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Burden of Proof

Las Vegas Gambler Death: Jury Deliberates Verdict

Aired May 12, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



DAVID ROGER, CHIEF DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: That is a picture of Ted Binion just before he died. He had many material items. Ted Binion bought her a Mercedes convertible.

He said that Binion's girlfriend was going to be the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on Ted Binion worth somewhere around $875,000, and he wanted Ted Binion killed.

JOHN MOMOT, SANDRA MURPHY'S ATTORNEY: That's what happens when you love your drugs more than your woman. You don't take care of your woman, somebody else will.

This case is not about homicide, this case is about heroin. This case is not murder. This case is about money.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: the death of a wealthy Las Vegas gambler. Was it an accidental drug overdose? or murder? Now, a jury must decide.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

In Las Vegas, a jury is weighing the evidence in the death of a well-known gambling figure. Ted Binion died in September, 1998. Prosecutors say he was murdered by his girlfriend, Sandra Murphy, and Murphy's lover, Rick Tabish. But the defense says Binion was responsible for his own death.

Joining us today from Las Vegas is the attorney for defendant Sandra Murphy, John Momot. Also in Las Vegas, reporter Jeff German of the "Las Vegas Sun."

Joining us from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, medical examiner Cyril Wecht, a witness in the case.

And here in Washington, David Wallace (ph), former state prosecutor Robert Bonsib and Scott Dietz (Ph). And in the back, David Ellingson (ph), Darla Albornoz (ph), and Philip Martin (ph).

Jeff, I want to go right to you. You've been covering this trial. Tell us about the closing arguments, tell us about the summing up, and tell us about the jury.

JEFF GERMAN, "LAS VEGAS SUN": Well, I think the prosecutors, and I mean this with no respect to John Momot, who is beside me, I thought the prosecutors delivered basically a flawless closing arguments. David Roger went first and he had a very high-tech argument using computer screens and the like, and was pretty clearly laid out the case. And then after John Momot and Louie Palazzo gave their closing arguments, which were fine, but David Wall really cut to the heart of the case and summed it up, and gave the jury a real sell off as they went to its deliberations.

COSSACK: Jeff, I would think that one of the problems that the prosecution had to face in this case was the notion that you had two exceptional experts, one who testified for the prosecution regarding what the cause of death was, and one that testified for the defense what the cause of death was. Leaving the prosecution, I would think, in sort of a tough spot in trying to some way get these two theories to coincide and give the jury a way the get over reasonable doubt. How did they go about doing it?

GERMAN: To a degree, it is going to be tough. But you have got to remember, and that's been part of the jury instructions, they don't -- if the jury concludes that it was murder, it does not have to be unanimous on how the murder took place, it could be either by an overdose of drugs, a forced overdose, or by suffocation. And so that's going to make it easier I think on the jury.

At the same time, I think what prosecutors, which is why I think they delivered good closing arguments, they focused on the massive amount of so-called "conspiratorial" evidence that they presented outside of the medical evidence. And I think they are counting on the jury taking that into consideration and maybe the medical evidence, both sides canceling out.

Now, I mean, I don't know what is in mind of the jury, but that is just I think the way prosecutors have viewed it.

COSSACK: Jeff, let me follow up on that. One expert, Dr. Baden, said that, in his opinion, this was intentional, that in fact the drugs were forced into Ted Binion, and then he was suffocated. The other expert who is with us today, Dr. Wecht says, no, that's isn't exactly what happened at all. In fact, as far as he was concerned, it was an overdose.

Whether or not the jury has to agree on what caused the murder, they have to agree on one of those two different theories. How did the prosecution go to that?

GERMAN: Well, I think both Dr. Wecht and Dr. Baden did very well on the witness stand. They both are obviously experienced witnesses and both made compelling arguments. I think what the prosecutors tried to show was that the defense gave Dr. Wecht, and he can address this, limited access to the information in this case, didn't give him a whole lot of the statements from the alleged conspiracy side.

But it is going to be difficult. I mean, you do have two highly respected medical experts giving these completely opposite theories, and that really is something that the jury is going to have to sort out.

