Michael Curry trial | Day 5: Ann Curry's mother tries to recall when last she saw her daughter, grandchildren alive

Bernice Johnson remembers 'The Price Is Right' was on TV before Ann returned

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 22, 2011 

  • Here’s a recap of the Curry trial, which started Monday:

    MONDAY
    In the first day of jury selection, prosecutors asked potential jurors whether they believe a conviction can result from a case employing no forensic evidence to link the defendant to the crime. District Attorney Julia Slater asked individuals summoned for the jury pool whether they watch TV crime shows such as “CSI” and “Forensic Files.” Her follow-up inquiries were whether prospective jurors believe the crime-solving methods portrayed and whether they think crime-lab technology can yield a “magic piece of evidence” that seals a suspect’s guilt beyond doubt.

    TUESDAY
    The first phase of jury selection wrapped up after a day-long session during which a 43-person jury pool was established. Superior Court Judge John Allen and attorneys had to weed out potential jurors for possible bias. One woman was adamant that she already had an opinion of Curry’s guilt, and it would not change. “I don’t want to be involved in it,” she said of the murder trial.

    WEDNESDAY
    A 12-woman, 3-man jury was seated in the early afternoon, and Assistant District Attorney Crawford Seals told the jury the state’s case against Curry was circumstantial. The first witness was Police Chief Ricky Boren, a detective at the time of the homicides, who described the gruesome crime scene.

    THURSDAY
    Testimony reveals glass in a rear door to the Curry house was broken from the inside-out, and the door was not opened afterward. With a side kitchen door to the driveway blocked by an overturned trash container, that means the killer had only one door to leave through — the home’s front door. A state pathologist says a medical examiner’s estimate Ann Curry died at 2:30-3 p.m. was hours too late because the house was so hot her body would not have cooled quickly.

Michael Curry’s murder trial today focused most intently on the testimony of Bernice Johnson, whose recollection of when her daughter and grandchildren left her 4416 Fairview Drive home the afternoon of Aug. 29, 1985, is crucial to determining whether Curry had time to kill his wife and kids when they arrived at their 5433 Rockhurst Drive home.

Police have said they timed the drive from Fairview to Rockhurst at 7 minutes, and at 13 minutes measured the drive from Rockhurst to the 3200 Macon Road Kmart where a profusely sweating Curry bought a fan at 12:55 p.m. that day.

At 5:30 that evening, Curry reported finding his family hacked to death with a bush ax when he came home from work. His 24-year-old wife Ann was eight-months’ pregnant, and the baby she carried died with her. Daughter Erika was 4 years old; son Ryan was 1½ years old.

That day Ann had left Ryan with Johnson while she took Erika shopping for a birthday gift to take to a party that evening. When she returned, she wrapped the gift, loaded the kids into her car and headed home. When she returned, and when she left, are unclear.

After the gruesome homicides, Johnson had to wrestle with memories of that day, to try to decide when, exactly, Ann headed home. At one point she said she remembered looking at a clock that read 12:10 p.m., and Ann had not returned yet, though she came in minutes later.

The night of the slayings, she told police Ann and the kids left about 12:30 p.m. At a 1986 inquest she said no later than 12:45 p.m. In 2008, she told police Ann left at 12:15 or 12:30.

Today in court she said all that she clearly could recall about the time was that before Ann came back from shopping, Johnson took Ryan into the kitchen, sat him on the counter and gave him a wafer and some juice. She turned on the TV, and “The Price Is Right” was on.

After that, she and Ryan went to a toy box and played, and then Ann came in and immediately wrapped the gift and left. “It was kind of an in and out thing,” Johnson said.

She guessed Ann was there for 10 or 11 minutes, maybe a little longer counting the walk out to her car, where Ann wanted to stir up some fire ants in the yard, asking her mother, “Mama, do you mind if I kick the ant bed? I love to make ‘em mad.”

Meanwhile Johnson buckled Ryan into his booster seat, asked Ann to check the straps, walked around to Erika and said, “Honey, have a good time at the party.”

