Local News

Deliberations in 1985 triple murder continue

Posted April 14, 2010 10:06 a.m. EDT
Updated April 15, 2010 3:02 p.m. EDT

— Jury deliberations as to whether a former Fort Bragg soldier should be executed for killing a Fayetteville woman and two small children in 1985 resumed Wednesday afternoon after a question about parole prompted a brief delay.

Last week, a panel of 14 Army officers and enlisted personnel found Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis guilty of three counts of premeditated murder for the May 9, 1985, stabbing deaths of Kathryn Eastburn and two of her daughters, 5-year-old Kara and 3-year-old Erin, in their Summerhill Road home.

The panel began deliberating Tuesday afternoon whether to sentence Hennis to life in prison or death, and one of the jurors raised a question about Hennis' parole eligibility.

Based on the premeditated murder convictions, the mandatory minimum sentence in Hennis' case is life with the possibility of parole. Should Hennis be sentenced to life, the Army Clemency and Parole Board would take up the issue of his parole eligibility after he had served 10 years of his sentence.

Col. Patrick Parrish, the military judge handling the case, intentionally didn't instruct the panel Tuesday on the possibility of parole because it's not in the panel's purview to anticipate whether Hennis would be paroled. Jurors are to simply consider a life sentence to be for life, Parrish said.

"I provided a legally incomplete answer," the judge said Wednesday in discussing the juror's question with attorneys.

Parrish said he would give the jury sentencing instructions that mention parole, prompting objections from Hennis' attorneys, who said the move would inject the parole issue into the deliberations.

"It will become foremost in the panel's mind when they consider life or death," Lt. Col. Kris Poppe said.

It's unlikely that Hennis would be considered for parole until he has served at least 25 to 26 years of confinement, attorneys said, citing research completed for another case.

Parrish angrily cut off the defense objections. "I take exception that you said I injected parole. I didn't inject it. The jury asked," he said.

Still, he later issued instructions to the jury that again skirted the parole issue.

"I told you that life means life. You should draw no other inference from that," the judge said, adding that the jury should issue a sentence "which you regard as fair and just at the time you make it."

Jurors left Wednesday evening without reaching a decision and were expected to continue deliberating Thursday morning.

All 14 jurors must agree on the death penalty for Hennis to receive that sentence. Otherwise, he will receive a life sentence.

Jurors asked a question late Wednesday afternoon about the effect of a vote that wasn't unanimous, and defense attorneys immediately responded that any such vote would automatically result in a life sentence.

If the jury decides in favor of the death penalty, Hennis would join five other men on the military's death row. They include Hasan Akbar, who was convicted at Fort Bragg in 2005 of killing two fellow soldiers in Iraq; former Fort Bragg soldier Ronald Gray, who killed two people and committed three rapes in December 1986 and January 1987; and Camp Lejeune Marine Kenneth Parker, who killed two fellow Marines with a shotgun in 1992.

The military trial is Hennis' third for the crimes. He was convicted in state court in 1986 but won an appeal and was acquitted in a second trial three years later. He finished out his service in the Army and retired to Washington state.

Years later, DNA tests not available in the 1980s linked Hennis to sperm found on Kathryn Eastburn. Because Hennis couldn't be tried in state court again, the case was turned over to the Army to pursue a court-martial.