It was a shocking crime at Christmastime. A Colorado girl snatched at night from her family home. Jonelle Matthews, age 12, vanished on Dec. 20, 1984. America went looking for her, encouraged by a concerned President Reagan.
Nearly 35 years later, Jonelle’s clothed and decomposed remains were found at a rural Weld County field, 20 miles from her Greeley home. The July 2019 autopsy revealed a single bullet fired into the young girl’s forehead.
Steven Pankey, a two-time Idaho gubernatorial candidate, stands accused of that atrocity. Last week, his trial’s culmination was dramatic despite the jury hanging on the murder charge. A mistrial was declared. Expect Pankey to be re-tried ASAP by the Weld County District Attorney’s Office.
Thanks to YouTube, we can all evaluate Pankey’s testimony, and most of the rest of the trial. Pankey lived back then in Greeley, and left town shortly after Jonelle’s disappearance.
It is somewhat rare that criminal defendants testify, especially in first-degree murder trials. Some prosecutors are deficient cross-examiners as a result.
When murder defendants testify, the stakes are monumental. For many years, Pankey taunted the Weld County DA with correspondence; first to Ken Buck and then Michael Rourke. DA Rourke was appointed in late 2014 by Gov. John Hickenlooper to replace Congressman-elect Buck. Rourke, a Republican, was re-elected without opposition in 2016 and 2020.
Rourke got plenty of opposition from Pankey, during the defendant’s time on the witness stand. It was an epic confrontation. One man against another. A battle of wits and words. Life behind bars awaited Pankey if he lost.
The trial didn’t look promising for Pankey after his direct testimony. On cross-examination, he was facing a career prosecutor, armed with convincing circumstantial evidence and damning Pankey admissions.
Effective cross examinations of defendants build slowly and strategically. Calm, confident no-lose dialogues are designed with precision. A prosecutor’s cross-examining voice and emotions should elevate only toward the end, after first extracting every damning admission possible.
Rourke’s first cross-examination words angrily pronounced Pankey was evil for having done nothing to ease the Matthews family’s longstanding pain. Pankey responded semi-sarcastically, “Good morning to you, too,” before acknowledging he’d said some wrong things, but not committed murder.
With the Matthews family watching, Rourke’s cross-examination continued accusing Pankey of inconsideration toward grieving victims, especially given his now-admitted false reporting. That prosecutorial line of attack did little to prove the actual charges of kidnapping and murder.
The defense portrayed Pankey as an eccentric, attracted to true-life murder shows, and frequent political runs for governor and sheriff, most recently as a Trump-loving Republican. During the trial, the jury learned all about Pankey, from his voluminous media and law enforcement interviews, including a sensational session with Carol McKinley for the Colorado Sun.
Rourke attacked Pankey’s credibility for not informing the Army he was gay. Pankey claimed the Army knew, especially after he’d been caught with another soldier.
This line of questioning continued awkwardly with Pankey prevailing once Rourke, who possessed Pankey’s 1970s’ Army records, dramatically conceded, “I’m confused then.” Pankey immediately wisecracked, “Yes you are.” Pankey explained the Army must have hushed that homosexual aspect in his discharge papers. It sounded plausible. Rourke had no good retort.
Rourke belittled Pankey as a failed political candidate, horrible at making money, and not very smart. Pankey weathered that attack easily, acknowledging he’s an average guy who’s had “a lot of jobs.” Attacking Pankey’s intelligence made Rourke look small and defeated his own narrative that Pankey was a master manipulator.
Toward the end, Pankey finally elevated his voice to match Rourke when explaining his reason for requesting immunity.
Pankey testified, “I did not want to, at some point, be forced to testify against Jim Mathews.”
Rourke took the bait and demanded, “Are you trying to sit here and tell this jury you think Jim Matthews is responsible for his daughter’s death and disappearance?”
Pankey responded vociferously, “Absolutely not! He, his wife, and his daughter were totally truthful that they did not know me. I think they are totally innocent!”
Instead of saying, you would know, Rourke unexpectedly and meekly responded, “OK. Thank you for that.”
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s much easier to critique at one’s leisure than to cross-examine a crafty opponent in a crowded courtroom in real time.
When trials are won, little second guessing occurs. When you don’t win, everything requires re-examination. As for hung juries, get used to them if you’re going to be a career prosecutor. A single juror can block a verdict.
Criminal cases sometimes demand retrial. I prosecuted Greg Bradley four times for the same 1986 first-degree murder. Twice, there were 11-1 hung juries in our favor. Once, our star witness went wild while testifying, and attempts to calm him at McDonald’s did not prevent another mistrial.
Bradley’s fourth Denver jury returned a unanimous first degree-murder guilty verdict.
With lessons learned, expect the quest for justice for Jonelle to continue and improve.
Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C. and is host of The Craig Silverman Show podcast.
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