Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Triple murder suspect goes from guilty to innocent and back to guilty

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 6:39 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
The death row case of former U.S. Army Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis is unprecedented. "Tim Hennis is the only person in United States history who's been tried for his life three times after guilty and not guilty verdicts," said Scott Whisnant, who covered the case as a reporter and whose book titled "Innocent Victims" was made into a 1996 TV movie. Click through the gallery to learn more about one of the most bizarre, surprising and heinous murder cases in recent memory. The death row case of former U.S. Army Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis is unprecedented. "Tim Hennis is the only person in United States history who's been tried for his life three times after guilty and not guilty verdicts," said Scott Whisnant, who covered the case as a reporter and whose book titled "Innocent Victims" was made into a 1996 TV movie. Click through the gallery to learn more about one of the most bizarre, surprising and heinous murder cases in recent memory.
HIDE CAPTION
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
Death Row Stories: Tim Hennis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Soldier Tim Hennis convicted in 1986 and 2010 of murdering a mother and her two girls
  • Author: Hennis only American "tried for his life three times after guilty and not guilty verdicts"
  • The weird triple murder case calls into question the rules regarding double jeopardy
  • Hennis now sits on death row in a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Programming note: Explore America's complex capital punishment system in the CNN Original series, "Death Row Stories." Join the conversation at Facebook.com/cnn or on Twitter @cnnOrigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- Courtroom experts call it a one-of-kind murder mystery that some people believe has yet to be completely solved. The remarkable story of Timothy Hennis and the stabbing deaths of a mother and two small girls is full of shocking legal twists and turns.

During the course of 21 years, Hennis underwent three trials for the same crimes in three courtrooms. The case puts constitutional questions about double jeopardy squarely under the spotlight.

It all began in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1985. Hennis, who was then a 27-year-old Army soldier based at nearby Fort Bragg, visited the home of Kathryn Eastburn and her husband, Gary, a captain in the Air Force. The Eastburns were planning to move outside the country and had placed an ad in the newspaper to sell their dog. Hennis stopped by the house in response to the ad.

Four days later, when neighbors became concerned, police entered the home to find the bloody bodies of Kathryn Eastburn and two of her daughters. The youngest Eastburn child, a 22-month-old girl named Jana, was found in the house alive. Police said Gary Eastburn was undergoing training in Alabama at the time of the killings.

Mysterious letter to Hennis: 'I did the crime'
Star witness expresses doubts
Conservatives vs. the death penalty
The death penalty in America

Hennis came forward to police when he heard on TV news that authorities were looking for a man who visited the house in response to a newspaper ad.

Investigators had been gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. A witness named Patrick Cone said he was near the Eastburn home the night of the killings and saw a tall white man wearing jeans, a knit cap and a Members Only jacket leaving the Eastburns' driveway with a trash bag. A police artist drew a sketch based on Cone's description. Prosecutors said the sketch resembled Hennis. Police put Hennis in a line up, and prosecutors said Cone identified Hennis as the man he saw.

In 1986, his first trial

Police arrested Hennis and in 1986, prosecutors put him on trial. They said his motive was sex.

The theory was that "Hennis' wife was out of town, he had a new baby and so he decided to make a pass at a married mother of three -- and that didn't go well," former local reporter Scott Whisnant told CNN's "Death Row Stories." Whisnant had covered the case in depth for Wilmington's Morning Star newspaper.

Gary Eastburn told police several items were missing from his home, including an envelope of cash, an ATM card and the Eastburn account password. Police said the ATM card was used to withdraw $150 twice over two days.

Prosecutors said Hennis was behind on his rent, which was about $300. He paid his rent the Monday after the killings, prosecutors said. A woman who used the same bank ATM shortly after the Eastburns' ATM card was used told investigators she saw a man nearby matching Hennis' description.

During the trial, prosecutors showed jurors gruesome police photos to illustrate their case. The jury rendered a guilty verdict and sentenced Hennis to death.

While on death row, Hennis received a mysterious, anonymous letter in the mail: "Dear Mr. Hennis," the letter said. "I did the crime, I murdered the Eastburns. Sorry you're doin the time. I'll be safely out of North Carolina when you read this. Thanks, Mr. X"

The letter's author was never determined.

A second chance to prove his case

Hennis' lawyers appealed his case to North Carolina's Supreme Court, where judges ruled that the graphic police photos had wrongly influenced jurors to render a guilty verdict. The ruling allowed Hennis a rare second chance to prove his case in a retrial.

Compared with the first trial, Hennis' defense attorneys engineered a complete 180 on their strategy. After exhaustive preparation, they attacked many of the prosecutors' most damaging accusations one by one. They discredited the prosecutors' star witness, Patrick Cone, and his testimony. He had testified that the weather was clear the night of the killings, but another witness said it was overcast.

A new defense witness who looked similar to Hennis testified he was walking in the neighborhood at the time of the killings.

The witness, John Raupaugh, "lived down the street from the Eastburns," Whisnant told "Death Row Stories." "He was an uneasy sleeper and had a habit of walking the neighborhood at 3 in the morning. He often wore a beanie hat and he had a black Members Only jacket." Raupaugh's testimony, defense attorneys said, gave jurors the reasonable doubt they needed to acquit Hennis in 1989.

