Acquitted of murder, he now faces Army justice
Timothy B. Hennis, a quiet father and grandfather retired from the Army after service in the first Gulf War and Somalia, has long been portrayed as an innocent victim of a biased, incompetent criminal justice system.
Hennis was tried twice for a grisly triple murder of a military family, and acquitted after 2 1/2 years on death row. No. 39 on the Death Penalty Information Center’s “Innocence List,” the 49-year-old master sergeant has made public appearances with other freed inmates to demonstrate just how wrong the justice system can be. A book and a television movie chronicled his fight to prove his innocence.
Now the Army has called him back from retirement to face a possible court-martial and death sentence for the same crime for which he has twice been tried: raping and stabbing to death a woman and slicing the throats of her two little girls on a drizzly night in 1985 on Summerhill Road in Fayetteville, N.C. New laboratory evidence was strong enough for detectives to persuade the military to take on a case barred by double-jeopardy rules from returning to state court.
The results of tests on crime scene samples -- stored for two decades -- are expected to be unveiled this week in a military hearing at Ft. Bragg, N.C., where Hennis was recalled to duty Oct. 30 from his modest neighborhood in this lake-studded city near Puget Sound. The Army can recall a retired soldier to charge him with a crime anytime before the legal deadline for prosecution; murder has no statute of limitations.
A knowledgeable source said a DNA match came from semen; lawyers in the case have refused to confirm that.
Those who helped Hennis win his acquittal, including UC Irvine professor Elizabeth Loftus, have not lost faith. Loftus, a psychologist who published accounts of her work on the Hennis case, called the new charges “outrageous and awful” and the reopening of the investigation “fishy.”
Scott Whisnant, a former journalist who covered the murders for the Wilmington, N.C., Star News and later wrote a book about the case, “Innocent Victims,” said he cannot believe that a vicious killer -- one of the little girls was nearly decapitated -- could have lived an otherwise normal life as a soldier, son, father and husband with no further violence.
Whisnant also wonders about the strength of the evidence, given the fact that Hennis has not been jailed or even confined to the base while awaiting Wednesday’s hearing.
“The government believes they have the evidence to tie him to a triple murder, where someone took a knife to a 5-year-old and cut her from ear to ear and did the same to a 3-year-old, but no one has incarcerated him,” said Whisnant.
A spokesman at Ft. Bragg said Hennis was assigned to supply duties commensurate with his rank. There was “no need to lock him up,” the spokesman said. After retiring from the military, Hennis had taken a white-collar job.
Les Burns, a retired North Carolina private investigator who worked for Hennis, said police and prosecutors in Cumberland County never let go of Hennis as the “only guy,” which makes Burns wonder if the sudden appearance of the “magical” DNA sample will hold up. Burns said police had DNA capability 10 years ago and did not use it then.
“If you try to balance fairness against justice, justice needs to prevail,” the investigator said. “But if you’re only out to get Hennis, and some people never give up, that is not justice.”
Hennis is accused of raping and killing Kathryn Eastburn, 31, and killing Erin Eastburn, 3, and Kara Eastburn, 5, on May 9, 1985. Stationed at Ft. Bragg at the time and the father of a baby girl, Hennis two days before the slayings had answered a newspaper advertisement to buy the Eastburns’ dog. He left the home with the family’s English setter, Dixie.
According to Hennis, Kathryn Eastburn explained that the family was moving to England and that she wanted to find Dixie a good home because she feared the dog might not survive the trip. Hennis said he sat with Eastburn at the kitchen table and used the bathroom while he was there. He also said he exchanged phone numbers with Eastburn in case the dog didn’t work out.
Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn, Kathryn’s husband, was attending officers’ school in Alabama at the time.
On the day of the slayings, Hennis drove his wife, Angela, and daughter to Selma, N.C., so they could spend the weekend with her parents. Hennis had two 24-hour on-call shifts requiring him to remain at the barracks that weekend, and Angela Hennis wanted to spend her first Mother’s Day with her family.
After dropping off his wife and daughter, Hennis visited an old girlfriend, and they talked for a while before he left. He said Eastburn called him about 9 o’clock that night to check on the dog. Hennis called his wife at 9:05 p.m.
The bodies were discovered three days later. A third daughter, a toddler, was found wailing in a crib. She was severely dehydrated but survived. Hennis and his wife went to the authorities after learning on TV that they wanted to interview the man who had adopted the Eastburn dog. Hennis gave biological samples and was released.
