EVIDENCE SUPPRESSED IN MURDER TRIAL — (Syracuse Post-Standard)

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The Syracuse Post-Standard, NY

July 6, 1991

Author: THOMAS FINE The Post-Standard

Jurors in Debra Dennett’s murder trial — scheduled to begin later this month — will not hear about a knife found in the basement of the Lansing veterinarian’s home, prescription anti-depressants found in her bathroom and the purchase receipt for the shotgun prosecutors said she used to kill her estranged husband.

Tompkins County Judge Betty D. Friedlander on Friday agreed to suppress some evidence seized at Dennett’s East Shore Drive home immediately following the Sept. 28 shooting. The judge ruled sheriff’s and state police investigators exceeded their emergency powers and should not have collected the evidence without a search warrant.

But Friedlander allowed Tompkins County District Attorney George Dentes to use the bulk of evidence linking Dennett to the killing of her estranged husband, Ithaca attorney Nathaniel Knappen. Included in the evidence Friedlander allowed for trial is the shotgun police said Dennett fired once at Knappen’s face, numerous pieces of broken china from the couple’s kitchen, a kitchen knife found near Knappen’s body and Dennett’s 28-minute statement to state police.

The judge’s ruling was based on a testimony and evidence from a pretrial hearing held April 30 and May 1 in Friedlander’s court.

Dennett, 37, who has been living out of town with friends since the killing, faces second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges. She was not charged until three months after the killing. At first, police said Dennett shot Knappen in self-defense while he stabbed her during a domestic dispute. But evidence released in court papers and discussed at Dennett’s pre-trail hearing shows Knappen was not armed at the time of the shooting.

Prosecutors and police at the pretrial hearing said they believe Knappen never stabbed Dennett, but that she cut herself with a knife. They said they believe Knappen was shot from a kneeling position and was not attacking when he was killed.

During the pretrial hearing, Dennett’s lawyer, Robert Clune, accused police of improperly searching Dennett’s home and of trying to bully and trick her into making self-incriminating statements. In her Friday decision, Friedlander partially agreed.

Friedlander said the investigators who collected evidence at Dennett’s home during the night of Sept. 28 and the early morning of Sept. 29 exceeded their legally established emergency powers to search a crime scene without a court warrant. She said they were not permitted “warrantless observation . . . of areas of the home not connected to the scene or circumstances of the alleged crime.”  Those areas included closed closets and drawers, she said.

Specifically, Friedlander said prosecutors cannot mention in trial a knife recovered by a state police investigator in Dennett’s basement, a bottle of Prozac — an anti-depressant prescribed to Dennett — found in Dennett’s bathroom by a sheriff’s investigator and the purchase receipt for the alleged murder weapon. The receipt, detailed previously in court papers, indicates the gun was bought two days before the murder at Woolworth’s in Ithaca.

Investigators testified at the pretrial hearing that they collected almost all evidence at the home between about 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 and 5 a.m. Sept. 29. However, a search warrant for the home was not signed until 1:30 p.m. Sept. 29.

Dentes on Friday had no comment on what the decision would mean to his case against Dennett. Although the suppressed items were mentioned during Dennett’s pretrial hearing in May, their significance to Dentes’ case was never explained. Clune was out of town and unavailable for comment.

State police investigator John Sherman testified at the pretrial hearing that his superiors doubted Dennett was stabbed by Knappen less than seven hours after the murder. He said the house was searched for evidence linking Dennett to her own knife wounds.

Other investigators testified they were ordered to search the entire home for evidence. The knife in the basement was found as part of the wider search, state police investigator Robert Lishansky testified at the pretrial hearing.

Prozac is a controversial drug linked by some experts with suicidal and other violent behavior. Clune has described Dennett as “mentally unstable” and  “fragile” before, and said she was a victim of years of abuse — both physical and psychological — by Knappen. Clune has also said Dennett has undergone psychiatric treatment since the killing.

Friedlander, as part of her 16-page decision, refused to suppress Dennett’s statement to state police investigator John Sherman, made in a Binghamton hospital a few hours after the killing.

Sherman testified in May that he tape-recorded a 28-minute “interview” with Dennett during which she repeatedly said the killing was in self-defense. He said he also photographed numerous knife wounds on her back and arms.

County court clerks said Friday that jury selection for Dennett’s trial is scheduled for July 16 through 19, and the trial is scheduled to begin July 29.

Record Number: 9107060072
Copyright, 1991, The Herald Company