COSSACK: All right, John Momot, let me give you some questions here now. The prosecution said that your client, Sandra Murphy, didn't love Ted Binion, that she spent his money, that she had another lover who was Rick Tabish, and that she -- what she had was Binion's money and Tabish's love, how did you go about rebutting that?

MOMOT: Well, here is the situation, she was in a relationship with Ted Binion, she was in love with him, but he was in love with heroine, and that's the problem, and the reason why she ultimately after years of abuse ended up being forced into a caretaker situation with Rick Tabish, who started to take care of her as a result of her abuse.

But let me tell you something else about this other issue, about the homicide. I'm on the defense, and this is the first time in 25 years that I have ever heard where a defense like I did submitted the autopsy report as evidence in this case. That's how weak the state's case was, as far as the medicals are concerned.

Dr. Baden, their only experts, was the only one out of step with the Clark County Coroner's Office. I was in line with the Clark County Coroner's Office. All of my experts testified in alliance with the Clark County Coroner's Office, and how do they explain that? They don't even put on their homicide detectives who investigated this entire case.

COSSACK: Well, but John, as Jeff points out, the problem that you have, and I think you had to face head-on, was the issue that you have two highly respected experts, each of their testimony canceling each other, and now you have a great deal of, if you will, circumstantial evidence that points to a conspiracy to murder, people coming in and saying that your client made statements about that Ted Binion was going to die. How did you go about getting around that?

MOMOT: Well, I have three other experts, one of them was a Dr. Bucklin, who only practiced -- he has been doing forensic pathology for 60 years, and did so in Clark County here at the same office for the last three, four years, and is retired, and still testifies for the state of Nevada in all their criminal prosecutions. He found that the Clark County coroner, as well as Dr. Wecht and Dr. Schneider are all consistent, that this is a drug overdose case.

Whether it is suicidal or by accident, that's not for us to determine, but that's the status of the affairs. Dr. Wecht, I mean, he presented a flawless 12-page report that nobody could counteract, and his testimony was impeccable, but nobody could impeach his testimony.

Their rebuttal case was nothing. The state did not put on one expert from a toxicological point of view or from a forensic point of view to rebut my case. That's how it stood: five experts on the defense to one on the prosecution.

COSSACK: All right. Let's take a break. Up next, much of the testimony in the Binion case did center on forensic evidence, and with dueling medical examiners on the witness stand, let's get Dr. Cyril Wecht's take, when we come back.


Teen country singer LeAnn Rimes has filed a lawsuit against her father, claiming he and a co-manager took more than $7 million from her.

The suit, filed in Dallas District Court, seeks unspecified damages. Defendant Wilbur C. Rimes was divorced from LeAnn's mother last year.



COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the Worldwide Web. Just log onto We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

A Las Vegas jury is deliberating its verdict in the death of gambler Ted Binion. The prosecution says it was murder. The defense says Binion's overdose was an accident, and they both solicited expert witnesses to make their case.

Dr. Wecht, you testified for the defense in this case. You have testified both for the prosecution in your career and for the defense. Why did you choose to testify for the defense in this case?

DR. CYRIL WECHT, MEDICAL EXAMINER: I was contacted by the defense, for openers, so it really wasn't a choice. Of course, I could have chosen, then, not to testify, and would have done so if I could not support the findings.

As Mr. Momot has pointed out -- and it is extremely important. And I'm not sure if I can think of a case in 40 years that compares to this in which the medical examiner, a board-certified forensic pathologist, Dr. Lary Simms, found the cause of death to be acute combined drug toxicity, namely heroin and Xanax with some Valium thrown in, and even a touch of codeine, which was a contaminant of the heroin.

And what hasn't been mentioned is that the case was forwarded for consultation by the Clark County coroner to another reputable and experienced forensic pathologist, Dr. Ellen Clark in neighboring Reno, and she concurred.

Now, it's true that she felt that it was a homicide because the body was repositioned and the drug had been ingested in some atypical fashion, neither of which was ever explained by her. And about six months later, Dr. Simms went on to sign it out as a homicide. And for the life of me and everybody else, one can't determine from the transcripts how he arrived at that change.

