2 Jurors Recount How Panel Found Robinson Guilty
Both Question His Statement That He Didn't Kill Nun in 1980
By David Yonke
October 29, 2006
Retired Catholic priest Gerald Robinson's recent sworn statement that he did not kill Sister Margaret Ann Pahl did not impress two of the jurors who convicted him of her murder.
If Robinson were innocent, why didn't the priest — in a videotaped interrogation shown in court — or any of his four attorneys say so during the trial, asked two jurors in an interview with The Blade.
Beth Como, 53, of Holland, the jury foreman, and Cathy Shrader, 59, of Toledo, were among the 12 jurors who found the 68-year-old Roman Catholic priest guilty of murder in the 1980 slaying of Sister Margaret Ann.
The 71-year-old Sister of Mercy nun was strangled, then stabbed 31 times in the sacristy of Mercy Hospital on April 5, 1980.
The Lucas County Common Pleas Court jury announced its verdict on May 11, just over six hours after deliberations began. After the trial ended, the jury decided as a group not to talk about the case with the media, which included national publications, television, and cable networks.
But 5½ months later, two panelists agreed last week to provide an inside look at how the jury decided the case — believed to be the first time in U.S. history that a Catholic priest was convicted of murdering a nun.
Robinson is serving a 15-years-to-life term at Hocking Correctional Institute in southern Ohio.
Robinson pronounced his innocence in a sworn statement made in a motion filed Oct. 17 seeking his release from prison on property bond pending his appeal of the verdict to the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo.
Robinson's three-week trial was the first time that Mrs. Como, the jury foreman who works as secretary to the assistant superintendent of Springfield Local Schools, and Miss Shrader, a registered vascular technologist, had served on a jury.
Miss Shrader, raised Catholic and now attending a United Methodist church, said when she saw the slight, balding priest sitting in court in his clerical collar, her first impression was that he seemed incapable of murder.
"You look at this old man sitting there ... who you think could be anybody's grandfather — very quiet, very meek and mild. There's no way he could possibly have done it," she told The Blade.
But she also realized there must be a reason that the State of Ohio charged Robinson with murder 24 years after the brutal crime.
"It's come to trial, so there has to be some information, some evidence somewhere," Miss Shrader said. "So it's like, OK, let's wait and see what comes up."
"He's a man," said Mrs. Como, a Lutheran.
"He's a person before he's a priest. So I guess anybody could do that. Any of us could."
Both jurors believed Robinson's demeanor did not help his case. The priest, born in Toledo in 1938 and ordained in 1964, sat emotionless in the courtroom throughout the trial and never seemed to even glance in the jury's direction.
"I did think it was odd that he didn't even try to look at anybody," Mrs. Como said.
"When they had images on the screen of [Sister Margaret Ann], there was never any reaction by him to that," Miss Shrader said. "There was just no, 'I'm sorry this happened to her,' regardless of whether he's the one who did it or not.'"
The most compelling physical evidence against Robinson, they said, was a section of the victim's jawbone, removed after an exhumation, with a defect that matched the shape of the murder weapon.
Dean Mandros, assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said during the trial that Robinson's saber-shaped letter opener, found in his apartment shortly after the murder, fit the hole in the jawbone "like a key fits a lock."
Mrs. Como said jurors inserted the blade into the defect during deliberations and agreed.
Forensic anthropologist Kathleen Reichs, an expert witness for the defense, argued that Lucas County coroner's officials could have damaged the jawbone when they conducted the insertion tests.
"We kind of dismissed her because she didn't follow her own protocol," Miss Shrader said.
"She never touched the letter opener or the evidence," Mrs. Como said.
"She was going on what she was told and what things looked like," Miss Shrader said.
During deliberations, jurors also placed the letter opener against bloodstains on an altar cloth found at the scene and inserted the blade through punctures in the fabric.
They said the prosecution testimony from Dr. Henry Lee and Paulette Sutton, two of only five certified experts in blood-pattern transfer analysis in the world, was "critical" in their decision-making.
"You can see it with your own eyes that it's similar, but to have an expert who does this day in and day out, that just kind of cemented things," Mrs. Como said.
In addition, she said, Robinson told police in an April, 2004, interrogation that he never gave the letter opener to anyone.
A 90-minute video of that interrogation was shown to jurors, the only time they heard the priest speak.
He did not take the witness stand during the trial.
"And the 'key issue' was a key issue," Miss Shrader said, smiling at her unintentional wordplay.
In the video, Robinson vacillated on whether he locked his two-room apartment at Mercy Hospital. The issue was critical to whether someone else might have had access to the murder weapon and to the priest's credibility.
"First he locked his door, then he never locked his door," Mrs. Como said.
"He didn't know if he locked it," Miss Shrader said. "Here's this man, he's very private — obviously you can tell that. He's very timid, very shy. You're not going to have an unlocked door."
The jurors felt that Grace Jones, a Mercy Hospital laboratory worker, was an important witness. She testified she saw Robinson walk through the chapel doors and down a hallway around the time of the murder, contradicting his statements to police that he was in his room until being notified of the slaying.
"I think Grace Jones was the one that made us think," Mrs. Como said.
"I mean, that lady was a God-fearing woman. She truly would rather be struck down by lightning than tell a lie about anybody."
A Chicago Catholic priest, the Rev. Jeffrey Grob, testified about occult symbols found at the crime scene, including nine stab wounds in the shape of an upside down cross over Sister Margaret Ann's heart.
But the prosecution did not further explain the ritual-killing scenario.
"It would have taken a whole new turn, but it probably would have gone the same way in the end," Mrs. Como said.
The two jurors said they felt sorry for Toledo police detectives who worked on the murder case in 1980, saying testimony made it appear that their superiors interfered with the investigation of Robinson.
"You hate to say the word 'cover-up,' but that's what it seemed like, didn't it?" Mrs. Como said.
"Yeah," Mrs. Shrader said.
"Yeah," Mrs. Como repeated.
Soon after beginning deliberations on the afternoon of May 10, jurors took a vote: 10 of 12 believed Robinson was guilty.
The other two were "unsure," Mrs. Como and Miss Shrader said.
"I said, 'Let's go home and sleep on it,' " Mrs. Como said. "We'd been there all day long; you had a lot of stuff going on in your mind."
The next morning, they took another vote: 11 guilty, one unsure. The uncertain juror was wrestling with sending an elderly man to prison, they said.
Jurors spent a few more hours poring over evidence, then made a list of pros and cons. Around 10:50 a.m. May 11, they took another vote.
"Everybody said they thought he was guilty," Mrs. Como said.
They called the bailiff and said they had reached a verdict.
The two jurors bristle when they hear some people say it was a fast verdict. They had all the time they needed to examine the evidence thoroughly and to make their decision, they said.
"We could have had lunch and came back afterward, but what's the point?" Mrs. Como said.
"I feel we did the job that we had to do with the evidence we were given," she said. The 12 jurors "had the same evidence and came to the same conclusion."
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.
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