Hennis eventually was arrested and convicted, based largely on an eyewitness who said he saw him outside the Eastburn home on the night of the killings.
Fingerprints, an unidentified pubic hair in the living room, unidentified hairs in the sheets and other physical evidence from the crime scene did not implicate Hennis. A test on the semen during the first trial also did not point to Hennis, although full-blown DNA analysis was not yet in use.
The day after the slayings, someone used Kathryn Eastburn’s bank card to withdraw $150. A timesheet and the testimony of other soldiers indicated that Hennis was on base at the time, but the prosecution contended that he could have left and returned without anyone knowing.
In an interview several years ago, Hennis told The Times that the two years and four months he spent on death row was surreal. Most of the inmates were drugged, and one of his fellow inmates was executed while he was there.
The North Carolina Supreme Court eventually granted Hennis a new trial because a judge had improperly permitted the use of inflammatory autopsy photographs. The court said the case against Hennis was not strong.
During the second trial, a prosecution witness testified that there was too little of the semen sample to be tested for DNA, given the state of technology at the time.
Loftus, the UC Irvine professor, testified about the fallibility of eyewitnesses, and the defense produced a man who regularly walked the Eastburns’ neighborhood in the early morning and who matched the description given by the main eyewitness. The eyewitness had picked Hennis out of a photo lineup.
After his acquittal, Hennis said, he wanted to sue the state of North Carolina for wrongful conviction so he could repay his father, a retired IBM executive, the $100,000 he had spent on his son’s defense. But he had no money, and his lawyers warned that he would once again have to endure a nasty trial.
As for putting the episode behind him, Hennis said in the 1995 interview: “Some of it fades. Some of it I just let go, otherwise I would be too angry about it.”
Whisnant, the former journalist, believes that the case against Hennis was revived after a discussion the author had with a Cumberland County detective at a May 2005 law enforcement course. Whisnant, who spoke at the course about the Hennis case, said he told the detective and others, “ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone ran the DNA and we could maybe solve the case as a lab case?’ And that is what he did.”
At the course, Whisnant also asked the law enforcement audience, including the Cumberland County detective, whether anyone still believed that Hennis was the killer. No one raised a hand, Whisnant said.
Edward Blake, a prominent forensic scientist who is not involved in the Hennis case, said a “20-year-old sample, as long as you are not limited by quantity ... most of us think that is hardly a challenge” to analyze these days.
UC Irvine professor William Thompson, who teaches criminology, law and society, said, “As forensic tests go, DNA is very reliable, but very reliable is not the same as infallible.”
Thompson said he knew of two cases in which mishandling of physical evidence led to samples contaminating one another, invalidating the incriminating result.
Hennis could not be reached for comment, and his wife did not respond to a telephone call or a visit to her home.
Military attorney Frank Spinner, who is representing Hennis, said he has asked the couple not to speak to reporters.
“Until I am confident, I just have to keep tight control,” Spinner said of the case.
Hennis’ neighbors here said they were shocked when they learned about his past from the media. One woman said she would not allow her children to play near his house.
Bill Matson, 68, a retiree who lives across the street from the Hennis home, described the family as “real nice, friendly people.” Their son often does chores for the neighbors, he said. After Matson learned about Hennis’ past, he researched the case on the Internet.
“The problem is that no matter how innocent you believe he is, there is always that 1% of doubt,” Matson said. “That’s what’s bad.”
A no-trespassing sign hangs on the cyclone gate at the foot of the Hennis driveway, and menthol cigarette butts -- carefully stubbed out as though someone planned to relight them later -- were lined up neatly near the front door.
Gary Eastburn, the husband and father of the victims, lives only 30 minutes away. Neither he nor his daughter plans to attend next week’s hearing.
Elisabeth Eastburn, who married Gary in 1991, said her husband wants the murders solved but has found the reopening of the case painful. He has always believed Hennis killed his wife and daughters and has been discussing the case with lawyers, she said.
“This is a man who lived through it, and suddenly 22 years later he has to relive it -- the sights, the smells, the pictures,” Elisabeth Eastburn said. “I don’t think anybody has any idea what it is like. I live with him, and I know how he is suffering.”
Jana Eastburn, the toddler found alive in her crib, is now 23, “a very sensible girl” who works with animals. She has watched the TV movie that was based on Whisnant’s book, Elisabeth said.
Whisnant, who has talked to Hennis since he was charged again, will be in the audience for the three days of testimony. Although Whisnant still presumes Hennis is innocent, “if he is guilty, I want to know that too. I want to be there and find out which way this is going.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.