Episode 12: Guilty Face

Jeff’s current defense attorney Frances Watson invites Delia to her “Pelley Case” war room at IU McKinney School of Law and lays out the facts she is using to contest Jeff’s conviction. Delia uncovers that former Saint Joseph County Police detectives now contradict some of their original theories.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 12: Guilty Face.

On April 8th, 2008, two years after Jeff Pelley was convicted for murdering his family, an Indiana appeals court overturned his conviction.

In February 2009, the case was transferred to the Indiana supreme court and justices there denied a rehearing of the case and reinstated the original verdict.

Jeff wasn’t going anywhere.

He bounced between a few prisons in Indiana and eventually landed at Indiana state maximum-security prison in Michigan City, Indiana.

*SFX of prison door buzzer*

That’s where he’s incarcerated today.

From this point forward in the show, I want you to know up front, as a journalist, I don’t know nor do I personally have a vested interest in whether Jeff Pelley is guilty or innocent.

I don’t have an opinion or feeling either way about him. If he’s a killer, then he deserves to be in prison.

If he’s innocent, then clearly the opposite is true.

I’ve requested interviews with him and his wife Kim multiple times but neither of them will agree to speak with me.

What my goal is with this case, is to investigate the Pelley family murders and follow the evidence to find the truth.

*SFX of clock ticking*

In the first 11 episodes of the season, I’ve gone counterclockwise in time recapping a comprehensive history of the 1989 murders and what occurred afterwards.

Moving forward I’ll be presenting a detailed investigation I’ve conducted solely based on case evidence, new interviews, and additional information I’ve uncovered about the crime.

So, buckle up, because this is going to be a wild next few episodes.

The one person that’s been most haunted over the year by Jeff’s conviction, besides his family, is Alan Baum.

When I first spoke with Alan on the phone last year, three words into our conversation he paused and told me it’s the one criminal defense case he’ll talk to anyone about.

It’s the great failure of his legal career, he says.

Alan Baum: I’ve been in practice over 50 years and I’ve tried about 35 murder cases and won most of them, and that this is by far the saddest experience that I’ve had professionally. It’s terrible. It’s just terrible.

Delia D’Ambra: He has never been able to understand why the jury didn’t find Lois Stansbury’s testimony powerful, or why they weren’t impacted by Alan’s dissection of Rick Hoover’s failures.

Lastly, Alan says at a minimum, jurors should have considered the washcloth expert testimony as grounds for reasonable doubt.

Alan Baum: I believed in Jeff’s innocence and was shocked, just shocked at the verdict. My God, I mean, how much more reasonable doubt do you need?

Delia D’Ambra: Alan’s lamenting aside, there’s nothing he can do now.

The lawyer who represents Jeff currently is Frances Watson, a clinical professor of law for Indiana University Mckinney School of Law’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic.

Male Reporter: The Indiana University Mckinney Wrongful Conviction Clinic has taken the case and they’re promising new evidence that would argue for Jeff Pelley’s innocence

Delia D’Ambra: While producing this show, I’ve visited her office in Indianapolis several times and spent hours inside her war room.

Frances Watson: This is my life guys this is how bad it is.

There’s papers everywhere!

Delia D’Ambra: The rows of boxes and filing cabinets in her conference room are a clear indication she specializes in large, complicated post-conviction cases.

Frances Watson: All of it is Jeff, *cabinet clinks*these are the old files of his lawyers. I “See…” *drawer closes*

Delia D’Ambra: Since 2009, she’s filed three different versions of what’s called a petition for post-conviction relief, or a PCR.

APCR is the legal brief required to try and get Jeff a new evidentiary hearing in front of a judge.

Frances Watson: In a post-conviction proceeding in Indiana there’s no jury that hears the case. You go to the judge and you present your facts and you argue that you’ve proven your right to a new trial. So, we’re going to be asking the court to vacate the four convictions for murder and if that were to occur then Mr. Pelley would still face the charges. It would be up to the state to determine whether or not to proceed to trial anew or dismiss.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran, as I’ve come to know her, is gathering evidence to prove four things occurred that violated Jeff’s rights…and could prove he’s innocent.

Frances Watson: Ineffective assistance. Prosecutorial misconduct. Speedy trial and newly discovered evidence.

Delia D’Ambra: Those are a lot of legal terms, so I’ll break them down for you.

Ineffective assistance of counsel, or IAC, is a nice way of saying Alan Baum wasn’t a competent attorney at trial.

A charge Alan takes no offense to. Especially after spending years agonizing over failing Jeff.

Alan Baum: I would be shocked if the appellate lawyers didn’t argue IAC.

I’m not offended, not insulted. Lawyers make the best arguments they can on appeal, and I don’t feel that I need to defend myself on the examples that they argued for IAC.