But the point is that the cause of death remained in place. And Dr. Baden initially felt is was drug overdose, too. Later on, he changed it to "burking," a particular form of suffocation.

COSSACK: All right, Dr. Wecht, let me ask you now some specific questions. Dr. Baden said that there were abrasions on Binion's body that were caused by what he thought perhaps were a struggle with his killers, possibly by handcuffs. Your feelings on those abrasions?

WECHT: Well, I thought that Mr. Momot did an excellent job with the handcuff business. He got a pair of handcuffs from the bailiff or deputy sheriff and he showed them to me, and there was nothing on cross-examination.

Think of handcuffs. Handcuffs, Roger, do not have ratcheting, irregular surfaces on the inside so as to cut through the wrist. Maybe they do in totalitarian nations; in America they don't. So you're not going to get an abrasion. And if you do get any abrasion, it's going to be at the bony contours where there will be pressure against the convexity of your wrist.

In this case, they were -- the abrasions were quite superficial on the right wrist. They were pattern little linear marks such as you might get from a watch band; and on the left wrist, on the inner aspect, just like a little pulling back of the skin. They could have been caused altogether when the body was being moved. Particularly, the one on the left wrist looked like it was postmortem.

So that had nothing whatsoever to do with handcuffs or restraints. And on cross-examination, it really was passed over very quickly. So I think it was tossed out there originally and proved to be nothing of a substantial nature.

COSSACK: All right, Dr. Baden said that there was discoloration around Binion's mouth which he felt was caused by suffocation. You disagree.

WECHT: Yes. Again, everybody else disagreed, including the pathologist who did the autopsy. If you look at the photos at the scene, you'll see that there is practically nothing there -- a little bit of reddening, classical for a dermatological condition. And it begins to increase in its coloration by the time photographs are taken at autopsy. There is no evidence of any pressure marks. There is nothing on the undersurface of the lips, on the gums, on the frenula, that little mucosal attachment that you have in the midline underneath the upper gum and one on the lower gum. How can you have somebody pressing down on a person's mouth and not producing as much as one pinpoint hemorrhage or bruise on the under structures which are very delicate in nature? So that really was not borne out by anybody, including the prosecution's other witness.

COSSACK: All right, now, the prosecution's theory in this case and closing argument was that Binion was forced to take these lethal drugs, they didn't work quickly enough, and then he was suffocated. You disagree with that theory.

WECHT: Yes. And, Roger, you see, that flies in the face of their own theory and much of Dr. Baden's testimony vis-a-vis, quote, "chasing the dragon," unquote. You get this Mexican black tar, you put it in aluminum foil, you light it on fire, and then you inhale the fumes. How do you force somebody to do that? I guess you could, maybe with a gun, but nobody ever had to force Ted Binion to take heroin.

And then, the black tar -- we found significant evidence of it in the stomach. This is a gooey, sticky stuff just like tar. How do you force somebody to chew and digest that unless you do it at gunpoint? Again, no evidence of that.

So, the idea that this was in some way forced upon him was never, never established. It was just tossed out there and nobody ever showed how or demonstrated, nor in cross-examination was it ever put to me hypothetically in any kind of specificity how this would have been accomplished.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

When we come back, the jury's out, but how long will they take to reach a verdict? Stay with us.


Q: Why has a judge ordered 911 tapes of the Columbine High School massacre be edited and released to the parents of the victims?

A: The parents who had sought the audio tapes to gather information to bolster their lawsuit against the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.



COSSACK: Prosecutors and the defense in the Ted Binion murder trial are awaiting a verdict. The jury began deliberating the fate of Sandra Murphy and her lover Rick Tabish on Wednesday.

Well, Bob, this is either a prosecutor's nightmare, this case, or perhaps the best case a prosecutor can have. But let me put you in the prosecution's seat for a second. You have two world-renowned experts testifying on opposite ends of the pole, and then you have, let's say, strong circumstantial evidence that might cause a jury to believe one way. But perhaps then you don't have the actual medical examiner to say this is what happened.

What do you do if you are that prosecutor?