Escaping death row as a newly freed man, Hennis then re-enlisted in the Army, eventually retiring in 2004 as a master sergeant.

But prosecutors continued to pursue the case.

In 2006, vaginal swabs from a rape kit taken from Kathryn Eastburn's body yielded new evidence. DNA testing was an imperfect science in the 1980s, so the semen found in Kathryn Eastburn's vagina wasn't pursued as evidence during the first trial. But by the 2000s, technological advances in DNA analysis had improved. Experts said the DNA from Eastburn's rape kit was consistent with Hennis' DNA.

U.S. Army steps in

A team of military attorneys evaluated the case and the Army decided to pursue it. Hennis was recalled to active duty two years after his retirement and promptly arrested on three counts of murder.

Tim Hennis is the only person in United States history who's been tried for his life three times after guilty and not guilty verdicts.
Scott Whisnant, author, "Innocent Victims"

"Tim Hennis is the only person in United States history who's been tried for his life three times after guilty and not guilty verdicts," said Whisnant, whose book "Innocent Victims" was made into a 1996 TV movie.

Many observers were surprised. Wasn't Hennis shielded by constitutional protections against so-called double jeopardy?

"In the simplest terms, if a defendant is acquitted and the prosecutor says to the judge, 'I want a do-over,' that is clearly prohibited. That's the definition of double jeopardy," said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. "But if a different prosecutor in a different court comes up with a different way to frame charges in the same crime, then that is generally permissible."

Maj. Rob Stelle of the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, who worked on the Hennis case, told "Death Row Stories" that the military's ability to prosecute a case that has already been tried is "well-settled law. Nothing the state does actually effects what the federal government can do."

"In a very narrow category of cases where the federal government believes an injustice has been done, then federal prosecutors will step in," Toobin said. "But by and large, they operate in separate spheres."

When it came down to it, the prosecution's case in Hennis' court-martial hinged on the DNA testing results.

"The sperm found in the vagina of Mrs. Kathryn Eastburn is the person who raped and slaughtered her and her children. And that's Timothy Hennis," Maj. Matt Scott, another Army JAG attorney who worked on the case, told "Death Row Stories."

The jury rendered a guilty verdict and sentenced Hennis to death. He now sits in solitary confinement on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, awaiting appeal.

But many unanswered questions remain. "There's a ton of physical evidence in that house that they can't explain," Whisnant told CNN's "Death Row Stories."

A head hair was found in the Eastburns' bed that is not Hennis', Whisnant said. Unidentified DNA was found under Kathryn Eastburn's fingernails. "We should be running that DNA against our known database," Whisnant said. "Let's find out what happened."

It likely will be a long time before the final page is written in this bizarre murder mystery.

Even after the appeals process is over, Hennis cannot be executed without presidential approval. In recent years, that hasn't happened very often. The U.S. military has not executed anyone from its ranks since 1961.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
She depends on her iPhone and plays Plants vs. Zombies. At 75, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean hasn't slowed down.
updated 6:46 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
updated 2:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
One death has reopened the debate about capital punishment and lethal injection.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
An infographic illustrates America's record on executions by race, state, year and method since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
updated 8:03 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
More than 14,000 people have been executed under U.S. law. About 3,000 more are slated for execution on death rows across the nation.
updated 7:16 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Sat April 5, 2014
After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
updated 9:46 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
Just weeks away from execution, see the evidence that saved John Thompson's life.
updated 6:23 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
updated 5:30 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Teresa McAbee, age 11, was found dead, floating in a Florida lake. Repercussions from her murder continue nearly 30 years later.
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
updated 4:11 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
A mother convicted of a murder to which her son has confessed won't be executed Thursday as judges review her post-conviction motion.
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Never imprisoned before, ex-cop James Duckett describes his first moments as a convicted killer on death row.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
A retired homicide detective examines the strange case of an ex-cop sentenced to death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
He's been a priest, a nurse and an attorney -- but nothing could prepare Neil Kookoothe for his discovery in the case of Joe D'Ambrosio.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Why did Joyce Ride, mother of NASA's first woman in space, fight to free Gloria Killian? "I'm profoundly annoyed by injustice."
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
Judge the murder case against former law student Gloria Killian for yourself. Take a look at the evidence.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
updated 4:10 PM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
updated 7:31 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Examine the evidence in the murder case against Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 4:30 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
updated 4:28 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Diana Holt was searching for alternate suspects in a brutal murder case. What she discovered made her head spin.
updated 1:51 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
A law student was sent to meet a death row inmate accused of a horrible murder. Their meeting triggered the beginning of an amazing story.
updated 4:16 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
updated 6:15 PM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Watch a frank, online discussion about the death penalty and the case of Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Thu August 22, 2013
Some death penalty opponents will admit it: the worst of the worst of the worst, DO deserve to die.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
Execution chamber
Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as old as burning heretics at the stake -- at least in the civilized world.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Before Ohio executed him by legal injection, inmate Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp and convulse.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.
updated 12:54 AM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
A shortage of lethal injection drugs contributes to a dip in the use of capital punishment.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT