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Acquitted of murder, he now faces Army justice

The military is enlisted to try a retired sergeant in a grisly triple slaying.

May 13, 2007|Maura Dolan and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

LAKEWOOD, WASH. — Timothy B. Hennis, a quiet father and grandfather retired from the Army after service in the first Gulf War and Somalia, has long been portrayed as an innocent victim of a biased, incompetent criminal justice system.

Hennis was tried twice for a grisly triple murder of a military family, and acquitted after 2 1/2 years on death row. No. 39 on the Death Penalty Information Center's "Innocence List," the 49-year-old master sergeant has made public appearances with other freed inmates to demonstrate just how wrong the justice system can be. A book and a television movie chronicled his fight to prove his innocence.

Now the Army has called him back from retirement to face a possible court-martial and death sentence for the same crime for which he has twice been tried: raping and stabbing to death a woman and slicing the throats of her two little girls on a drizzly night in 1985 on Summerhill Road in Fayetteville, N.C. New laboratory evidence was strong enough for detectives to persuade the military to take on a case barred by double-jeopardy rules from returning to state court.

The results of tests on crime scene samples -- stored for two decades -- are expected to be unveiled this week in a military hearing at Ft. Bragg, N.C., where Hennis was recalled to duty Oct. 30 from his modest neighborhood in this lake-studded city near Puget Sound. The Army can recall a retired soldier to charge him with a crime anytime before the legal deadline for prosecution; murder has no statute of limitations.

A knowledgeable source said a DNA match came from semen; lawyers in the case have refused to confirm that.

Those who helped Hennis win his acquittal, including UC Irvine professor Elizabeth Loftus, have not lost faith. Loftus, a psychologist who published accounts of her work on the Hennis case, called the new charges "outrageous and awful" and the reopening of the investigation "fishy."

Scott Whisnant, a former journalist who covered the murders for the Wilmington, N.C., Star News and later wrote a book about the case, "Innocent Victims," said he cannot believe that a vicious killer -- one of the little girls was nearly decapitated -- could have lived an otherwise normal life as a soldier, son, father and husband with no further violence.

Whisnant also wonders about the strength of the evidence, given the fact that Hennis has not been jailed or even confined to the base while awaiting Wednesday's hearing.

"The government believes they have the evidence to tie him to a triple murder, where someone took a knife to a 5-year-old and cut her from ear to ear and did the same to a 3-year-old, but no one has incarcerated him," said Whisnant.

A spokesman at Ft. Bragg said Hennis was assigned to supply duties commensurate with his rank. There was "no need to lock him up," the spokesman said. After retiring from the military, Hennis had taken a white-collar job.

Les Burns, a retired North Carolina private investigator who worked for Hennis, said police and prosecutors in Cumberland County never let go of Hennis as the "only guy," which makes Burns wonder if the sudden appearance of the "magical" DNA sample will hold up. Burns said police had DNA capability 10 years ago and did not use it then.

"If you try to balance fairness against justice, justice needs to prevail," the investigator said. "But if you're only out to get Hennis, and some people never give up, that is not justice."

Hennis is accused of raping and killing Kathryn Eastburn, 31, and killing Erin Eastburn, 3, and Kara Eastburn, 5, on May 9, 1985. Stationed at Ft. Bragg at the time and the father of a baby girl, Hennis two days before the slayings had answered a newspaper advertisement to buy the Eastburns' dog. He left the home with the family's English setter, Dixie.

According to Hennis, Kathryn Eastburn explained that the family was moving to England and that she wanted to find Dixie a good home because she feared the dog might not survive the trip. Hennis said he sat with Eastburn at the kitchen table and used the bathroom while he was there. He also said he exchanged phone numbers with Eastburn in case the dog didn't work out.

Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn, Kathryn's husband, was attending officers' school in Alabama at the time.

On the day of the slayings, Hennis drove his wife, Angela, and daughter to Selma, N.C., so they could spend the weekend with her parents. Hennis had two 24-hour on-call shifts requiring him to remain at the barracks that weekend, and Angela Hennis wanted to spend her first Mother's Day with her family.

After dropping off his wife and daughter, Hennis visited an old girlfriend, and they talked for a while before he left. He said Eastburn called him about 9 o'clock that night to check on the dog. Hennis called his wife at 9:05 p.m.

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