Jigsaw Puzzle

Building a criminal case when the only evidence is circumstantial is much like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with only a vague outline of what the final picture is supposed to look like. Unlike direct evidence, which expressly proves the existence of a fact, circumstantial evidence requires the jury to infer other facts that can reasonably expected to follow. For example, a person’s internet search history looking for information on poisons (as mine often does) could be considered a link in a chain that ties the murderer to the victim. There is no direct proof, but when examined with the totality of facts, it makes perfect sense.
In the case of Charles Stamper many different pieces of circumstantial evidence combined to create a complete picture in the minds of the jury that convicted him of three counts of murder and sentenced him to death. Despite the absence of any direct evidence linking Stamper to the cold-blooded killing of three restaurant workers, the Henrico County, Virginia, police and prosecutors collected sufficient clues that left no doubt that Stamper was the person responsible for their deaths.
For his crimes, Stamper was executed in 1993 after spending 14 years on death row. Seriously injured in a fight while he was in prison and left partially paralyzed, Stamper created a stir in the weeks leading up to his execution when his attorneys argued that he should not be executed because, as a paraplegic, he did not represent a threat to society.
That plea failed to carry any weight with Governor Douglas Wilder — and angered many in the disabled community who considered it condescending and insulting. It also turned out to be a specious argument when it came to light that Stamper wasn’t as disabled as he claimed.
It was a Saturday morning in March 1978 when Richard Wren, a short-order cook showed up for work at a Shoney’s Restaurant in Richmond. Expecting to be greeted by the restaurant’s overnight custodian Franklin Cooley and morning manager Steven Staples, Wren instead came across a horrific crime scene.
The front door to the restaurant was locked, but the glass had been broken — from the inside. Staples was the only person on the opening shift who had a key, so Wren climbed through the opening in the door and entered the restaurant. He found the bodies of Staples, Cooley and morning shift waitress Agnes Hicks in the cooler. They all had been shot.
Staples and Hicks were dead at the scene and Cooley died several hours later at the hospital without regaining consciousness.
The safe, which had contained $4,500 the night before, was opened and only a few coins remained inside.
Autopsies revealed that all of the victims had been killed by shots fired by a .22-caliber pistol. Gunshot residue on the bodies showed that the shots had been fired from close range. The fatal shots were a mixture of copper-jacketed and plain lead bullets. Staples, the only person present at the scene who knew the combination to the safe, had also been struck on the head by a blunt object.
The police quickly surmised that the robbery-homicide was perpetrated by someone with inside knowledge of the scene and routine at the restaurant. Employing one of the first rules of criminal investigation — that the simplest solution is often the correct one — they started their probe by questioning Shoney’s employees.
When they looked at Stamper, red flags were everywhere. Like Wren, Stamper was a cook at Shoney’s earning $3 per hour. He worked Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Stamper recently submitted his resignation to another manager. At the time he told her he was leaving because he was in debt and needed a job that paid better.
Although he was not scheduled to work that Saturday morning, witnesses described seeing a car similar to Stamper’s in the employee parking area of the restaurant between 5:30 a.m. and 5:50 a.m. When he was questioned by police, Stamper claimed to have been asleep at home at the time.
Police looked at Stamper’s finances and uncovered some suspicious behavior that showed Stamper had suddenly become flush with cash and was settling some debts. Stamper had been given notice to quit by his landlord because he was behind on his rent. On March 30, he paid his back rent. On March 8, 1978, a local jewelry store received a civil judgment against Stamper. On April 5, Stamper paid off the judgment, paid $100 as down payment on a $180 watch and cosigned a $395 note for a friend. On March 28, he visited a local car dealer and discussed buying a 1972 Lincoln for $3,500. He told the dealer that he had $1,500 to put down on the purchase.
Before he officially became a suspect, Stamper, like all other employees at the restaurant, was asked to come to the police station for an interview. He drove himself to the police station and while he was inside, an officer looking at Stamper’s locked car observed glass particles on the floor board.
Stamper consented to a search of the car and police collected the glass shards. Without explaining the presence of the glass, Stamper told police he and his wife had gone to a party on the evening of March 24, and then watched television before retiring. His wife, who was almost 8 months pregnant at the time of killings, corroborated his story.
A forensic glass analyst tested the glass found in Stamper’s car. Of the 36 shards found, 20 percent matched, in optical properties, the glass from the front door of the restaurant. The glass in the Shoney’s restaurant — according to court testimony — was comparable with just 4 to 5 percent of all glass made.
“The expert who examined the glass could not, however, say with certainty that the glass found in the car was the same glass contained in the door because of the limited number of tests the small sample size allowed him to run,” the Virginia Supreme Court wrote in summing up the evidence against Stamper.
On May 13, 1978, a set of keys belonging to Staples was found in woods near the home of Stamper’s parents. Police discovered that the keys fit the 1969 Ford that Staples had borrowed from his brother to drive to the restaurant the day he was killed.
In October, a rusty .22-caliber pistol was found in the same area. There were two copper-jacketed bullets and two plain lead slugs in the pistol. The weapon was linked to the Shoney’s killing by a ballistics expert based on the fact that the four fired cartridges in the gun matched the type of bullets in the victims.
Based on the evidence, Stamper was arrested and placed on trial for the three killings. The prosecution used the circumstantial evidence to paint this picture of the triple homicide:
Stamper, heavily in debt, decided to rob the restaurant where he worked. He knew the best time to rob the restaurant was in the morning before the place opened for business. Although he was not scheduled to work, Stamper showed up before the restaurant opened and used some kind of excuse to get Staples to admit him. Staples then re-locked the front door. Cooley, the custodian, and Hicks, the waitress were already at work, preparing for the day. Stamper forced them into the cooler then forced Staples to open the safe, beating him with a blunt object in order to get him to comply. After Staples opened the safe, Stamper shot and killed him because he could identify him as the robber. He then shot Cooley and Hicks.
In his haste to escape, Stamper grabbed one of two sets of keys on Staples’s body, mistaking his car keys for the store keys. When he got to the front door he realized his mistake and rather than go back to find the right key ring — or use the fire exit (which would sound the fire alarm) — he broke the glass and crawled out through the hole. On exiting through the broken glass, Stamper proved Locard’s Principle (which can be read over to the right). Unconsciously, he took with him from the crime scene tiny shards of glass that could only be found at the crime scene.
Sometime on that Saturday, Stamper went to his parents house where his car had been seen on the day of the murder and disposed of Staples’s keys and the murder weapon.
“In the instant action there is an abundance of circumstances from which reasonable inferences can be drawn to lead a rational trier of fact to the conclusion that Stamper was involved in these crimes,” was how the Virginia Supreme Court summed up its decision to uphold the verdict and sentence. For Stamper that was the end of the appellate road except for perfunctory orders from various federal courts rejecting, without comment, all subsequent requests for review.