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Twenty-five years later, third trial begins in triple slaying

Posted March 17, 2010

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— On May 9, 1985, Kathryn Eastburn was raped and stabbed to death in her Summerhill Road home in Fayetteville. Two of her three daughters, 3-year-old Erin and 5-year-old Kara, also were fatally stabbed in the incident.

On Wednesday, 14 Army officers and enlisted personnel began hearing evidence to determine whether Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis committed the crimes.

"The killer is among us," Capt. Nathan Huff, one of the military prosecutors in the case, said in opening statements as he pointed at Hennis.

Gary Eastburn Husband recalls 1985 family massacre

Hennis, who was stationed at Fort Bragg in the mid-1980s, was convicted of murder during a 1986 trial in state court. The North Carolina Supreme Court later overturned the conviction, ruling that prosecutors had improperly used graphic crime scene photos.

After a second trial in 1989, Hennis was acquitted. He then finished out his service in the Army and retired to Washington state.

Local investigators continued to pursue the case, though, and several years ago, they found DNA evidence they say links Hennis to the slayings.

Because of double jeopardy, he couldn't be tried again in state court, so the Army recalled him to active duty in late 2006 to try him in military court.

Hennis bought a dog from the Eastburns a few days before the killings, Huff told jurors, and the soldier returned to attack Kathryn Eastburn.

Huff described the horrific crime scene, noting that Erin Eastburn's throat was cut and that Kathryn Eastburn was stabbed 15 times in the chest.

"As she lay there on the floor helpless, with her three children in the home and her husband 500 miles away, the accused raped her," he said.

Jana Eastburn, who was 22 months old at the time, was left unharmed in her crib. Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn was at training school in Alabama when his wife and daughters were killed.

"It was just Jana, and (the killer) left her there in that crib without food, without water, without someone to change her diaper. Baby Jana stayed trapped in that crib for two days," Huff said.

Hennis' sperm was found on Kathryn Eastburn's body, Huff said, but Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, one of the military attorneys representing Hennis, countered by saying the sample of DNA was small and unreliable.

“The smaller amount of DNA, the bigger the problem,” Poppe told jurors, adding that authorities can't prove the sample hadn't been tampered with since Hennis' 1989 trial.

Poppe noted in his opening statement that no other forensic evidence, such as blood, connects Hennis to the crime scene. He also said that Hennis has been cooperative with investigators, which isn't the behavior of someone who is guilty.

"The attacker would have been saturated in blood. There is no evidence that Master Sgt. Hennis was in any way involved in a very bloody murder," he said.

Huff said a composite sketch of the suspect in the Eastburn slayings looks remarkably similar to an old photo of Hennis.

Gary Eastburn was the first witness to testify in the case, and he repeatedly choked up and wiped away tears while recalling details about the killings.

"She was very outgoing," he said of his wife. "A very pleasant person. A great mother. The love of my life."

He called Kara "the brains of the family" and said Erin "couldn't do anything wrong."

Eastburn said he became concerned when he couldn't reach his wife on May 10, 1985 – they spoke by phone every Saturday – so he asked a neighbor to check on the family. The following morning – Mothers Day – a homicide detective called him.

"He wouldn't give me any details about a death in the family. He said I needed to come home," Eastburn testified.

Now 52, Hennis has maintained that the Army doesn't have the authority to try him for the slayings. His attorneys argued in federal court in Raleigh last month that because the Army discharged Hennis, it couldn't now try him for any crimes committed while he was in the service.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled Tuesday that it would be inappropriate for him to decide that issue with a court-martial in progress, so he allowed the case to continue through the military judicial system.

The trial is expected to last up to two months, with as many as 120 witnesses.

13 Comments

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  • SME2 Mar 19, 2010

    Basically the military does not have to follow the rules that all of civilized society has to.

    They'll railroad whoever they want when they want too.

  • mleighcannon Mar 17, 2010

    "If they had done their job right in the first place, they would not be going to court now. They should leave this man alone. He was cleard twice."

    Dear wildcat, get a clue. They did. That's why he was found guilty the first time. There are a lot of people who have their hands in a case like this... so an ignorant statement like that is so offensive. It was a cheap reason why they threw out the first trial, and smoke and mirrors that got him out of the second one, and it's not some government conspiracy that he's being tried again, it's the fact that he was a member of the military and was supposed to stand for freedom, and then he raped a woman and killed her and two of her innocent children and then left her youngest alone and without food for two days. So no, it isn't a conspiracy, it's the military trying to right something that one of their own did.

    before you comment on things you should learn the facts.

