial testimony:
Q, [I]n the wounds that you have described here, would there have been spurting and splattering of blood? 
A. Yes, sir. 
Q. ... When we say a gushing, bleeding wound, are we talking about something that is shooting out away from the body or is it something that's oozing out of the body? Is there a difference in your mind? 
A. Well, arterial pressure is considerably higher than venous pressure; and usually when an artery is severed, it is followed by spurting of blood and it can go some distance.
So if your artery is severed and you are spurting your own blood while you are skating or staggering or even just falling, the spurted blood is going to leave a trail on the ground, or ice.

Now let's go back to the crime scene photos and check out the location where Shandra was tended to by the paramedics. There's the spot in the trail ahead. See it?

Let's look closer.

Closer still.

Let's step over the stain and look from the other direction.

It's obvious that the crime scene was not well preserved between the time the first and last photos were taken. It's obvious also that the blood stain looks nothing like the blood stain in the hockey arena. It doesn't consist of a trail spurted from Shandra's neck as she staggered and fell to the ground. It consists of a single elongated stain, right smack dab where Shandra was tended by the paramedics for her wound.

It looks to me as if Shandra was stabbed in the neck when she was already laying on the trail, face up. It looks to me as if her neck spurted blood first to one side of the trail, then to the other side as she rolled (or was rolled) from her back to a face down position.

The presence of other blood stains in some locations, and the absence of blood stains in some locations leaves plenty of room for confusion of how the stabbings went down. It seems to me, however, that Marcell's shoulder and neck wounds were inflicted while he was laying on his back. It seems also that Shandra's neck wound was inflicted while she was laying on her back.

With respect to Shandra's chest wound and Marcell's cutting wounds, I simply haven't enough evidence to venture a guess.

The confessions ... describe a passionate, angry attack, and  ... this attack was very deliberate
I made an promise in Shandra's Neck that I have yet to fulfill. Let's go to the tape.
Whether the knife traveled front-to-rear or side-to-side, the wound path challenges the State's case. I explain why in my next post in this series.
Another disappointing failure in my part. I have written several posts on the case since then and I have yet to explain. I will now.

If the knife traveled from side to side through Shandra's neck, it would have severed her larynx. She would not have been able to speak, and the wound would falsify the claim that she identified Hughes as her killer in a dying declaration.

If the knife traveled from front to rear through Shandra's neck, it would mean that the two sets of stab wounds are even more similar than it now seems. To the extent the wounds are more similar, they seem more deliberate and less random. That increases the disconnect between Hughes confession and the physical evidence. It makes it seem even more as if Hughes had absolutely no knowledge of the details of the stabbings.

As I type, I await the autopsy reports. I ordered them from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. I received a reply already (after three weeks) that the reports have been released and that they will send me a copy if I remit $2.30.

I remitted. I now await.

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