Michael Curry trial | Day 7: Curry found guilty in bush-ax slayings of wife, children

Judge discounts defense objection to his 'circumstantial evidence' example

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 27, 2011 

The jury has found Michael Curry guilty of hacking his family to death with a bush ax.

Jurors resumed their deliberations at 1:04 p.m. today after Judge John Allen granted them a 90-minute lunch break.

Jurors had debated the evidence about two hours and 15 minutes this morning, excluding a 15-minute break.

After deliberating about three hours Tuesday, the jury told Allen it deadlocked in determining the guilt or innocence of the man accused of hacking his family to death with a bush ax in 1985.

Allen told jurors this morning that it has been a "long and exhausting trial," and he wants them to continue their discussions to try to reach a consensus.

Once the jury left the courtroom this morning, Allen rejected a motion from defense attorney Bob Wadkins, who objected to Allen's characterization Tuesday of "circumstantial evidence" and wanted the judge to clarify it for jurors, who had asked for a definition.

To illustrate circumstantial evidence, the judge gave this example: If jurors look outside and see it’s raining, that’s direct evidence. If they can’t see outside, but see a man walk in with an umbrella he shakes out, scattering drops of water, and he’s tracking water from his shoes, that is circumstantial evidence from which they may infer that it’s raining.

Wadkins today said Allen told jurors they may "assume" it's raining in the latter instance, and that conflicted with instructions that they should not "assume" anything not borne out by the facts. Allen said Wadkins' concern would be noted in the record, but the judge felt his example was sufficiently clear.

The jury Tuesday also asked for a definition of "reasonable doubt."

The judge said a reasonable doubt is just what it says it is: A doubt based on reasoning, or one for which jurors have a reason they rationally can articulate.

Prosecutors told jurors the case against Curry is circumstantial, but they can convict him of murder solely on circumstantial evidence as long as it’s consistent and all other reasonable theories as to who committed the homicides is ruled out.

Defense attorneys countered that prosecutors still must prove Curry’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and they have failed to do so.

The jury retired to its deliberations Tuesday after hearing closing arguments in the 25-year-old triple-murder case.

Closing arguments

District Attorney Julia Slater said Michael Curry in 1985 was a 27-year-old faithless husband desperate to escape a joyless marriage and a growing young family he could not afford, and he was the only suspect with a motive for killing his 20-month-old son.

Defense attorney Bob Wadkins argued that Slater is asking jurors to draw conclusions that can’t be established by the facts of the case. One fact jurors should never forget is that prosecutors can’t say with any certainty when Ann Curry and her two children got home on Aug. 29, 1985.

She and her children may still have been alive when Michael Curry made a purchase at Kmart at 12:55 p.m. that day, Wadkins said.

“This is the one fact you must keep in your minds at all times,” he said.

Before they were butchered in their 5433 Rockhurst Drive home, Ann Curry, 4-year-old daughter Erika and 20-month-old Ryan visited her parents’ house at 4416 Fairview Drive. Her mother Bernice Johnson thought it was about 12:30 p.m. when her daughter left saying she wanted to rest an aching leg and give the kids a nap.

Police later timed the drive from Fairview to Rockhurst at 7 minutes, and the drive from Rockhurst to the Macon Road Kmart at 13 minutes. Wadkins maintains Curry had no time to commit the crimes.

Prosecution cites factors

Slater told the jury the totality of the circumstances points to no other suspect but Curry. She emphasized these elements of the case:

Curry was having financial troubles and had told a coworker with whom he was having an affair that he could not afford a divorce and child support for two kids, plus the third child his eight-months’ pregnant wife was expecting. After the homicides, he collected their life insurance benefits.

He could not account for the 3½ hours he was gone the day of the homicides, having left his job at The Bradley Center at 9:40 a.m. to shop for a fan, which he didn’t buy until 12:55 p.m., returning to work about 1:10 p.m. Slater noted also that on an erasable vehicle checkout board in Curry’s office at The Bradley Center, his reserving a car at 9:40 a.m. to go to Kmart the day of the slayings had been erased the next day, though older reservations still were posted.

