It is 8:30am and I am sitting in the jury lounge to see if I will be called to serve as a juror for the District Court of Montgomery County. My stomach is in knots, not only because I have a huge amount of work to do and this is a kind of crummy week to be missing time at the office, though that is definitely part of it. The knots also are not only because today is my 13 year old daughters last day of Chemotherapy for Hodkin’s Lymphoma, though that is certainly a part of it as well. But the elephant in the room – the bloody and incredibly sad elephant – is Patty Rebholtz. I’m thinking of Patty and really, really, not wanting to hear my number called.
In December of 2001 I was working as a web designer at the ABC affiliate television station in Cincinnati, a position I had held for about three years. I was summoned for Jury duty and reported as ordered. Though I was 34 years old, I’d never served on a Jury and I was kind of excited. Also, I was young enough that an excuse to get out of work for a day or two was more than welcome.
I was in the first group called to “Voir Dire,” a process where the lawyers on both sides ask questions to determine whether they are comfortable with you serving on the jury for their case. Through this process we were able to glean a thumbnail sketch of the case, and it was certainly not what I was expecting. It was a murder case; A murder case dating back to four years before I was born.
On steamy August night in 1963, someone strangled 15 year old Patty Rebholtz and then crushed her head with a fence post in a vacant lot across the street from her boyfriend’s house in a sleepy Cincinnati community that, at that time, was a stone’s throw from farmland. Patty, a cheerleader, had been at a mixer at the local community center and was killed while walking alone after leaving the dance. Her boyfriend Michael had not gone with her to the dance.
I was kind of excited at the prospect of being involved in such an interesting case. That the defendant, a now 54 year old Michael Wehrung, was a name known to me as the owner of a well-known Cincinnati roofing company only added to the intrigue. I really wanted to get on the jury, but I was pretty sure they would eliminate me during Voir Dire since I worked for a local television station. A television station which, not only reported heavily on the case at the time, but whose star reporter had served as a witness.
Since the story continues, it’s fairly obvious that I did end up being selected for the jury and the case began the next day.
It turns out that I’m really just not cut out for murder trials. It lasted a bit more than a week and every day was an exercise in boredom, horror, and intense sadness. I came to really value those times of boredom. The sadness of it all was crushing.
It was in that courtroom I discovered that, though I’ve always enjoyed horror movies, that actual autopsy pictures make me faint. To be honest, I didn’t actually lose consciousness, but it was a close thing many times. I spent most of the time we were reviewing the photos and film trying to focus on a point between two clouds outside the window behind the television screen and trying by sheer force of will to keep the white haze around the edges of my vision from completely taking over. Honestly, that’s my clearest memory of the whole thing: those clouds and the panes of the windows leading out of this totally awful world I’d found myself a part of. Every time the 60-something Coroner in the films we were watching referred to Pattys “panties” I felt like I wanted to scream. To this day I can’t stand hearing that word. Seriously, if you are a person who uses that word, I beg you to stop.
Now, ten years later, reading the news reports of the trial it all seems so clear cut.
- The investigators at the time were absolutely positive that Wehrung had killed Patty.
- They had her blood on his pants and Michael had acted very strange after Patty’s body had been discovered.
- She had gone to the dance against his wishes while he stayed home and played ping-pong with friends because he was jealous
- She had called him just before leaving the dance to, allegedly, go break up with him.
- Patty was found literally across the street from his house.
- When she didn’t get home that night, Michael and Mel (Patty’s older brother, home from college) drove around looking for her. Michael went home after fifteen minutes while Mel continued driving all night long.
- The next day Michael got up, saw the commotion across the street, said “it’s Patty,” and went back to bed.
- There was blood on his pants.
- He confessed. Seriously, he confessed.
All of it seems so obvious now, and I wasn’t surprised then and would not be surprised today at anyone surprised that we didn’t convict him. But at the time things were not clear cut at all:
- The DNA evidence we were promised in opening statements never appeared. In fact we never heard of it again after the trial started. This wasn’t the only thing the Prosecutor said we’d see that we didn’t.
- We never even heard conclusively that the blood on Michael’s clothing was Patty’s type. The written record of that result was lost.
- The blood on his pants was a very small spot. It seems like there would be a lot more.
- The confession had come after a very long interrogation without a lawyer or parents present and was something along the lines of “I guess my other self did it.” The prosecution argued that this was a statement that he had killed Patty, but could easily have been a case of being incredibly tired and told over and over again that you did something: “Well, it wasn’t me…so it must have been another me.” Welcome to “reasonable doubt.”
And there was more:
- Another kid playing on the street that night had seen a strange teenager with Elvis hair and glasses walking down the street shortly after Patty did.
- The evidence was very poorly stored and a flood years ago had damaged Patty’s clothes pretty badly.
- Many of the people working on the case had died and much of their recorded statements were ruled inadmissible by the judge. A ruling that I still don’t quite understand and feel that a more savvy prosecutor would have gotten in to evidence.
- And finally, no one saw Michael go out or come back.
There’s really no reason this should have been a part of my life, or my fellow jurors lives at all. Nearly all of this was known back in 1963 and the police were about to arrest Michael when, in a midnight ruling, a juvenile court judge had made him a ward of the court and sent him away to school, stopping the arrest set to go down the next day and effectively shutting down the entire investigation. The police had no other suspects, they were positive it was Michael. It wasn’t gone into much at trial, but I suspect that Judge acted unethically.
I’m fairly sure that, had I been on a jury that got to hear this evidence back in 1963 – A jury able to see the undamaged evidence and hear that the blood type on Michael’s clothing matched Patty’s – that we would have convicted him. But as it was, we had to let him go. Even given all this, I was unwilling to return a verdict of not-guilty until the very end of two days of deliberation. As I recall there were three of us that were positive Michael Wehrung had killed Patty Rebholtz. But in the end we had to agree that time had done too much damage to the state’s case: That there was certainly reasonable doubt.
“Some jury members wept after the verdict and all seemed tired. The seven women and five men in the jury received the case shortly before 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and deliberated until 9 p.m. that day. They returned Thursday at 9 a.m. and announced their verdict about 2:15 p.m.”
I was one of those jurors who wept when the verdict was read. It was an incredibly difficult experience that I won’t repeat again. Seriously, if I get called to a case and it turns out to be anything involving serious harm or death, I’m out. I refuse. Forget it.
I was sad to read recently that Mel Rebholtz, Patty’s older brother, died a couple of years after the trial and only three days after the anniversay of his sister’s death. It was really him that kept the case alive after so many years and I truly regret not being able to give him what he thought he needed to move past his sister’s murder.
I think about my experience as a juror in that case and have really mixed feelings about it. It was a great responsibility, one that far too many people have also shouldered. I hope that we did the right thing. I believe that putting the burden on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt is correct. I also think that we were correct in ruling “not guilty” even when some of us really though that might not be completely true. The evidence is the evidence and we did what was right by the evidence. Reasonable doubt is a really tough thing.