The jurors in a well-publicized quadruple murder case in northern Indiana obviously disagree with me. They must think that “beyond a shadow of a doubt” means the defendant had opportunity and a motive and, well, is “probably” guilty. Last Friday, after deliberating for 31 hours, five men and seven women decided 34-year-old Jeffrey Pelley, a former resident of Lakeville, Ind., murdered his father, stepmother and two stepsisters in 1989. Pelley, who was 17 at the time of the crimes, now faces up to 260 years in prison.
There was no physical evidence presented at his trial, which took place in South Bend. No murder weapon, no DNA evidence, no fingerprints. There were no eyewitnesses and no confession. Police never even considered any other suspects.So what evidence did they convict him on? Here’s what the prosecution presented, and the jury bought: The murders happened on the night of Pelley’s prom, April 29, 1989. Pelley and his father, Rev. Robert Pelley, had argued ferociously that day over the 17-year-old’s post-prom plans, with the reverend saying his son was required to return home after the dance. The son, like many other teenagers, felt his father was being too strict and insisted on going bowling and to a sleepover afterward. According to prosecutors, that disagreement was enough to make this young man kill his family.
The 17-year-old had the opportunity also, alleged the prosecution. The four victims were killed in a 20-minute window between the time pre-prom visitors left the house – a parish of the local church at which the reverend served – and the time that Pelley left for his prom. There were various testimonies from friends, ex-girlfriends and prom party members, detailing different memories on their own activities and Pelley’s mood during the dance (each testified he was calm and did not act unusual). Some of their stories didn’t match up, and several (including Pelley’s) contradict the timeline prosecutors tried to establish.
Since the start of the trial and the newspaper and television coverage that ensued, the mid-size town of South Bend has been engulfed in discussion over the case. Some people think he did it, some think he’s completely innocent. Rumors have flown about Pelley’s character, background and extra curricular activities; everyone says they know someone who knows someone who knows that the defendant did or did not shoot the gun that killed his family. Problem is, none of this was presented in court.
What was presented is no less troubling. Why could police not find the murder weapon? How could Pelley have blown his family to bits, cleaned himself up and left in a shining prom tuxedo all in 20 minutes? How could a 17-year-old have been so calm if he had just murdered his family? The defense, to be sure was not stellar. After all, who else would have committed these crimes? Who had the opportunity or the motive? Police did not consider any other suspects, so we might never know.
My point is not that Jeff Pelley is innocent. I don’t know him, I wasn’t there on the night of the murders and as far as I’m concerned, it’s possible that he is the assailant. But that’s not supposed to be enough in American court rooms. Possibilities are possibilities, and this case’s probables leave blankets of doubt on the reasonable mind.
The defense is considering an appeal, and perhaps in the meantime someone can discover firm evidence to prove the case one way or the other. But until then, this jury’s decision is a shame to our courts. “Innocent until proven guilty” and “beyond the shadow of a doubt” are both mantras in our ideals of justice, but too often trampled by probability.
Hildreth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.