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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Curtain closing on Fitzhugh saga Curtain closing on Fitzhugh saga (August 08, 2001)

Attorney hints of possible appeal

by Bill D'Agostino

Barring a successful appeal or an unusually early parole, convicted murderer Kenneth Fitzhugh will likely be spending the rest of his life in jail for the brutal slaying of his wife and former Palo Alto music teacher, Kristine.

Nothing about the trial against Fitzhugh was typical: not the investigation that began on May 5, 2000 after Kristine was found on the bottom of her basement steps; not the amount of media attention surrounding the case, which culminated in last week's decision; and not the verdict itself, murder in the second degree, handed down last Thursday in a packed courtroom.

Most atypical was Fitzhugh himself, a former Boy Scout leader with no prior criminal record who made an unlikely murder suspect from the beginning.

His arrest, 14 days after Kristine's death (which was initially ruled an accident) was the first of many shocks for the community.

At the time, Ravenswood Superintendent Charlie May Knight said Fitzhugh's arrest was "bizarre." She called the Kenneth and Kristine Fitzhugh, who volunteered in her district, "a couple that spent a great deal of their time doing altruistic things."

Then shortly before the trial began a month ago, another big shock emerged from public court documents: Kenneth and Kristine's elder son, Justin, was fathered by another man -- former family friend Robert Brown.

"Things were not as they appeared," Deputy District Attorney Michael Fletcher said in his opening statements.

Throughout the trial, defense attorney Thomas Nolan painted Fitzhugh as a man caught in the current of powerful forces beyond his control: a stranger who murdered his beloved wife, members of the media determined to paint him as the villain, and a police investigation that ignored crucial evidence.

Nolan even went so far as to make the claim that Palo Alto police wanted Fitzhugh convicted because the prospect of a husband murdering his wife in a neighborhood does not lower real estate prices as much having a random murderer free on the streets.

But the jury ultimately believed Fletcher's methodically laid out physical evidence, including a plethora of blood stains discovered (using a special chemical known as luminol) in the kitchen, even though Kristine's body was found in the basement.

Prosecutors and police believed Fitzhugh killed Kristine in the kitchen and then dragged her body into the basement to make it look like an accident. According to autopsy reports, he either struck her seven times in the back of the head with a blunt object, or rammed her head against the blunt object seven times. No murder weapon was ever discovered.

In the end, the scenario grew into something quite typical: a controlling and angry husband who killed his wife.

According to the United States Department of Justice, one-third of the women murdered in America between 1976 and 1999 were killed by either their husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend.

The federal numbers decreased from 1,600 in 1976 to 1,218 in 1999, but it is impossible to know how many spousal murders go unreported or untried.

If not for an investigative fluke, Kenneth Fitzhugh might have been one of those who got away with murder.

Palo Alto Police Officer Gary Brooks intended to check Kristine Fitzhugh's car hours after the murder, but had the wrong electronic keys and ended up accidentally opening Kenneth Fitzhugh's SUV. He looked inside and discovered a pair of tennis shoes under the front seat.

During the trial, Brooks testified he did the "wrong thing" in picking up the shoes with his bare hands while they were in the car, which was outside the yellow police line.

But had he not done so, Fitzhugh might have driven the car -- and vital pieces of evidence -- away. Later, a paper towel and a green shirt were discovered in the car as well, both containing Kristine Fitzhugh's blood.

According to lead investigator Sgt. Detective Mike Denson, those three pieces of evidence made Fitzhugh -- who was never able to explain to police how the items got inside his car -- the prime suspect in the case.

During the last week of testimony, Fitzhugh told the jury he could not remember how the items got into his car because he repressed the memory of how they got there. He said he went under hypnosis to regain the lost memory. While under, Fitzhugh remembered putting them inside the car after administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Kristine.

For Fitzhugh's testimony, local residents and court junkies waited outside the courtroom beginning at dawn in the hopes of getting one of the few seats inside not reserved for media or family.

The final witnesses were hypnosis experts who argued its relative value in the courtroom.

When the verdict was finally read after three days of deliberation, it too was a surprise. Instead of first-degree murder -- as the prosecution had sought -- the jury decided the killing was not premeditated, and gave a ruling of second-degree murder.

As a result, the sentence for Fitzhugh lowered from 25 years to life to 15 years to life. Fitzhugh also gained the possibility of parole.

Fletcher argued for first-degree murder throughout the case, and said afterward he felt the evidence supported such a verdict. Although he was disappointed in the result, he added "I am not going to lose any sleep over it."

What's next for Palo Alto's real-life soap opera/tragedy? On Oct. 10, Fitzhugh is scheduled to be sentenced.

Barbara Babcock, professor of law at Stanford University, said Fitzhugh will likely be looking at a life sentence in prison, since the crime was brutal and Fitzhugh did not admit his guilt.

"Almost any judge would give him the max, which is life" Babcock said.

Nolan hinted Fitzhugh was considering an appeal, saying, "He believes he will be vindicated. He will pursue that vindication."

Nolan was not specific about the grounds on which such an appeal could be based, but did say, "I personally think an error was made."

On the steps of the courtroom following the trial, Nolan was asked why he never asked Fitzhugh point blank whether he murdered his wife. The question agitated the Palo Alto attorney.

"I've finished answering questions. That's Hollywood. That's ridiculous," he said, before walking away from the cameras.

Throughout the proceedings, Fletcher vigorously argued Kenneth Fitzhugh killed Kristine because she was about to tell Justin the identity of his real father.

However, after the verdict was read, the prosecutor admitted it was likely a combination of several factors coming together within Fitzhugh that produced the ensuing tragedy.

"He was angry, he killed Kristine, and now he's going to pay the price," Fletcher concluded.

E-mail Bill D'Agostino at [email protected]


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