  • Adelinthe Mar 17, 2010

    What some of you don't understand is this:

    When a person sign the contract for military service, they sign away all their civilian freedoms and adjudication by all civilians laws including the Constitution and Bill of Rights in exchange for military laws and regulations.

    Now - the military can defer charges of their personnel to civilian courts, but unless they do, the civilian court has no real jurisdiction over military personnel unless that deferrment occurs.

    Therefore, although this man was found innocent decades ago by a CIVILIAN court, he was never tried by a MILITARY court, and now that new evidence is in (DNA) and the military has decided to persue charges, that's the grounds under which he is being tried now.

    In my opinion, the guy is guilty as sin, but the truth is, anyone who hasn't sat in on an entire trial and heard all of the evidence the jury is hearing can't possibly know enough to say that.

    God bless.

    RB

  • anastasia Mar 17, 2010

    In some ways this case is similar in nature to the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. Simply in reverse. MacDonald was cleared by a military court martial and then tried in civilian court and found guilty. As for DNA testing, the refined testing methods were NOT available in the 1980's. One of the earliest usages was the O.J. trial, and a much larger quantity of sample was required. Now, with those newer repeat tests they are doing, a much smaller sample can be replicated. Like I said, it's being used to exonerate, why not to convict? And what other reason, other than guilt, would cause Hennis sperm to be on Kathryn Eastburn?

  • Myra Mar 17, 2010

    DNA testing was begun in the 1980's and the civilian prosecutor's failure to test the evidence he had over 20 years ago begs some questions. In 1989 when he was acquitted, under double jeopardy he cannot be tried by the civilian prosecutor again, so it is extremely questionable that time and expense to keep investigating a case he cannot, by law, prosecute again. Sounds like a violation of Hennis' constitutional rights. . Waiting over 4 years to hold court martial is suspicious. The husband who was not in town got to testify as a witness, cry and call Hennis a killer. In civilian court that would have been a sustained Objection. Something about this case is very wrong on many levels.

  • anastasia Mar 17, 2010

    They did the best job they could 'the first time'. NEW DNA testing was able to *type* Hennis. If new DNA tests can exonerate the innocent, why can't it be used to bring a triple murderer, a baby killer, to justice? Hennis was there, simply because he was able to hire high profile attorneys to 'get him off' doesn't mean he didn't kill this poor, helpless mother and two of her babies. The only reason the third one survived was because she was too young to tell, 'it was the man who'd come to the house two days before to adopt the Eastburn family dog.' Hennis *connection* to the crime. He knew Kathryn Eastburn was alone with her three preschool children, and now she didn't even have her dog as protection anymore, because Hennis adopted it. Hennis was observed by his neighbors to be 'burning clothes' very early in the morning after the killings. Very much circumstantial evidence to connect him to these brutal murders, and now, with new testing techniques available, direct DNA evidence.

  • chfdcpt Mar 17, 2010

    Sort of like Raleigh PD wanting to test for DNA evidence on a case that is over 17 years old, after the accused was found to be not guilty by a judicial panel and set free.

    Does it not scare you folks that the government is able to keep prosecuting folks over and over until they get their desired result?

  • wildcat Mar 17, 2010

    HE IS NOW INNOCENT. THEY SHOULD HAVE DONE THEIR JOB RIGHT THE FIRST TIME. THEY FAILED AND NOW THEY ARE TRYING TO RECOVER AND DO A BETTER JOB. PLEASE................

  • wildcat Mar 17, 2010

    authorities for 20+ years.

    HE WILL BE FREED AGAIN. STAY TUNE.

  • FE Mar 17, 2010

    "If they had done their job right in the first place, they would not be going to court now. They should leave this man alone. He was cleard twice." - wildcat

    ABSOLUTELY WRONG - He was found guilty (and justifiably so!) of three murders and sexual assault at the first trial in Cumberland County. Due to an error by the DA (who showed "inappropriate" pictures of the victims to the jury) that verdict was overturned. A well-paid defense attorney later used enough smoke and mirrors at the second trial to somehow get an acquittal, not unlike the infamous OJ trial scenario.

    There are lots of legal issues at play here, so our justice system has to play out.

    But bottom line is the man committed the three murders and has thumbed his nose at authorities for 20+ years.

    FE

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