The Ottumwa Courier

January 24, 2014

Jury needs more time

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Parties interested in a 40-year-old murder case will have to wait a little longer to get an answer.

The jury deliberated a short time on Thursday, all day Friday and, with permission from the judge, will come back to continue searching for a verdict on Monday in the murder trial of Robert "Gene" Pilcher.

Before the jury was sent to deliberate, the trial saw both attorney teams saying this is an open-and-shut, "common sense" case that should lead to their desired verdict.

On the other hand, both attorneys also acknowledged there are some potentially complicating factors: Mainly, that a lot of time had passed. After 40 years, witnesses have died, the locations the jury heard about don’t exist and technology has changed. Both sides also claimed that if the trial took place in the '70s, it’d have been easier to win — for their side.

After Mary Jayne Jones was found murdered in 1974 in a Wapello County farmhouse close to Blakesburg, police interviewed potential suspects as well as people who could corroborate the statements of those suspects.

Most of the interviews were conducted in the presence of the young Special Agent Tim McDonald, who went on to become an assistant director of DCI. He is now retired, but in 1974, he was a field agent assigned to the murder investigation. He was a witness at the trial, speaking, in a sense, on behalf of the witnesses from the 1970s who could not be present in 2014. McDonald read the reports he made of the interviews.

During the trial, the defense showed a timeline that made Pilcher appear too busy to have committed the crime between noon and 3:30 p.m. on April 9, 1974. In fact, said the defense team, even without Pilcher’s statements, that is, just using the reports given by other people who had no reason to lie, he would not have been able to talk the girl into the car — without being seen — make it out to the farm, attack and violate her, brutally murder her and make it back to Ottumwa. All that with not an ounce of blood on him nor any strange behavior on his part as he did work for a charity and met a friend for coffee. As for DNA evidence, it showed what everyone knew: That Pilcher had been to his cousin's house in the past. So had other people. Charging Pilcher just doesn’t make sense, defense attorney Allen Cook said.

But how much time, countered the prosecution, does it take to slam a rifle butt down on someone? To throw a punch? To pull a trigger? Pilcher had plenty of time, the state argued, to attack and kill this young girl. So what if no one saw him in the car with Jones? Obviously, she got out to the farmhouse. None of the witnesses interviewed in 1974 reported seeing her get in a car with anybody, yet someone clearly killed her. The defendant had access to his cousin’s house, he had at least 20 minutes with the victim at the farmhouse and his DNA was on the blanket where the victim was found. He’d done something sexual and violent once before — at that house and in that room. There is no doubt, the prosecutor said.

The current agent working the case, DCI’s Don Schnitker, was a witness for the prosecution when he told the court he reread all the old reports and said all the 1974 evidence was pointing toward Pilcher as the person responsible.

Felons in Iowa are currently required to submit a DNA sample to law enforcement. That goes on file for a database similar to the way fingerprints are kept. Authorities say it was that DNA that led them to make the 2012 arrest in the case.

— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark