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Priest on trial in killing of nun 26 years ago

By Keith Oppenheim
CNN

BEHIND THE SCENES

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering the news and analyze the stories behind the events.

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Behind the Scenes
Crime, Law and Justice
Murders

TOLEDO, Ohio (CNN) -- David Yonke is writing a book. He doesn't know the ending yet. In fact, what he doesn't know may be the most fascinating part of the story he's trying to write.

Yonke is the religion editor for The Toledo Blade, the city's major daily newspaper. In April 2004, Yonke heard a stunning announcement from local prosecutors, that a Roman Catholic priest was being arrested for the murder of a nun, a murder that happened way back in 1980.

This week, that priest, the Rev. Gerald Robinson, stands trial for the slaying of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

I wanted to get a better sense of the background on the case, so I took my crew to the cluttered newsroom of the Blade to hear it from the beat reporter himself.

"Here you have, as far as we can tell, the first time a priest is being arrested for the murder of a nun," said Yonke. "People are following this case around the world...wondering how it's going to turn out. Whatever the jury decides, it's going to be a fascinating story."

The story began with no arrest at all. On April 5, 1980 -- the day before Easter -- the body of the 71-year-old nun was discovered in a chapel at Toledo's Mercy Hospital. (Watch why investigators say a letter opener was used to kill Sister Margaret Ann)

Sister Margaret Ann Pahl had been strangled and stabbed more than 30 times.

Detectives questioned whether the wounds were meant to be in the shape of a cross, and wondered if this was some kind of ritual killing.

At the time, Father Robinson was the hospital chaplain. Sister Pahl was the caretaker of the chapel. Police questioned him, and gave him polygraph tests, but he was never charged. No one was. The case was left unsolved.

Skip ahead 24 years. In 2004, an unrelated investigation into the diocese led investigators back to the Sister Pahl murder case.

A cold case detective from the prosecutor's office went back to the crime scene and got some help. A sketch artist noticed something unusual.

"He recognized there was a pattern on the altar cloth -- left in blood by what was the weapon that stabbed her, which was a letter opener," said Yonke.

Police say the dagger-shaped letter opener is the weapon, and that Father Robinson has admitted it was his. The priest has denied ever killing Sister Pahl. Meantime, the trial judge has imposed a gag order. Neither prosecutors nor attorneys for Father Robinson are commenting.

Yonke suspects this could be a tough case for the prosecution. According to Yonke, prosecutors have said that although the body of the nun was exhumed and tested for DNA, none connected the priest to the crime scene. Theirs is a case based largely on circumstantial evidence.

"We're going to see a lot of drama unfold in court and I really don't know what they have up their sleeve," says Yonke. "There's going to be something new every day according to my sources."

And perhaps it will all make for an intriguing book. But for the moment, the reporter will attend trial, waiting to see if a Roman Catholic priest will be acquitted, or convicted, of murder.

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