Jeffery D. Trevino is only the fifth Minnesotan to be charged with murder while the victim’s body remained missing, but as rare as such cases are, nationwide statistics show that most end in conviction despite the hurdles that prosecutors face.
Data gathered by former federal prosecutor Thomas DiBiase on his website, www.nobodycases.com, show that from 1843 to March 1, 2013, 380 murder cases nationwide have been brought to trial without a body. The conviction rate was 89 percent. Half of Minnesota’s no-body murder trials have resulted in conviction.
“Let me dispense of this myth that it’s almost impossible to convict someone without a body,” said defense attorney J. Anthony Torres, who successfully defended a suspect in a no-body case in Dakota County. “Does it complicate matters? Yes. Is it impossible? No.”
Trevino, 39, was charged last week with two counts of second-degree murder in the disappearance of his wife, Kira Trevino, after investigators found “copious amounts” of blood in the couple’s St. Paul home Feb. 25. Kira Trevino was last seen alive Feb. 21 and remains missing.
A body is an obvious starting point in a murder case, proving without a doubt the first requirement: Someone is dead. But it’s far from necessary if there’s strong circumstantial evidence, said prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.
In Minnesota, Donald Blom was convicted in 2000 in the disappearance of Katie Poirier, 19, who was abducted from a Moose Lake convenience store where she worked. Samantha Heiges was convicted in 2008 for killing her newborn, whose body authorities believe is entombed in a landfill.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors said a host of other evidence can play an important role in such cases. Blom’s behavior after he became a suspect was pivotal in his case. He had also confessed, and a tooth and human bone fragments were found in a fire pit on his property.
“We got a lot of good examples of him modifying his behavior after the crime,” said Carlton County Attorney Tom Pertler, who prosecuted Blom. “He’s going out and he’s packing a survival kit in case he needs to leave and live out in the wild. He goes on a quote, camping trip. He quits his job. … He just up and quit. People don’t just up and quit.
“There were many things on their own that weren’t huge, but when you put them together, they’re huge.”
Working against Jeffery Trevino is evidence that his wife’s family told authorities she was thinking of leaving him due to relationship trouble, and that she was not the type of person to suddenly sever ties with work or her closely knit family. Authorities also alleged that Jeffery Trevino went to great lengths to cover up her slaying, cleaning the floors with a carpet cleaner that was later found clotted with blood or human tissue. He also allegedly rearranged furniture to cover evidence.
“That’s certainly going to be damning for him,” said criminal defense attorney Marsh Halberg, a former prosecutor. “They’ll put it all together.”
Halberg said the prosecution has another strong element: Kira Trevino didn’t show up for work Feb. 22 and 23 at the clothing retailer Delia’s in the Mall of America. Her best friend has said that Jeffery Trevino solicited friends’ help Saturday to find her, but family members said he didn’t notify them until Sunday.
“That’s a common-sense argument [a prosecutor] would make to the jury: If your spouse is missing, wouldn’t you notify the family?” Halberg said.
But circumstantial evidence can be weakened if the defense can show that it can be interpreted multiple ways, Torres said.
Torres represented Robert Guevara in the 1992 disappearance of 5-year-old Corrine Erstad from Inver Grove Heights. Guevara was acquitted at trial in 1993. Authorities in Cass and Crow Wing counties prosecuted Jerome Bye in 1988 in the death of Charlotte Lysdale, 68, who disappeared three years earlier from Pine River and was never found. Bye was acquitted in the case.
In Guevara’s case, Torres said, prosecutors presented some evidence that didn’t hold up (an adult woman’s bloody underwear when the case involved a child) and a key witness, Corrine’s mother, who ended up cracking on the witness stand. Cross-examination revealed that there had been problems in the family home, and that her mother was not completely open and honest with police, Torres said.
“The bottom line is that she didn’t handle herself well on the stand,” Torres said.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom personally prosecuted Guevara and his office prosecuted Heiges. No-body cases are stronger now because of advances in DNA, and the general public’s understanding of it, Backstrom said. He presented DNA evidence in the Guevara case, but was limited by courtroom protocols at the time and a general lack of knowledge.
“It was a difficult verdict to accept, but I respect the decision that the jury made,” Backstrom said.
Ultimately, prosecutors have to prove the case, with or without a body.
“The initial complaint is the suppositions of law enforcement on the case,” defense attorney Torres said.