TOP STORIES OF 2010 - No. 1: After months of ups and downs, DeMocker case fizzles into mistrial
A murder trial that riveted the Prescott area in 2010 but ended as a mistrial in November may return to court next year.
Steven DeMocker, 56, a Prescott stockbroker, was charged with murder and burglary in the death of his former wife, Carol Kennedy. Later, prosecutors brought fraud charges against DeMocker after it came to light he allegedly had his teenage daughter send an anonymous e-mail to his defense lawyer that claimed a drug gang carried out the killing.
Unexpected twists and long delays bedeviled the trial, beginning when the first judge assigned to the case collapsed from a brain tumor. More recently, defense lawyers sought to withdraw their services - a motion that, after several weeks, reached the state Supreme Court. After the high court granted the defense lawyers' request, it was only a matter of weeks until the new defense counsel, Craig Williams, requested that Superior Court Judge Warren R. Darrow declare a mistrial. However, Williams asserted DeMocker's right to claim double jeopardy, an issue Darrow did not immediately pursue. DeMocker, meanwhile, may face another jury sometime next year.
DeMocker kept the same calm and serious demeanor throughout the proceedings, occasionally turning to smile at his mother, daughters and other family members who came to court.
The case drew national media attention as producers for ABC's "20/20," CBS's "48 Hours" and NBC's "Dateline" came to town to film the trial.
A sheriff's officer found Kennedy, 53, bludgeoned to death in a back bedroom at her Williamson Valley home on July 2, 2008, after a telephone call to her mother in Nashville, Tenn., broke off abruptly as Carol said, "Oh, no." After failing to regain contact, Ruth Kennedy asked YCSO to check on her daughter.
Prosecutors claim the murder weapon may have been a Big Bertha golf club that investigators never found. In the weeks before her death, DeMocker gave Kennedy a Big Bertha club for a garage sale that she'd planned.
DeMocker quickly became a person of interest, according to testimony from Sgt. Luis Huante. That night, DeMocker drove out to Kennedy's Bridle Path house from his Hassayampa Country Club condominium after his teenage daughter, Charlotte, then 16, told him that Kennedy died. When DeMocker asked Huante if he might be a suspect, Huante became suspicious and brought DeMocker in for questioning. Detectives then found DeMocker's story about his whereabouts during the time Kennedy died differed from a version of events given by Charlotte and her boyfriend.
The jury watched a videotape of the detectives' interview with DeMocker, who told them that he rode his mountain bike that evening on a trail near Granite Mountain. The officers could not locate the trail where he said he rode until two weeks later, long after rain washed away any traces.
But the detectives quickly found bicycle tracks and footprints from a trail off Glenshandra Drive leading to the rear of Kennedy's home. Prosecutors claimed those tracks could have been made by DeMocker's bike and a pair of La Sportiva shoes he purchased in 2006. However, investigators found none of DeMocker's blood, fingerprints or DNA at the crime scene, despite a large scratch on his leg. He said the scratch came from thorn bushes along the trail.
While DeMocker had initially faced the death penalty, in April Superior Court Judge Thomas B. Lindberg dismissed two of three death penalty aggravators. Defense lawyers John Sears, Larry Hammond and Anne Chapman argued that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to the defense in a timely fashion, jeopardizing DeMocker's chance for a fair trial, and that the prosecutors failed to follow court orders regarding the destruction of biological evidence. The prosecution then withdrew the remaining aggravator on May 26, leaving life in prison as the possible sentence should a jury convict DeMocker. Deputy county attorneys Joseph C. Butner III and Jeffrey Paupore tried to have Lindberg removed from the trial, saying the he was prejudiced against the state and citing a comment he made in chambers that the case might never reach the death penalty phase.
That attempt failed, but Lindberg's subsequent illness required that he leave the trial in June. After a five-week break, Darrow took the helm.
The trial appeared to be back on track as a parade of detectives, shoeprint and tire-track experts and other witnesses testified for the prosecution. One detective displayed several books that DeMocker allegedly ordered about how to live life as a fugitive.
In some of the most surprising testimony, former Yavapai County Medical Examiner Philip Keen testified that he strapped Kennedy's body into the back of his pickup truck and drove it to Phoenix so that the injuries to her head could be examined by a forensic anthropologist. Keen also said that he used a nail clipper during the autopsy that hadn't been sterilized. DNA tests showed the DNA from three unknown males beneath her fingernails.
Another revelation concerned Kennedy's $750,000 life insurance policies, which DeMocker, who had been the beneficiary, signed over to his daughters. The daughters, in turn, used some of that money to fund their father's defense, according to court records that the judge later sealed. Butner contended that DeMocker "ultimately received a benefit of $350,000 in violation of the terms of the testamentary trust of Carol Kennedy.
By Sept. 21, DeMocker's former girlfriend, Renee Girard, revealed to investigators that DeMocker allegedly authored the anonymous e-mail while in jail, having his daughter, Charlotte, go on a mission to Phoenix to send it to Sears and Butner in June 2009. The judge granted both Girard and Charlotte DeMocker immunity. Girard, who was not called as a witness before the trial broke off, was also expected to testify about leading detectives to a bag that DeMocker hid at the Hassayampa Golf Club near his home. The bag contained survival items including dark clothing and a cell phone.
In June, defense lawyers argued that the e-mail claimed that hit men from a drug ring related to Kennedy's tenant, James Knapp, killed Kennedy. Lindberg ruled then that it could be admitted. Once the allegation that DeMocker orchestrated the e-mail surfaced, Butner, who previously fought to keep the e-mail out of the trial, reversed course, asking to be allowed to use the e-mail in the state's case. Butner claimed the e-mail "now constitutes a statement and confession from the defendant."
Knapp, whose death was ruled a suicide, died of a gunshot wound in January 2009. Witnesses testified that he was out babysitting at the time of Kennedy's death.
After several-closed door hearings and a break that stretched over a month, the Supreme Court ruled that the defense team could withdraw its services. The lawyers said they had ethical reasons, which remain concealed, to leave the trial in midstream.
Western News&Info Inc., the parent company of The Daily Courier, asked the court to unseal the documents in the case. In its motion, the paper argued that under the First Amendment and case law "the public has a strong right of access to the court's records and proceedings."