September 27, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Justice for Ayla is easier demanded than done

Those demanding justice for Ayla Reynolds can learn from the decades-old death of 19-month-old Eva Marie Knowles.

By Bill Nemitz

Watching the Ayla Reynolds Murder Investigation Circus roll into Portland on Wednesday, complete with a foot chase between the missing toddler's parents down Middle Street, I got to thinking about a murder case I once covered and a timeless lesson about proof beyond a reasonable doubt:

It was 1979 and another baby girl, 19-month-old Eva Marie Knowles, had been savagely beaten in an apartment in Oakland where she lived with her parents, Paul H. O'Neal and Joanne Knowles.

Little Eva died within hours in the emergency room at Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville, leaving police, prosecutors, hospital staffers and indeed the whole community outraged at what had happened.

Almost immediately, all eyes turned to O'Neal, who was quickly charged with murder and tried not once, not twice, but three times over the next 2½ years.

The first trial resulted in a hung jury. The second trial led to a conviction, but on appeal the Maine Supreme Judicial Court tossed out the testimony of a prosecution witness and ordered yet another trial.

The third trial ended in acquittal after jurors looked at the timeline, the physical evidence and the mother's story and decided, as one juror later told me, that the state lacked "enough evidence to prove anything."

In fact, as defense attorney Robert E. Sandy Jr. of Waterville told me this week, the jury foreman called Sandy the day after O'Neal walked out of jail a free man and asked, "Now when are they going to charge the mother?"

Sandy's reply: Never. The mother had been the prosecution's star witness through all three proceedings, so there was no way the state could turn around and blame the girl's death on her.

Bottom line: The murder of little Eva Marie Knowles was, is and forever will be a crime left unpunished.

All of which brings us back to Wednesday's fiasco inside and outside the Cumberland County Courthouse, where the parents of Ayla Reynolds crossed paths in what can only be described as a not-ready-for-prime-time reality show.

Justin DiPietro, Ayla's tight-lipped father, was there to deal with an unrelated assault charge and bail violation. (The assault charge was dropped; the bail violation cost him four days in jail, which he had already served, and a $150 fine.)

Trista Reynolds, Ayla's mother, was there along with her father, Ron Reynolds, and a phalanx of supporters to scream at DiPietro for not telling investigators what he knows about 20-month-old Ayla's disappearance from his home in Waterville on Dec. 17, 2011.

At the same time, they lambasted the state police and the Maine Attorney General's Office for not charging DiPietro, along with two women who were also in the house that night, with murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child, or something -- anything -- that might hold the three accountable for Ayla's still-unknown fate.

Their anger and frustration, with the second anniversary of Ayla's disappearance fast approaching, is understandable. Indeed, Trista Reynolds' revelation that Ayla's blood was found in DiPietro's home is beyond troubling.

But as Trista and Ron Reynolds stood outside the courthouse during a lull in the free-for-all, I couldn't help but ask, "Let's say there was an arrest that didn't lead to a conviction. Would that give you at least some satisfaction?"

"What difference would that make if it doesn't lead to a conviction?" replied an agitated Ron Reynolds while his daughter nodded in agreement. "We're calling for justice!"

Exactly. Calling for justice, however, is one thing. Achieving it is quite another.

Contacted Thursday in Augusta, Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes said for the umpteenth time that he can't discuss the details of an investigation that appears, at least for now, to have dead-ended.

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