“I will, grandmother. I really will,” Erika replied. Erika loved to add “really” to a repeated declaration, Johnson said.

As they pulled out of the driveway, Johnson’s husband Jim, who’d been working out in the yard, called out, “I love you!” and everyone waved, she said.

District Attorney Julia Slater asked her what time that happened.

“I can’t remember exactly,” Johnson said.

On cross-examination, Curry’s defense attorney Bob Wadkins asked Johnson if she recalled telling a coroner’s inquest that it was at least 12:30 p.m, but no later than 12:45.

“I don’t remember saying that, but I might have,” she answered. “I’ve said a lot of things over 26 years.” Even if she had looked at a clock while Ryan was at her house, she would not have known whether it had the right time, she said.

Wadkins noted that “The Price Is Right” aired on CBS from 11 a.m. to noon.

Slater asked Johnson about the nature of Ann’s relationship with Michael Curry, delving into the family’s history. Johnson said Ann was the youngest of her four children, with a brother and two sisters. Ann was 18 when her father retired from the Army, and the family stayed in Maryland so she could finish high school at Calvary Christian Academy.

Then they moved to Columbus, where they already had a house. Bernice and Jim Johnson had met here while he was in Army, she said. For a semester Ann left for college at Biola University, a private Christian college in the Los Angeles area, but she got homesick and moved back.

The summer after she graduated from high school, she started seeing Curry, Johnson said, adding that often after a date Ann would come home in tears, but would not tell her parents why.

Then one day Ann told her mother they need to talk, so they went back to Ann’s bedroom where she said, “’Mama, I hate to tell you this, but I’m pregnant’,” Johnson recalled, adding, “which I thought was the most devastating news I would ever hear.”

Ann was 18 years old. She married Curry in January 1981, and her parents did not object. “We were thinking in terms of what was best for the baby,” Johnson said. Erika was born Aug. 12.

Asked about the Currys’ relationship in 1985, Johnson said she knew they were having money problems, and Ann was having health complications – blood clots in her legs – because of her third pregnancy. She had to go on leave from her job at Blue Cross Blue Shield. The Currys had to borrow a car from the Johnsons while Michael Curry tried to repair an old van he’d got to do side jobs.

One day Ann requested her mother ask Jim Johnson to drive her to the hospital when she went into labor. “Michael told me he won’t do it,” Ann told her.

Then came the evening of Aug. 29, 1985, when the Johnsons heard their daughter’s home was ringed by police crime scene tape. They rushed to police headquarters, then at 937 First Ave., where the RiverCenter is now. Officers ushered them into a room and told them the terrible news. Johnson thought it could not be true: She told police she’d just seen her daughter and grandchildren that very day.

Immediately investigators wanted to know when she last saw them. She guessed 12:30 p.m. “I just said the first thing that came to my mind,” she said today.

DAY 4

Testimony in the fourth day of Michael Curry’s murder trial Thursday revealed that glass in the rear door to the 5433 Rockhurst Drive house in which Curry’s wife and two children were slain was broken from the inside-out, not from the outside-in as previously reported in accounts of the crime scene.

The revelation came from Lewis Stewart, the police technician who photographed the scene on Aug. 29, 1985. Describing how he walked around the house shooting pictures, Stewart said he took a photograph of the rear door that led from the back patio into the den where 24-year-old Ann Curry and her 20-month-old son Ryan were found hacked to death with a bush ax, which lay on the floor nearby.

After taking the photo, Stewart opened the rear storm door, which swung to the outside. He had to step back quickly as glass showered down, he said.

On the other side of that storm door, the door into the den had 15 panes of glass, one of which had been shattered next to a deadbolt lock. Unlike the storm door, that door opened by swinging to the inside, into the den. Stewart said most of the glass on that side was caught by a sheer curtain over the window panes, but some pieces fell to the den carpet, a few landing upright against the door.

