For 2nd Time, Man Sentenced to Death for Murders

2020 (9.17.10)
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In May 1985, Kathryn "Katie" Eastburn and her two daughters, Kara, 5, and Erin, 3, were murdered in their home, on the outskirts of Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg. Police found the military wife next to her bed, raped and murdered. Two of her three daughters were also stabbed to death, their throats cut.

It would take 25 years to bring the man responsible for the grisly slayings to justice -- but not for a lack of trying.

In a nightmarish odyssey through the legal system, Timothy Hennis, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army, was convicted of the crime in 1986, and spent more than two years on death row awaiting execution, until that conviction was overturned. He was acquitted at a second trial in 1989 and released.

A free man, Hennis returned to his family and the military, serving with distinction in the First Gulf War, and as a Boy Scout leader in his community.

The question of who murdered the Eastburns still lingered, haunting husband Gary Eastburn, his surviving daughter, Jana, and detectives.

DNA a Linchpin in Cold Case

In 2006, a cold case detective at the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office took new interest in the case. He found a vaginal swab that had been taken from Kathryn Eastburn's body that contained semen from the man who'd raped her. The detective sent it to a crime lab for DNA testing -- a forensic technique that was not available at the time of the earlier trials.

The results showed, with 12,000 million to one certainty, that the semen from that swab belonged to Hennis.

"I just wanted to jump up and ... and scream, I was so happy," said Robert Bittle, one of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department homicide detectives who originally investigated the case. "It was vindication."

Gary Eastburn was shocked by the news. "I started crying," he said. "Just hit with this wave of emotion. ... I get one more shot to see this man get justice."

Armed with this new evidence, prosecutors was determined to take Hennis back to court.

Only one thing stood in the way: the U.S. Constitution. Double jeopardy, prohibited by the Fifth Amendment, meant Hennis could not be retried by the state for a crime for which he had been acquitted.

Prosecutors, however, found a little-known loophole: The state couldn't try Hennis, but because he'd been a soldier, the U.S. Army could.

The reason is as old as the nation itself: The federal government is a sovereign authority separate from the individual states that make up the country.

Hennis, who retired from his post-acquittal Army stint in 2004, was ordered out of retirement and back to active duty to allow for his court-martial for the murders.

Hennis' DNA Cited, While Previous Trials Relied on Eyewitness Testimony

Hennis had adopted the Eastburns' dog in early May 1985. Prosecutors claimed that Hennis had learned that Kathryn Eastburn's husband, Gary, who was in the Air Force, was away. They alleged Hennis returned to the house a few days later, tied up and raped Kathryn and murdered her and her daughters. Before leaving the house, prosecutors argued, Hennis stole an ATM card and money from Kathryn Eastburn's purse.

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