Monday, December 04, 2006

Fluke In Jury Deliberations Led To Murder Conviction

News & Commentary

DNA Brought Latest Suspect To Attention Of Cops

The Cool Justice Report
Dec. 4, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

Christa Worthington was a world-renowned fashion writer who left the glamour of Paris and Manhattan for a seemingly quiet life in Truro by the tip of Cape Cod. She was beginning a new career as a playwright.

Chris McCowen also left the turmoil of an earlier life and gravitated to the Cape.

Worthington was rumored to have had numerous lovers. McCowen fancied himself a lover, with a large appetite for women.

From Vassar, she landed at Women's Wear Daily and went on to write for Elle and The New York Times. He was a garbage man with an IQ of 78. She was white and he is black.

In 2002 their lives collided. Worthington was found dead of a single stab wound to the chest. Her two-year-old daughter was alone with the body for more than a day before the murder was discovered. An autopsy revealed the presence of semen. There was further evidence that her home had been broken into.

No one suspected McCowen at the time, although her home was on the route his garbage truck serviced.

Police suspected a number of Worthington's former lovers, including a well-known local fisherman and married father of six who had fathered her child. There was also a neighbor she had recently dumped, whose DNA was found on semen on a blanket used by medics to cover her nearly nude body. This man had forced his way into her home on one occasion. There was evidence that he had recently had sex with her as well.

The case spawned a book with fictional elements, Invisible Eden, A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod. Christa's cousin, a screenwriter and paramedic who was one of the first responders, sold the murder story to HBO. Police asked men in the area to voluntarily submit to DNA testing. Most complied, but no matches were found.

McCowen had a penchant for violence toward his paramours. Several had obtained restraining orders against him. He also had a history of arrests, and at one point was required to submit a sample for DNA testing. It was this sample that eventually identified him as the purveyor of the semen found in Christa Worthington.

The murder case also became a case of aggravated rape. During McCowen's recent trial, his attorney argued that the question of rape only arose when the police identified a black man as the source of the semen.

McCowen underwent extensive questioning after his arrest, admitting he had had sex with Worthington. He claimed it was consensual.

He told police his friend, Jeremy Fraser, was with him and that Worthington became angry, demanding that the men leave her house. McCowen also claimed that Fraser assaulted Worthington. McCowen admitted during interrogation by police that he struck Worthington, but said Fraser drove a large kitchen knife into her chest, killing her.

The setting for this sensational trial was the tranquil town of Barnstable, Mass. Barnstable had played a historic role in American jurisprudence. It was in this tiny Cape Cod town that a lynchpin of our system of justice -- the requirement that the state prove a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt -- was first defined for a jury.

Jury trials often turn on the skill of the advocates, but this case turned on serendipity. After days of deliberations the jury reported itself deadlocked. They could have been required to continue deliberating, but under Massachusetts law if they reported deadlock a second time, the court would declare a mistrial. The case would have to begin anew before another jury. McCowen appeared to be moments away from a mistrial.

In a strange twist, the judge removed a juror for misconduct.

The defense lawyer had requested that the jury be sequestered. Jurors were allowed to contact family. This particular juror, however, was recorded on several calls to a former paramour who was incarcerated at a local jail, having been arrested that weekend at the juror's home. After a hearing at which the tapes of that conversation were played, the court determined that the juror had not been truthful about her relationship with this prisoner, and had violated another order prohibiting jurors from discussing the case with others.

The judge seated an alternate and ordered the jury to begin deliberations anew. Days later McCowen stood and listened to the reconstituted jury declare him guilty as charged.

McCowen's lawyer, meanwhile, says he is confident the conviction will be reversed on appeal. He cited the irregularities in the jury deliberations, the police interview of McCowen, expert witnesses who were not allowed to testify and evidence about other suspects among the issues that would be pursued.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website,
Andy Thibault, author of Law &Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Thibault also serves as a consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review. Website, and Blog,

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