Longform

Burden of proof

Page 8 of 8

"Oh my God, what have I done?"

In November 1999, in a Denton courtroom where Wardrip's capital murder trial had been moved on a change of venue, the defendant surprised those awaiting the first day's testimony by ignoring the advice of his public defender, John Curry, and entering a guilty plea to the murder of Terry Sims. In doing so, he had hopscotched the proceedings directly to the sentencing phase. With stern-faced families of Wardrip's victims seated in the gallery, Barry Macha methodically presented the gruesome evidence of each of the long-ago crimes, determined that the trial would not be just about Sims but rather all five of the women whose lives had been so brutally shortened by Wardrip.

Judy Floyd, the forensic lab supervisor at GeneScreen, testified that the blood samples taken from Wardrip and the saliva from his discarded coffee cup matched the semen samples taken from the bodies of Terry Sims and Toni Gibbs. Leaving heads shaking in the courtroom, Floyd said that the frequency of such a match was an arithmetic fantasy: Only one in 3.23 quadrillion--the equal of more than 500 million Earth populations--could have left the sperm found on the victims.

After hearing just five days of testimony, the jury returned with answers to three questions that ensured a death sentence for Wardrip: Yes, it believed he had acted deliberately in causing the death of Terry Sims. Yes, it believed he represented a continuing threat to society. And, no, the jury did not believe there were any mitigating factors that would warrant that he spend his life in prison rather than be put to death.

In the days to come, Wardrip would be shuttled to courtrooms in Archer County (where he pleaded guilty to the death of Toni Gibbs in exchange for a life sentence), Tarrant County (where he admitted his guilt in the murder of Debra Taylor, receiving another life sentence), and finally, with but two days remaining in the year, back to Wichita Falls, where he received a third life sentence for the murder of Ellen Blau.

By stacking the sentences--having them run consecutively--prosecutors ensured that even should the 39-year-old murderer not be executed, he would serve a minimum of 60 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole.

On New Year's Eve afternoon, 1999, District Attorney Barry Macha sat in his office, pondering the framed photographs of Wardrip's victims hanging on a nearby wall. "It's hard to believe," he mused, "that when this year began we still didn't even know who killed Terry Sims or Toni Gibbs or Ellen Blau. We'd never even heard of Debra Taylor. Yet within a year's time we've gone from an arrest to four convictions."

He breathed an audible sigh and slowly shook his head. "It's amazing," he said. "Absolutely amazing."

"Without DNA," John Little says, "there would never have been a case."

Catie Reid, the youngest sister of Terry Sims, disagrees. "Without John Little there would have been no case," she insists.

A few weeks after the trial she visited the investigator in his office, bringing along a fitting token of her family's appreciation. On an ordinary red brick, a reminder of another time in his life, were inscribed the words, "Our Hero, John Little."

Observer staff writer Carlton Stowers, twice winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award, is at work on a book about the Wichita Falls murders. It will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2002.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers