Murder confessions won’t be heard
Murder trial judge's rulings include change of venue
October 9, 2008
Three separate, recorded confessions by a Craig man accused of killing his wife and dismembering her body will not be heard by a jury, a Moffat County District Court judge ruled Wednesday morning.
And, the judge ruled, the jury that eventually will hear the case will not be from Moffat County.
Terry Hankins, 71, is charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse in connection with the June 2007 death of his wife, 36-year-old Cynthia Hankins, also of Craig.
He has pleaded not guilty.
On Wednesday morning, the last day of a seven-day motions hearing setting the stage for Hankins’ Dec. 1 trial, Michael O’Hara, chief judge of the 14th Judicial District, ruled on more than 40 motions filed in the case.
Based on the court’s rulings, Hankins’ public defenders, Trevor McFee and Sheryl Uhlmann, made a dent in what had appeared to be a solid case against their client.
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The defense attorneys were successful in having three statements suppressed that Hankins made to investigators Aug. 24, 2007 – the same day he showed authorities where he buried his wife and was arrested for her murder. This ruling also led the judge to relocate the trial from Craig to Steamboat Springs.
Detective Jen Kenney, of the Craig Police Department, and investigator Joe DeAngelo, of the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, interviewed Hankins on Aug. 24 at his residence at a mining claim 23 miles north of town.
During the interview, Hankins agreed to take Kenney and DeAngelo to the burial site, located about a half-mile away on Bureau of Land Management ground.
After pointing to the burial site, Hankins had “implicated himself sufficiently at that point” and, in reality, was in police custody, the judge ruled.
“No reasonable person would believe he was free to go,” O’Hara said.
Hankins went on to describe the murder and dismemberment to investigators, and the judge ruled that he should have been read Miranda rights before the confession.
Two more confessions followed that day – one back at the Hankins residence and another at the Moffat County Public Safety Center. Hankins was read Miranda before the second and third confessions, but waived those rights, O’Hara ruled.
However, the judge found that the tainted first confession remained throughout the following interviews, and statements Hankins made after pointing to the burial site were not admissible.
On the Aug. 24, 2007, interview recordings, Hankins was heard telling investigators what happened between him and his wife June 3, 2007, at their Breeze Street apartment in Craig.
Hankins said the couple got into an altercation in bed. He said he choked Cynthia Hankins until she passed out and then hit her in the head with a crowbar.
While unconscious, he put a pillow over her face and choked her at the neck, killing her, Hankins said on the recordings. He went on to describe the process of disposing of her body.
He said he spent hours cutting Cynthia Hankins into pieces, placed the body parts into garbage bags and moved them to the mine property up north.
On other recordings heard throughout the motions hearing, Hankins has called his wife’s character into question several times, including making statements about her alleged extramarital affairs, drug use, violent nature, criminal background and sexual proclivities and prowess. He also has claimed she was bipolar.
He justified the killing to investigators as self-defense by claiming he feared retribution from Cynthia Hankins after she awoke from his chokehold.
Although the confessions were suppressed, the court reserved ruling on another defense request – suppression of evidence, some of which was gathered from a search warrant Aug. 24, 2007, after the Miranda violation.
Evidence obtained that day included Cynthia Hankins’ body parts found in the burial site, as well as the crowbar, knives, clothes, jewelry and, in Hankins’ words, her “sex appliances.”
Hankins’ defense contends the evidence was found as result of the illegal first confession.
In a preliminary finding, O’Hara said he thought Hankins showing investigators the burial site and telling them his wife was buried there was enough probable cause for a search warrant. Those actions, the judge said, came before the first confession.
Finally, after ruling on each of the more than 40 motions individually, O’Hara addressed change of venue.
The defense motion asked to move proceedings to another jurisdiction, citing “massive, pervasive and prejudicial pretrial publicity,” in various newspaper articles and Internet news sites.
The motion mirrored one filed by Uhlmann in early September in the murder case against Luz Cisneros in Routt County District Court. O’Hara also was the presiding judge in the Cisneros case and denied change of venue.
However, the judge said Wednesday that the Hankins case differs in that newspaper coverage of the motions hearing included information about the three confessions, information he ruled excluded from trial.
“The problem is,” O’Hara said, “I suspect folks in Craig have a fair familiarity” with the case.
He recognized one of the points cited by prosecutors in their motion opposing the change of venue – that there is an interest in having the case tried locally – but that the court has an obligation to provide Hankins with a fair trial.
“It just makes sense at this point to say it’s so problematic, I ought to just change venues,” O’Hara said, adding that he thought Steamboat Springs affords the benefits of a relatively uninformed jury pool, keeps the case in the 14th Judicial District, and won’t require changing trial dates.
“I’m confident that we’re not going to have a lot of people excused because of pretrial publicity,” O’Hara said.