State News

Judge refuses to delay court-martial in 1985 slayings

Posted March 2, 2010 4:01 a.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2010 12:09 p.m. EST

Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis leaves the federal courthouse in Raleigh on Feb. 26, 2010, after a hearing in which he challenged the Army's right to try him for three 1985 slayings in Fayetteville.

— A military judge on Tuesday rejected a request to postpone a court-martial while a federal judge considers whether the Army can try a former Fort Bragg soldier accused of three slayings in 1985.

Col. Patrick Parrish said jury selection could continue in the court-martial of Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis because U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle didn't issue a stay while he considers Hennis' arguments.

Hennis has filed a federal lawsuit against the Army, maintaining that the military has no jurisdiction to try him for the slayings because he was discharged prior to re-enlistment in 1989. Boyle on Monday asked both sides to detail their arguments in the next two weeks so that he can rule in the case.

Hennis was convicted in state court in 1986 of killing Kathryn Eastburn and her two children in their Fayetteville home in May 1985. The state Supreme Court threw out the conviction, ruling that prosecutors used graphic photos of the crime scene to inflame jurors, and Hennis was acquitted in a 1989 retrial.

The Army forced Hennis back into uniform in 2006 to face a court-martial after civilian investigators reported that DNA testing linked him to the crime.

Defense attorney Frank Spinner said a delay would be appropriate for reasons aside from the pending federal lawsuit.

The state is reviewing old criminal cases after a recent state Innocence Inquiry Commission called into question the way the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab handled evidence, Spinner said, and Hennis' case could be among those examined. Also, Spinner said, a defense witness who will testify about footprint evidence might need more time to prepare.

Gary Eastburn, Kathryn Eastburn's husband and the father of the two slain children, was in the courtroom Tuesday as Maj. Robert Stelle, the prosecutor in the case, and defense attorney Lt. Col. Kris Poppe questioned the 19 Army officers and enlisted personnel in the jury pool.

Most said they had read newspaper articles and seen television reports about the case, but none had read a book about the Eastburn slayings or seen a 1996 TV miniseries based on the book.

The potential jurors also were asked whether they could be fair after seeing gruesome crime scene photos.

If convicted of murder, Hennis could face the death penalty, so the attorneys for both sides questioned panelists separately to probe their views on capital punishment.

One juror was disqualified after saying the only punishment for someone who killed a child was death, and Poppe sought to disqualify three others who were questioned Tuesday afternoon. Parrish didn't immediately rule on the request.

Jury selection is expected to take a week, and the court-martial could last up to two months.