Because of the way the exterior storm door opened to the outside, and because of all the glass that was caught in it, investigators thought it impossible for someone to have broken the window pane from outside. Because glass inside the den lay against the door, none was scattered on the carpet within the door’s 36-inch sweep, and both the door’s deadbolt and knob were locked, detectives decided it had not been opened since the glass was broken.

That evidence indicates the killer neither entered nor exited that way once the pane shattered.

In the adjacent kitchen police found 4-year-old Erika Curry in a pool of blood, her head split open and parts of her upper palate scattered across the floor. A white plastic waste container near her body was overturned so close to a door leading from the kitchen to the driveway that the door could not have been opened without moving the container. Blood tracks on the wastebasket showed it fell over before Erika’s blood hit it.

That means the only door the killer could have used to leave the house was the front door, and as attorneys questioned witnesses Thursday, they focused on Curry’s movements the day his family was slaughtered, and on what he did when he got home from work and reported finding the bodies.

Testing timelines

Under questioning from District Attorney Julia Slater, Police Chief Ricky Boren, who in 1985 was a sergeant investigating the case, said Curry told detectives he spent much of that day shopping for a fan for The Bradley Center, where he was director of plant operations. He checked out a blue Chevrolet Malibu station wagon that belonged to the center and left there at 9:40 a.m. for the Sears store, then located off Macon Road at Rigdon Road, near where the school district headquarters is today.

He told police he got there before the store opened, so he waited, then examined Sears’ fans before he went next door to walk through what was then Columbus Square Mall -- where the main library is today -- to look at some renovation work.

Then he drove north to Montgomery Ward at Peachtree Mall, today a Macy’s store, to look at fans there, and then drove back to Macon Road where he bought one at Kmart, a receipt showing the purchase at 12:55 p.m.

Boren described how police later timed those errands, driving each route and stopping at all traffic lights, green or red, to get a time frame that would include being stopped at red lights.

Driving from The Bradley Center to Sears took about 5 minutes, Boren said. From there to Peachtree Mall was 3.2 miles and took 6 minutes. From there to Kmart was 2.6 miles and took 5½ minutes, Boren said.

Before she and her children were slain, Ann Curry had been at the 4416 Fairview Drive home of her parents, Jim and Bernice Johnson, who could not recall precisely when she left to return to the Curry’s Rockhurst Drive home. Boren said he timed the 4-mile drive from the Johnsons’ to the Currys’ at 7 minutes. To test the possibility Curry killed his family and then rushed to Kmart to buy the fan, Boren timed that 4.9-mile drive at 13 minutes.

Curry was back at The Bradley Center by 1:10 p.m., coworkers told police. He had been gone for almost 3½ hours. He told detectives he spent about an hour at Sears and Columbus Square, about 15 minutes at Montgomery Ward and 30 minutes at Kmart, Boren said.

Coming home

Slater then focused on what Curry told Boren about returning home around 5:30 that evening and finding his family dead. The Currys usually came and went through the side kitchen door at the driveway. Curry said that evening he went in the front door because he saw a yellow circular in the storm door, and picked it up as he entered.

But at one point during police questioning, Curry said he got the circular not that evening but “this morning,” Boren said. Police found the flyer on the bed in the home’s master bedroom.

Boren said Curry also gave varying accounts of what he did after finding the bodies, saying he immediately ran to a neighbor’s house, or he knelt beside his wife’s body, or he knelt beside Erika’s body in the kitchen, or sat down and cried. Boren, who on Wednesday testified that he’d had to stay at least 3 feet away from Erika’s body to avoid the blood, said officers found no evidence anyone had stepped in blood or otherwise smeared it. The green polo shirt, khaki pants and boots Curry said he was wearing and surrendered to police had no blood on them.

Slater also had Boren point out that Curry never called 911, despite what he discovered.

At one point in his police interview, Curry told Boren that after finding the bodies, he ran out the kitchen door. Knowing that door was blocked, Boren asked: “How did you get out the side door?” Boren said Curry corrected himself, saying, “I went back out the front door.”

Boren also testified about the home’s rear den door being locked, with broken glass caught in the curtain and leaning against the door below.

Under cross-examination, public defender Bob Wadkins asked if some of the glass caught in the door curtain could have fallen against the door had someone slammed it on the way out.

“Not in my opinion,” Boren said.

“But it could have,” Wadkins countered.

“I guess that’s the perception, but not in my opinion,” Boren repeated.

Wadkins also asked whether Boren would expect a man in such a traumatic situation to remember precisely what he did, as a transcript of his interview quoted Curry as saying of Erika’s body, “I think I knelt down. I don’t remember.”

Said Boren: “I would expect the major things to be accurate.”

The time of death

On Thursday afternoon, prosecutors used testimony from a state pathologist to challenge the accuracy of then-medical examiner Joe Webber’s estimate that Ann Curry died at 2:30 or 3 p.m.

That conflicts with the prosecution theory that Ann and her children were killed as soon as they got home from her mother’s house on Fairview Drive. Bernice Johnson could not recall exactly when Ann left for the 7-minute drive home to Rockhurst Drive. Wadkins noted that the mother gave estimates ranging from 12:30 to 12:45 p.m. Prosecutors believe it was earlier.

Having returned from his fan shopping by 1:10 p.m., Curry was seen so often that afternoon at work that investigators doubt he left again until quitting time.

Dr. Keith Lehman, a forensic pathologist with the state medical examiner’s office, said Webber used rectal thermometer readings of Ann’s body temperature to gauge when she died, checking it three times in sequence to get an idea of how quickly her body was cooling. After death, a body typically cools to the temperature of its environment, Lehman said.

Webber can’t defend his practices now because he has died since the slayings.

The issue with Webber’s estimate is that Ann’s body was not in a cool environment, Lehman said. Boren said the house was steaming hot; he was covered in sweat by the time he left that night to go question Curry. A thermostat had topped out at 90 degrees, and police thought it was hotter.

Without a reliable reading of the environmental temperature, the time of death is difficult to establish, said Lehman, who thought it more likely Ann died in the morning or early afternoon. He said the temperature of a body in a hot place actually could increase.

He told Assistant District Attorney Crawford Seals that in a room hotter than 90 degrees, using a rectal thermometer to gauge time of death wouldn’t work. Of Webber’s estimate, Lehman said, “You can’t limit it to 2:30 p.m., based on the information I have.”

Under cross-examination from Robin King of the public defender’s office, Lehman acknowledged that his judgment was based solely on autopsy reports and crime-scene photographs, and he otherwise knew nothing of Webber’s procedure or thought process.

Thrown out

Testimony from another prosecution witness was delivered without the jury present and determined to be inadmissible. A former girlfriend of Curry’s said he put a powerful staple gun to her head a few years after the slayings and said, “I’m going to kill you.” Contrary to previous reports of what the woman was expected to say, she said she did not leap through a window to escape Curry, in that incident. She called police.

As defense attorneys had protested earlier in the trial, the woman’s account was not documented in any police report or court record, and in court Thursday she said it happened in Surry County, N.C., which was not even one of the three counties that prosecutors had thought it occurred in. Chief Superior Court Judge John Allen ruled the woman’s testimony would only prejudice the jury against Curry.

Also Wednesday, a woman who in 1985 worked as a cashier at Kmart said she could remember Curry coming to her checkout that day because he was sweating so profusely, with perspiration dripping from his face and soaking his shirt. Vera Robinson said she thought it unusual because the store was so cool inside that cashiers often wore sweaters, even in August.

Under King’s cross-examination, Robinson said she believed Curry had to wait about 5 minutes in line at her checkout lane, then had to fill out forms for the $8.97 tax-exempt purchase for The Bradley Center, and then a supervisor had to approve it before it went through the cash register. The defense maintains that because Bernice Johnson said Ann and the kids left her house around 12:30 p.m. or later, Curry did not have time to kill them, drive to Kmart and fill out paperwork for a purchase recorded at 12:55 p.m.

Thursday’s court proceedings began at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. They resume today at 9.

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