|Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University School of Law, calls for
"strict laws which prohibit law enforcement agents from making public pronouncements
of a suspect's guilt" (September California Bar Journal). His call may warrant
serious debate, but his argument rests on a faulty premise: that law enforcement officers
made such pronouncements in the Yosemite murder case.
Since mid-March, when the
sightseers' burned rental car was discovered in Tuolomne County, I have worked closely
with the law enforcement professionals investigating the deaths of Carole Sund, her
daughter Julie and Silvina Pelosso. As an assistant district attorney who will likely be
one of the prosecutors on this case, I have followed closely the public statements made by
investigators and others about the murders. Unfortunately, Keane has mischaracterized
these statements to suit his own purpose.
Keane asserts that FBI special agent in charge James Maddock, whom Keane does not
identify by name, announced "confidently and without qualification that the killers
of the three women were in custody." Keane then claims that Maddock "named these
men and even stated that the FBI laboratory in Washing-ton, D.C., had used the
well-established forensic evidence technique of fiber analysis to conclusively prove their
guilt." These assertions may support Keane's argument, but they are factually
The truth is
that, less than two days after the victims' car was found, the media began identifying an
individual named Michael Larwick as a possible suspect (Modesto Bee, March 20). Within two
days after Julie Sund's body was found, Eugene Dykes also was identified by the media as a
possible suspect (Modesto Bee, March 27). Nevertheless, investigators refused to confirm
these reports or name any suspects in the case.
For nearly three months, despite continuing speculation in the media and public
statements by hostile grand jury witnesses, investigators continued to deflect questions
about potential suspects (Modesto Bee, March 25, April 8 and May 16; Los Angeles Times,
April 7; San Francisco Examiner, May 23).
Finally, in mid-June, Maddock made the single, fateful statement that has spawned the
criticism by Keane and others. Without identifying any suspects by name, Maddock
acknowledged that media accounts had "identified some of the people we are looking
at" (Sacramento Bee, June 10). Maddock then added, "I do feel we have all of the
main players in jail."
Contrary to Keane's assertions, however, Maddock never named the suspects, never
discussed the evidence, fiber or otherwise, against them, and never said anything,
especially "conclusively," about their guilt. In fact, within days, FBI
spokesman Nick Rossi warned reporters that other potential suspects could still be on the
loose (Fresno Bee, June 13).
Both before and after the arrest and indictment of Cary Stayner for the murder of Joie
Armstrong, several media outlets have reported stories about the evidence that supposedly
led investigators to focus on suspects other than Stayner in the Sund-Pelosso case (e.g.,
fibers, partial confessions, etc.). Without exception, these stories have relied upon
unnamed sources. Such potential leaks are troubling and should not be tacitly accepted,
even in high-profile cases involving hundreds of investigators and witnesses.
Nevertheless, Keane unfairly miscasts such leaks as official pronouncements and, perhaps
unwittingly, attributes them to Maddock.
What Keane misses in his zeal to condemn Maddock's statements, aside from the actual
content of those statements, is the fact that investigators did many things right in their
dealings with the media in this case: no suspects were named until Stayner was charged
with a related homicide; none of the evidence was officially revealed until it became
public in court filings; no conclusory statements concerning suspects' guilt were made by
law enforcement; and, despite heavy public pressure, no charges were filed against
potential suspects about whom investigators harbored concerns.
The unwillingness of the Sund-Pelosso investigators to engage in the kind of
grandstanding condemned by Keane is perhaps best demonstrated by their reserve after
Stayner was arrested. Despite a flood of criticism that could have been mitigated by
revealing investigative details, FBI spokesman Rossi continued to deflect questions about
specific suspects and evidence: "If we must choose between defending ourselves
against critics or maintaining the integrity of a pending investigation, we will always
choose to maintain the integrity of the investigation" (Sacramento Bee, July 30).
Does this sound like the kind of law enforcement misconduct feared by Keane? Quite
simply, no. It appears that, at least in this case, Keane has concocted the dragon so that
he can slay it.
n Timothy D. Clancy is assistant district attorney for Tuolomne County.