ROBERT BONSIB, FORMER STATE PROSECUTOR: Well, I think that the prosecutor has some fairly powerful evidence here: motives of greed, motives related to sexual relationships between these other two folks. People want to know why people get themselves involved in this situation. Moral judgments are made, moral judgments are easily translated into criminal liability, rightly or wrongly. But when you've got the experts canceling each other out there's still are an awful lot of questions that the defense, although constitutionally do not have to answer, as a practical matter, do.

And the jury wants the know why people behave in the ways that they do. And if there is not an explanation, it takes the jury right up, I think, to the brink of saying: something happened here that's wrong, for the wrong reason, and if we don't know precisely what the medical cause of death was, as long as the option is available for them to find that it is a criminal, or done on a criminal basis, I think all this motive and circumstantial evidence is powerful. The juries don't like people who do these kinds of extraneous things in terms of the motives for greed and relationships, and I think it is powerful. I think it's tough to overcome.

COSSACK: John, that -- that I think is your biggest problem from out here in Washington. My view, that the notion that you have this evidence of that kind of activity that perhaps people would say that this is a greedy person; you know, she cheated on this Binion, maybe this Binion wasn't a great guy, but neither is this Sandy Murphy.

I mean, how do you get around that? Does -- Assuming that the medical examiners cancel each other.

MOMOT: That was relatively easy because the state put on their first witness, which was the former wife of Ted Binion, Doris Binion. Doris lived with Mr. Binion for excess of 20 years, and she ended up leaving the relationship for, I think, a weight trainer or somebody. She had enough, she had enough of the physical abuse, the heroin abuse. She couldn't take it anymore. She started crying on the stand and she explained, she mirrored everything that occurred to Sandy Murphy.

I couldn't ask for anything better, for what the prosecution did, when they put Doris on the stand. I didn't have to put Sandy on the stand. Dr. Roitman (ph), a psychiatrist, evaluated all the evidence and discussed at length before this jury of what a heroin abuser does to his family, what kind of thoughts he has, the suicidal tendencies.

COSSACK: All right, John, let me just interrupt you for a second. All right, the -- one of the classic defenses in a murder case is you put the victim on trial. This Ted Binion, there was apparently some evidence that this was not a great person, a heroin abuser, and perhaps an abuser of his wives or girlfriends.

How do you counter that, Bob?

BONSIB: Well, you -- it is a good and legitimate thing. Juries are much like -- less likely to convict if they don't like the victim. But in a case like this, as we said before, there are powerful human motives at stake here that the jury can see, and how they balance it out: somebody dies, juries want to find somebody responsible. I think there's a presumption that somebody is responsible if somebody dies. Now, the medical examiner's cut some of that out, but here you're not viewing the medical evidence in isolation. There are a tremendous number of facts that lead up to what happened, and I don't think that the jury in a case like that disregards it quite as easily as might be suggested.

COSSACK: John, there many charges that are lodged in this case: from conspiracy to murder, burglary against your client, and then there's some -- seem to be some separate charges against Tabish for some activities that he had with a Leo Casey.

How does that work? for your client or against your client?

MOMOT: It works against me because those other charges of kidnapping and extortion, they initially had my client involved. Early on in the case I was successful in getting those charges dismissed against Miss Murphy. I then filed severance motions ad nauseam to try to get a severance between the counts and the extortion and kidnapping counts of the co-defendant. And I was unsuccessful, the judge decided he wanted it all tried together. So my record is perfected, that's all that I can do.

COSSACK: OK, let me just ask Bob. Bob, it's a prosecutor's dream to have these kinds of added charges because there's always that spillover that you get from one to the other, right?

BONSIB: And frankly, it is I think one of the most unfair things that happens to a defendant, having experienced that many times on the defense side. A judge says: the jury can't separate these things out, they can. If you've got a client who has done something bad in one instance, the jury's going to believe...

COSSACK: Spills over...

BONSIB: It spills over.

COSSACK: Where were you when I was trying cases? But we've got -- that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": Will New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's marital problems affect his bid for a U.S. Senate seat? That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

And next Monday on BURDEN OF PROOF: wildfires rage through New Mexico. Is the government legally responsible? and who will be able to recover?

Join us then for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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