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

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

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.

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.

Mysterious letter to Hennis: 'I did the crime'
Mysterious letter to Hennis: 'I did the crime'


    Mysterious letter to Hennis: 'I did the crime'


Mysterious letter to Hennis: 'I did the crime' 01:36
Star witness expresses doubts
Star witness expresses doubts


    Star witness expresses doubts


Star witness expresses doubts 00:53
Conservatives vs. the death penalty
Conservatives vs. the death penalty


    Conservatives vs. the death penalty


Conservatives vs. the death penalty 01:24
The death penalty in America
The death penalty in America


    The death penalty in America


The death penalty in America 01:22

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," 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.

      Death Row Stories

    • There are 61 women on death row across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, making up only 2% of the 3,125 inmates on death row across the country.  Take a look at all the women sentenced to death in the United States.  Source: Death Penalty Information Center

      Lethal injection explained

      As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
    • 371489 07: The Texas death chamber in Huntsville, TX, June 23, 2000 where Texas death row inmate Gary Graham was put to death by lethal injection on June 22, 2000. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

      Surprising death penalty facts

      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.
    • orig jag death penalty stats_00002728.jpg

      Executions by the numbers

      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.
    • new dnt botched execution brown_00000904.jpg

      Lethal injection questions

      Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 3_00004910.jpg

      Life after death row

      After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 2_00001417.jpg

      Final death warrant

      Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 1_00002307.jpg

      'What you're up against'

      A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 3_00005522.jpg

      'I'm like, "Hell no!"'

      Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
    • He coaxes murderers to confess

      Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
    • The police notebook

      Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
    • orig death row stories ep 4 clip 1 picture was innocent_00004427.jpg

      'The picture was innocent'

      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.
    • 'I didn't do this'

      Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
    • orig death row stories ep3 p2_00003605.jpg

      'It was a circus'

      Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
    • 'I always get caught'

      When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
    • 'Nobody cared'

      Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
    • Breakthrough: The letter

      Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
    • Edward Lee Elmore, 53, smiles after his hearing on Friday, March 2, 2012 in Greenwood, S.C. Elmore, who spent 30 years in prison for murdering Dorothy Edwards, a crime that Elmore said he did not commit, was set free by Judge Frank Addy on Friday. (AP Photo/The Index-Journal, Matt Walsh)

      The fight of their lives

      Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
    • orig death row stories 3_00003213.jpg

      'Are they gonna kill me?'

      Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
    • orig death row stories 1 _00004604.jpg

      Suspicious student triggers probe

      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.
    • Somalia convicted murderer Adan Sheikh Abdi is tied to a post before being executed on August 17, 2013 by a firing squad in a Mogadishu square for the September 2012 killing of well-known journalist Hassan Yusuf Absuge. Adan Sheikh Abdi was tried by a military tribunal as a 'combatant' for belonging to Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgency. He was sentenced to death in March and his subsequent appeal was rejected. AFP PHOTO / Mohamed Abdiwahab (Photo credit should read Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)

      Report: Executions rise in 2013

      Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
    • Death row diary

      Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.