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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 06, 2001

Fitzhugh: Distraught husband or cunning murderer? Fitzhugh: Distraught husband or cunning murderer? (July 06, 2001)

DA tells of hiding evidence, defense calls it absentmindedness

by Bill D'Agostino

Did Kenneth Fitzhugh get blood on his green shirt and tennis shoes in the midst of trying to resuscitate his wife of 33 years, or while he brutally murdered her?

Did he put those same two items in his car absentmindedly while police were investigating his house or intentionally after he killed her in a vain attempt to hide the crucial evidence?

These are some of the issues being laid out in a Palo Alto courtroom this week in the trial of Southgate resident Kenneth Fitzhugh, accused of killing his wife, Kristine Fitzhugh, on May 5, 2000.

On Monday, the first day of the trial, jurors got their first look at the damage inflicted upon the schoolteacher and mother of two as Deputy District Attorney Michael Fletcher showed a videotaped tour of the Fitzhugh's' home, shot by police a few hours after the murder.

Bookended between peaceful images of the family's home and their two cars were grisly shots of Kristine Fitzhugh's dead body lying at the foot of the basement stairs, her corpse caught up in dry-cleaning plastic and her eyes still open. The close-up sight of her badly beaten face and the nearby blood that poured out of her head forced some audience members to look away.

The jurors and the audience, which included the couple's 21-year-old son, John Fitzhugh, were totally silent through the viewing.

Two of Kristine Fitzhugh's friends, Carolyn Piraino and Gaelyn Mason, were called by Fletcher as witnesses this week. Accompanied by Kenneth Fitzhugh, they were the first to come across her body lying at the foot of the basement steps.

The trio stopped by the Fitzhugh home to check on Kristine, who had not reported to her afternoon music class. The three had been on their way to pick up casino tables for Mason's birthday party, planned for the following day.

The two women testified that while they were riding in Fitzhugh's Chevy Suburban, he told them how he tried to call Kristine but could not get through. Fletcher told the jury during opening statements that records show he never made this call.

Defense attorney Thomas Nolan challenged both witnesses' recollections of the conversation, but they both separately stood by their stories, saying they definitely remembered him saying he called her.

Fletcher questioned both women about the events of the day. Both women said they went into the house and could see Kristine's body from the top of the stairs. Piraino said she then called 911. On Tuesday, Nolan played the tape of that call for the jury. They heard a panicked Piraino explain how Kristine had fallen down their steps, noting that she had stopped breathing.

Mason testified she then helped Kenneth Fitzhugh give CPR to his wife. She administered the chest compression while he gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

While in the basement, Mason said Fitzhugh gave an impromptu reason for his wife's brutal injuries. She fell on the steps, he claimed. Referring to one of Kristine's high heeled shoes that was laying on one of the stairs, Fitzhugh said, "Those g-----n shoes. She must have fallen on those shoes.''

Fletcher, through medical witnesses, plans to argue that Fitzhugh staged the scene to make it look like an accident, to cover up that he had murdered his wife upstairs in the kitchen.

Soon after, the women testified, firefighters and paramedics entered the home and took over resuscitation efforts. Mason and Piraino then saw Kenneth Fitzhugh go up the steps of the basement with his hands and face covered in blood.

Piraino said she saw him go into the bathroom, presumably to clean off the blood. Both women then lost track of where he went next until they all met up in the living room minutes later.

In this critical time window, Nolan believes Fitzhugh went to his car and absentmindedly deposited a shirt he had used as a towel for his bloody hands and face and a pair of tennis shoes that were also stained with blood.

Mason testified that when they discovered Kristine Fitzhugh's body, Kenneth was wearing a white-collared shirt and loafers.

In his opening statements, Nolan noted the reason Fitzhugh went to his car was to check on the two family dogs that had been in the car. Police later found the bloody short-sleeved shirt and shoes stashed under the car's driver seat and floorboard. When investigators asked him about the objects later, Fitzhugh was "dumbfounded" how the clothes got into his car.

He was not hiding something, Nolan argued, but merely forgetting: the trauma of the day's events had scarred him into repressing the memory.

Fletcher believes that Fitzhugh placed the objects in the car much earlier, immediately after he had killed Kristine. In an attempt to prove his theory beyond a reasonable doubt, Fletcher is having witnesses draw on transparencies in the courtroom to meticulously track their recollections of Fitzhugh's movements in his home while police and fire personnel scoured the house.

Witnesses said police asked Fitzhugh and the women to stay in the dining room, where they began telephoning Fitzhugh's sons and other family members to spread the word about Kristine's death. Mason and Piraino both alleged that during this time, Fitzhugh told them, "I'm sorry I got you involved in this."

He also allegedly stated he was sorry that Kristine would miss her son Justin's college graduation, which was two weeks away, according to Mason's testimony.

Fletcher claims that Kenneth Fitzhugh killed his wife because she planned to tell Justin after graduation that another man was his biological father.

During opening statements, Nolan laid out his argument that the beating happened in the basement, not the kitchen.

The reason Nolan knows this? There wasn't enough blood discovered in the room. With a beating as severe as the one Kristine Fitzhugh received, Nolan said there would be blood on the ceiling.

He told the jury that the blood discovered in the kitchen by the chemical Luminol was too small and not certain to be Kristine's. Luminol, Nolan also explained, will pick up animal blood (from steak, for example) and reveal it the same as human blood.

Overall, he said the murder scene was contaminated by an investigation that was shoddy and lacking. He also criticized the Palo Alto Police Department's unwillingness to consider any possible witnesses other than his client, Kenneth Fitzhugh.

Next week, police and fire department personnel are expected to testify for the prosecution.

Early witnesses this week included a store manager from Peet's Coffee where Kristine purchased her last meal (some coffee and muffins) just before the murder, and a FedEx driver. Both helped the prosecution lay out a general timeframe for the murder.

When a juror, whose conscience was straining under the weight of the tense trial, passed Judge Franklin Elia a note on Tuesday asking whether a priest could be consulted for "spiritual guidance," Elia rejected the request, emphasizing that jurors should not speak to anyone about the trial.

E-mail Bill D'Agostino at [email protected] For news updates on the Fitzhugh trial, go to


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