Five years after Busby resident Anthony Wolfname Jr. died from a stab wound to his heart, a federal jury Friday deadlocked over whether his common-law wife was guilty of a crime for his death.
The panel of 11 women and one man deliberated six hours before jurors told the judge that they could not reach a verdict on voluntary-manslaughter charges against Rachel Strange Owl, 40, of Busby. Federal prosecutors charged Strange Owl in 2006 with killing Wolfname on Feb. 23, 2003, in the couple's Busby home on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Wolfname, 28, died after trying to get help and collapsing in the doorway of a neighbor's house.
The trial began Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull declared a mistrial late Friday afternoon. Strange Owl remained in custody.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr said, "We are weighing our options, but no decision has been made as of yet" on whether to retry the case.
"We're kind of in limbo," defense attorney Thomas Pardy said. "Obviously, we would rather have a not-guilty verdict."
Strange Owl had confessed to stabbing Wolfname during a fight and gave the FBI a handwritten statement, but at trial she maintained her innocence and claimed that an FBI agent coerced her confession.
Strange Owl's version of what happened when she met with FBI Special Agent Stacey Smiedala was significantly different from Smiedala's account. Strange Owl also contradicted her own testimony under often-heated questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Suek.
Suek in closing arguments told the jury that after Strange Owl confessed in 2006, she got "buyer's remorse" and wanted to take back her statement. She spun a tangled web in which she had a hard time keeping her story straight, the prosecutor said.
Pardy said there was "a huge amount of reasonable doubt," called the government's investigation shoddy and questioned whether there was even a crime. He mentioned some of Wolfname's last words when he told a witness, who was 12 at the time, that he "fell on a knife."
Dr. Kenneth Mueller, a retired forensic pathologist, testified that Wolfname died of blood loss caused by a stab wound to his heart. That the wound could be self-inflicted or accidental from a fall was unlikely, he said.
Much of the testimony centered on Strange Owl's confession.
Defense witness Richard J. Ofshe, a professor of sociology emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley whose expertise is false confessions, testified about law enforcement interrogation tactics.
Based on his review of documents in the case and an interview with Strange Owl, Ofshe said interrogation techniques were used during the meeting between Smiedala and Strange Owl. An interrogation, he said, is a focused attempt to get a confession, while an interview is a question-and-answer conversation.
Interrogation techniques include controlling the setting, creating a sense of hopelessness in the suspect, offering scenarios and then linking them to more lenient punishment and getting more detailed statements after a person confesses, Ofshe said. The questioner also has detailed information about the crime, he said. While Ofshe was refused an interview with Smiedala, he listened to the agent's testimony.
After Wolfname's death in 2003, Suek said, Strange Owl told investigators that she and Wolfname had been out drinking, had argued and that she eventually went home alone and went to bed. Wolfname showed up later intoxicated. Strange Owl directed her son to open the door and let him in, and the couple ended up fighting again.
This time, according to Strange Owl's account, she left with her son as Wolfname grabbed a comforter and went to a basement bedroom. Strange Owl said she went to her cousin's house and learned through a phone call that Wolfname had been stabbed and was at a neighbor's house. She denied any involvement in his death, Suek said.
About a year later, the evidence came back from the FBI laboratory. A knife found in a basement bedroom contained a fiber consistent with the shirt Wolfname was wearing. Other knives were found in dishwater in the kitchen but there were no fingerprints. There was blood in the basement bedroom and a trail of blood went up the stairs, outside and to the Abe Estell residence, where he died.
Strange Owl kept canceling appointments to talk to the FBI investigator, Suek said. The case was reassigned when an agent was transferred. Strange Owl was asked for another interview in September 2006 and agreed. Strange Owl came to the FBI office in Billings, where she was questioned by Smiedala.
Smiedala testified that the interview lasted about one hour and 40 minutes, was not recorded and that Strange Owl signed an acknowledgment of her rights. The agent said he had limited knowledge of the investigation.
He discussed scenarios, such as an accidental death. In establishing rapport with Strange Owl, Smiedala commented on her wedding ring, which she said she wore for Wolfname. Strange Owl began crying and said she had stabbed Wolfname, he said.
Strange Owl wrote a one-page confession and also wrote answers to written questions from the agent in a more detailed statement. In her confession and statement, Strange Owl said Wolfname grabbed her by the hair and was choking her. She then grabbed a knife, stabbed Wolfname and threw the knife into dishwater in the kitchen sink. She ran out to the car and left.
Strange Owl wrote that she stabbed Wolfname because he was beating her and she defended herself. She also wrote that her statement was voluntary, truthful and that she had not been promised anything.
Smiedala, on questioning by Pardy, said he believed Strange Owl.
"I felt like we had the truth in the case and that she was responsible for the stabbing of Anthony Wolfname," he said.
Strange Owl testified that Smiedala told her the interview was being videotaped. The agent knew about her past relationships, told her she had battered-wife syndrome and that she had snapped, she said. Smiedala told her what to write, she said. "By the time we wrote this, he'd already convinced me I did this to Tony," she said.
Smiedala told her that if she confessed, she wouldn't spend any time in jail, Strange Owl said.
The agent denied telling Strange Owl she wouldn't go to jail if she confessed or doing any background check on her.
Pardy told the jury the evidence didn't support the alleged confession. The testimony showed that Wolfname was drunk, that he and Strange Owl argued and that Wolfname headed to basement bedroom. Wolfname could have fallen and landed on the knife, he said, or maybe someone else stabbed him.
"We don't know what happened after Leland (Strange Owl's son) and Rachel left," Pardy said.