Curry knew his wife was to take Erika shopping to get a gift for a birthday party she was to attend that evening. Slater said Curry that morning may have gone to Sears where his wife was shopping with his daughter, as he later told police he went there to look at fans. Slater alleged he then went to his house and waited for his wife to return with the children.

Curry reported finding the bodies when he got home from work about 5:30 p.m., but under questioning the day of the homicides, he at one point told police he went in his front door “this morning.” He told detectives he unlocked and entered the front door that evening because he saw a yellow circular tucked in the storm door. That flyer was found on the bed in the master bedroom.

Slater said Curry likely donned coveralls to avoid being hit by blood as he killed his wife and kids, but after adding that extra layer, he then had to wait in the hot house for them to arrive. A cashier at Kmart recalled that he was sweating profusely when he bought the fan.

Slater said Curry staged a break-in by smashing a window pane beside a rear door’s deadbolt lock, but that door still was locked when police arrived. Most of the glass shards were caught in an exterior storm door, but a few fell to the floor inside, landing upright in front of the door that swung open to the inside. Detectives decided the door was not opened after the glass was smashed.

A white plastic trash bin was overturned so close to a door leading from the kitchen to the driveway that the door could not have been opened after the slayings, so the front door was the only available exit. Curry told police he had to unlock that door to go in when he came home from work. Slater said only someone with a key would need to stage a break-in by smashing the rear-door window.

Nothing was stolen from the house, nor were any closets or drawers rifled through, as a burglar would have done looking for valuables. Curry told police he dumped out his wife’s purse on a den chair by her body when he got home, for no reason he could recall. Slater contends he did that during the homicides to fake a robbery, but later remembered he had neglected to wipe his fingerprints off. He also did not bother to open a second red purse that was in his wife’s black purse, she said. The red purse was a toy Ryan liked, and it contained nothing of value, which Curry, unlike a burglar, would have known, she said.

Curry didn’t behave like a loving husband and father, Slater said, as evidenced by his mother-in-law’s testimony that Ann Curry told her she would need a ride to the hospital when she went into labor, because Curry wouldn’t take her. Besides having an affair and going out for drinks with friends while his pregnant wife stayed home with two kids and health complications from her third pregnancy, he didn’t act like a caring family man when he discovered the bodies, Slater said: He did not call 911. He did not check to see if anyone was still alive. He never got close enough to the bodies to get any blood on himself. The bush ax Curry had bought for yard work and stowed in a rear storage room had no fingerprints on it. The killer left it lying in the den by Ann and Ryan.

Only the father who wanted to eliminate his entire family had a motive to kill Ryan, Slater said. No intruder would have needed to kill a toddler who could not have identified him.

Slater said Curry slaughtered his wife and kids, locked the front door on the way out, and on his way to Kmart discarded whatever coveralls or other clothes he had worn when he killed his family.

She concluded by telling the jury that if found innocent, Curry would never face trial again: “This is it. This is the only chance to try this case.”

Defense cites doubt

Wadkins pointed out that had Curry had any blood on him, prosecutors would have cited that as evidence of his guilt. The prosecution’s timeline doesn’t work, he said:

If Ann Curry left her parents’ house at 12:30 p.m. and got home at 12:37 p.m. -- if she went straight home -- and Michael Curry was in line at Kmart to buy a fan at 12:45 p.m., then he had only 8 minutes to kill his family, get cleaned up and go to Kmart, a drive that police timed at 13 minutes. As for staging a break-in, Wadkins said: “Somebody else could have staged it to make it look like Mike did it. Who knows?”

Wadkins was the second defense attorney to address the jury in closing arguments. The first was Moffett Flournoy, who stressed that prosecutors must prove each element of their circumstantial case beyond a reasonable doubt, so if jurors have any doubt about Curry’s guilt based on reason, they must acquit him.

They should not let the gruesome crime-scene photos they were shown drive them to a guilty verdict based on emotion, he said: “That’s not evidence that my client committed these crimes.”

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