So, I don’t mind them arguing it. You got to take your best shot.

Delia D’Ambra: Next, Fran believes the prosecution telling jurors during trial that Jeff’s blue jeans came out of the washing machine, knowing the state had no evidence or testimony to prove they’d been washed, was an outright lie and grounds for prosecutorial misconduct.

Frances Watson: If you look at the evidence about the washing machine…that’s all made up!

Delia D’Ambra: She has the same questions about police officer’s seizure of the blue jeans that I had when I interviewed Craig Whitfield.

Frances Watson: Are you telling me at a quadruple murder scene they took a pair of blue jeans out of a washing machine wet, wet! They would have had to have been wet and somehow packaged them in an Annis grocery store bag with a receipt dated the date of the prom in the bottom of it?

That’s not how you package evidence in an Annis grocery store bag with a receipt in the bottom. That would contaminate the evidence. Like, who, something else would have been in that bag, right, so what do you know. You don’t use a used bag to package evidence.

The jury was told that the blue jeans had been taken from the washing machine having been washed. The jury believed from the way the evidence was presented that he’d washed his clothes after he murdered these people. He left, didn’t go straight up the stairs. Turned and went into the laundry room, went this way. Took off his pants, socks, shirt, put them in the washer and started it.

Baum never did what I call dig it out and pin it down. I asked him, whoever said they took them out of the washing machine and he said well somebody looked in and saw them. I go but looking in and saw them isn’t the same as taking them out and drying them. Like, one of the depositions I asked the guy well, wouldn’t you have had to dry them? ‘Oh absolutely we would have had to dry them before you put them in a bag’ and I go ‘So, do you remember anybody drying them?’…but when they wrote to the FBI on May 9th or whatever date that letter is they never said any pants were in the washer.

None of it is true! It’s all machinations and it’s so hard to believe.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran is convinced without any doubt that when Craig took boxes of evidence out of storage in 2001. He wrongfully assumed the blue jeans in the grocery store bag were what was said to have come from the washer…

Frances Watson: Whitfield puts it together long before the prosecutor gets it. He puts it together as this cold case and he starts with ‘Oh I took a new look at the same evidence and I got it figured out. He washed his clothes.’…and then he makes it up *laughs* I mean, it’s just…and then he starts by going ‘What did he wash? He washed these blue jeans!’

When they boxed it all up in 89’ and they put it away, they didn’t have it organized very well and marked very well and the reason is the investigation they did was all focused on Jeff and when none of it pointed to Jeff they boxed it all up and they stopped investigating.

The blue jeans were what he wore out of the house. Numerous witnesses, the guy at the gas station, Mrs. Greer…what did he have on when he got here? What did he have on at the gas station? Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans. That’s what they all said.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran and I definitely feel the same, at least about the blue jeans.

I’m not out here to legally fight Jeff’s post-conviction battle, but the fact seems pretty clear, based on the evidence, that Jeff’s blue jeans were not washed and did not come from the washing machine in the Pelley basement.

Fran and I agreed that the readable receipt and coins said have been found in the pocket were further proof they hadn’t been washed.

A few years ago, she and her law students went to handle the evidence in person.

Frances Watson: I went and looked…

We drive up there, students and I, we drive up there, take the camera get the court to allow us to go in. Because all we’re trying to figure out is what are you talking about these 34 coins…what 34 coins? What receipt? When you get to the trial they like gloss over it if bring it up at all.

How could you wash your jeans and 34 coins stay in the pocket if it’s not some super special load, right?

I don’t think anything was wet because if it had been wet they would have documented it and they didn’t. The fact that if in 89’ and they’d have opened up that washer and there had been a load of laundry belonging to that young man wet he’d have been taken into custody. They’d have written the documents up. They’re not there! And then when they reopen it in 2002, it’s this bull****.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran accuses Frank Schafer and his office staff of purposefully packaging the blue jeans in such a way before they were presented to the jury to keep members of the panel from asking the questions she and I have.

She faults Alan, Jeff’s defense attorney, for not catching this slick move.

Frances Watson: Out of the presence of the jury the prosecutor says well I can take it all back to my office tonight and package it so they can view it and Baum says ‘OK’…Now…here without any doubt…I’m not making this up is what the jury saw. They saw no coins. It was packaged so that the Annis grocery store bag is turned inside out. You can’t take it out of the exterior bag and turn it over and see the actual coins. The jury never knew because of the way in which it was packaged and the way in which it was distributed during this that it was an Annis grocery store bag.

I’ve alleged it’s a Brady Violation that they knew or should have known they were presenting it in such a way that it was false evidence.

Delia D’Ambra: Fran believes wholeheartedly that the blue jean evidence was fabricated.

She doesn’t deny the killer would have been covered in blood, and likely would have needed to clean up, she just doesn’t think the evidence proves the killer was Jeff.

Delia D’Ambra: You’re in the belief that there would have been brain and blood matter on the suspect, no doubt?

Frances Watson: Yeah. Everybody agrees with that. I’ll show you the pictures.

There’s brain matter on the table.

I mean, good gracious. The brains of these women have been dislodged from their skulls…and it’s over the walls, the floors…

Mr. Pelley, it’s all over the walls. So, it, clearly sprayed.

Delia D’Ambra: Jeff not having a trace of biological material on him when he showed up to pick up Darla for prom, Fran says proves he’s innocent.

Frances Watson: That’s crazy to think he could have gotten out of that house without that stuff being all down in that…he had like a mullet.

In the beginning, I looked at this and thought did he just get mad and go off? …But it’s methodical. It’s not get mad and go off because then you’ve got to compose yourself to get all back together, get your hair done, your clothes. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans out of the house. He thought was a styler. He had a mullet. Picture it. A mullet and a Hawaiian shirt and those blue jeans. He thought…do you see…he was some 17-year-old kid on the way to the prom. Not having just murdered these people.

Delia D’Ambra: John Botich and Mark Senter’s defense for that argument back in 1989, as well as the prosecutors at trial, was to point to the fact that evidence from the Pelley’s upstairs shower proved Jeff washed up after the murders.

What’s interesting is that last year when I interviewed John Botich in person, he said that he didn’t think Jeff would have had any debris or blood on him after committing the crime.

Jeff wouldn’t have been close enough to the victims to be able to get bodily fluids all over him.

That’s a complete contradiction to what John wrote in his police reports in 1989…

I had to figure out, why after 32 years, was the former lead detective on this case now contradicting himself?

*SFX of faucet turning on & water running*

In 1989, law enforcement in Saint Joseph County believed that small water droplets and damp wash clothes found in the upstairs bathroom of the Pelley parsonage on April 30th meant Jeff washed up after shooting his family.

Him taking a quick shower and composing himself was the whole crux of John Botich’s case that Jeff was guilty.

But when I interviewed John with Mark Senter last year, he didn’t claim that at all anymore.

John Botich: They were shot with a shotgun. You don’t have to be real close, you know, would you have much matter come blow back on you? Probably not.

Mark Senter: Yeah.

John Botich: You know. The force in a shotgun is all going that way. Especially with a deer slug. I mean that wall was covered. The ceiling was covered…but there wasn’t much back this way from what where you know if he’s coming around the corner and they were right there by those windows. He’s not going to have a lot on him.” …because the whole force is going that way…not this way.

Delia D’Ambra: I was floored, John had literally just told me that he didn’t think Jeff had been close enough to the victims to get blood or debris on him.

Which is super strange, considering that’s not at all what jurors at trial were told. Trust me, I’ve read the transcript.

Former cold case investigator, Craig Whitfield believes Jeff would have had to clean up after committing the murders.

That’s why he won’t waver in his belief that the blue jeans were washed.

Craig Whitfield: I’ve been to a number of shotgun death investigations, and each one has a common denominator, and that’s very, very messy.

I don’t see any way that somebody couldn’t have had some biological material on, blood, brains, something.”

Delia D’Ambra: The third legal violation claim Fran alleges is that Jeff’s right to a speedy trial was violated.

That’s one of the reasons on direct appeal back in 2008 the initial verdict was overturned.

Speedy trial violation claims are pretty common in post-conviction PCRs.

The final legal argument Fran plans to make on Jeff’s behalf is that she has newly discovered evidence that proves a third party, outside of the Pelley family, had motive, means and opportunity to kill Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene in 1989.

Fran alleges in her legal filing that Bob Pelley’s former job at landmark bank in Fort Myers, and his close relationship with Phil Hawley from Fort Myers are the reasons the family was massacred.

Frances Watson: The truth is more incredible than anything that you could imagine. That it’s a pretty incredible set of facts and that it started in Florida with Mr. Pelley’s behaviors and choices of friends and associates and acts he did at a bank.”

Delia D’Ambra: As I’ve been investigating this extremely bold accusation…

I cannot believe what I’ve discovered, and who, after 32 years, was finally ready to talk about that very information, on the record…

Michael Ross: Bob came to me and told me that he had discovered this improper handling of funds.

Delia D’Ambra: Do you think that he was scared?

Michael Ross: Yes. Uh, I know he was.

It involved people he knew, or that I knew, or we knew or… And I, I think, I assumed rightly so that it was church people.

He knew these people or this person.

Delia D’Ambra: Listen to the next episode, Check the Bank, right now.