Sunday, March 20, 2011

20 to life for a murder that may never have happened (Jan. 6, 2007)

Current mood: hopeful

When one man murders another, you usually have a corpse. The assailant usually has a rap sheet longer than he is tall. There usually is a weapon. There are usually witnesses. The Medical Examiner issues a death certificate stating cause of death. Lacking any one of these things, it's hard to get a conviction for murder, harder still to have the conviction upheld, and harder even still to get the maximum sentence.

I am personally aware of a case, though, that defies all logic. I say personally because I have visited the man in prison, and knew him for 15 years before the sequence of events occurred to put him there. His case lacked all of those things.

Bill Seifert was happily married, a father of four small children, gainfully employed, with no criminal record. He owned his home near Buffalo NY, paid his taxes on time, and was a pleasure to hang around with. He was a friend of my father's, lived a couple of miles away, and was frequently over at the house. I had a friend who lived across the street from him and babysat his kids. He had no enemies. He was never threatening.

There was, however, bad blood between him and his brother Mark. They had an altercation outside someone's car one night that resulted in a busted taillight and a police report. Bill was heard to say, "If you do something like that again, I'll kill you!"

At least months, possibly years later, Mark disappeared. His burned out car, a 10-year-old clunker, was found 30 miles away on a rural road. There were signs of a struggle nearby, but no weapon, no bullets, no shells. And no corpse. Around this same time, Bill, whose job was to service billboards, had a board to work on in Georgia, so loaded his van and hit the road. When he returned, the police arrested him and impounded the van.

The case against him went something like this: Bill owned a recently cleaned gun. He had something red in the back of his van that might be blood. He was absent from the area when Mark disappeared. He had the motive of threatening his brother. He was familiar with the country road where the car was found. And that's pretty much it.

The biggest problem at his trial was the lack of a defense. Since he was gainfully employed, he was not appointed an attorney so had to get one himself. He knew only one, a family friend who happened to specialize in real estate. This lawyer had never tried a criminal case, let alone a murder defense. The defense case consisted primarily of the defendant and one character witness, his mother.

There was no weapon clearly linking him to the crime. There was no corpse. Twenty years later there is still no corpse. There is no death certificate, either.

The second biggest problem at his trial was his jury. This was documented in The Buffalo News by one of the jurors a few months after the conviction. I'm not talking about a quote in an article, but a four-page-long essay written by the juror in the paper's Sunday glossy news magazine. Apparently, the circumstantial evidence was explained in enough detail to sway 11 jurors, who similarly were unswayed by the absence of any compelling defense. The holdout, the article's author, went along with the rest because of the blood in the van, which was not dated, nor shown to be human, let alone that of the victim. I'm not even sure that it was shown to be blood.

Most importantly, the jury wanted to get done so they could go Christmas shopping. It was an early Friday morning in December, and they were Downtown. I am not making this up; this came straight from the juror's newspaper account.

The appeal failed in large part because the judge appointed to handle it did not recuse himself from the case even though he was part of the original case.

The victim, meanwhile, never did appear. Corpses don't hide that well. Shallow graves dug rapidly alongside I-95 in the dark of night, as was supposed to have taken place here, show up eventually. In 23 years, none has.

Note especially that there was no D.N.A. evidence mentioned above. That tool did not exist at that time. The jury went exclusively on circumstantial evidence, which itself was suspect and even contrived. Certainly the scenario was contrived.

Unlike Bill, the supposed victim had a shady history. Mark was a practicing homosexual, a known drug user, and was only marginally employed. In early 1984 when all this happened, AIDS was rampant primarily in the gay community. What I figure happened was that Mark found out he was dying of AIDS, and had only a short time to live. He thus saw a way of getting back at Bill for that altercation, so staged the disappearance himself. He then silently left Buffalo, moved to San Francisco, joined its thriving gay community under a different name, and died of AIDS there without anyone in Buffalo ever knowing.

Of course, I cannot prove that story, nor can anyone prove me wrong. The story holds no less water than that of the prosecution, which put a possibly innocent man in jail for 20 years.

This weekend, the New York State parole board will consider Bill's release. It's about time. He is a Quaker. He doesn't believe in violence.


bus15237 said...

Comments I made on the original post, early 2007:

#1. Post Script. Here is how to check on a New York State Department of Corrections (NYSDOCS) inmate. Go to this site:
where you supply identification information. In Bill's case, you mainly need the D.I.N. number, which is 87-A-7611.

At this writing, the parole board is to have met, but I have not heard about any outcome.

#2 January 2007.
Update: Parole denied. I do *not* know why. I would *understand* why even less.

We try again in January 2009.

#3 January 2009.
FINALLY!! Parole approved, effective 1/09/2009.

bus15237 said...

Update, March 2011, and this info is a bit dated. I got a Christmas card from Bill in 2009. He has terminal cancer.

I'm guessing this was as much reason as anything else why he got sprung. NYSDOC didn't want to have to deal with his medical costs. I am certain that he has no medical coverage, nor can get any.

Hmmm. I didn't get a Christmas card from him in 2010.