FAYETTEVILLE, N.C., April 8, 2010— -- Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis was convicted once before of killing Kathryn Eastburn and her daughters, Kara, 5, and Erin, 3. He even spent several years on death row awaiting execution after his 1986 conviction, but he gained his freedom after an appeal and acquittal at a second trial in 1989.
After that, he continued his career in the Army.
Years later, the move allowed prosecutors to put him on trial yet again -- and a U.S. Army court martial jury today unanimously found Hennis guilty of murdering Eastburn and her daughters nearly 25 years ago.
In the penalty phase of the court martial beginning Friday, Hennis could be sentenced to death a second time for the same crime.
The Fifth Amendment normally protects people from double jeopardy -- that is, being tried for a crime of which they've already been acquitted.
There are, however, exceptions. The federal government -- in this case, the Army -- may try a suspect for a crime in spite of an earlier acquittal.
The reason is as old as the nation itself: The federal government is a separate sovereign from the individual states; a different entity.
Army prosecutors accused Hennis of turning the Eastburn home, near Ft. Bragg on the outskirts of Fayetteville, N.C., into a house of horrors in early May 1985, a few days before Mother's Day.
Hennis had adopted Eastburn's dog and apparently discovered that her husband, Gary, who was in the Air Force, was away, according to prosecutors' claims in the case, United States v. Master Sgt. Timothy B. Hennis.
Hennis returned to the house a few days later, tied up and raped Kathryn Eastburn and murdered her and her daughters, stabbing them a total of 35 times, prosecutors said. Before leaving the house, they added, Hennis cleaned up and stole an ATM card and money from Kathryn Eastburn's purse.
Hennis retired from his post-acquittal Army stint in 2004. However, in 2006, after cold case detectives with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office sent evidence out for forensic testing not available at the time of the earlier trials, the Army recalled Hennis to active duty and charged him with the killings.
Hennis' DNA Cited After Earlier Trials Relied on Eyewitnesses
The case against Hennis in the two previous trials relied largely on eyewitness testimony. A neighbor said he saw Hennis leaving the Eastburn home at about 3 a.m., soon after the murders are thought to have taken place. Another witness said she saw Hennis using the Eastburn's ATM card, stolen during the crime.
But eyewitness testimony can be problematic, and in the earlier trials as well as the court martial, Hennis' defense attorneys raised serious questions about the witnesses who identified him.
This time, Army prosecutors also had powerful incriminating evidence that was not available in the two earlier trials: A prosecution witness testified that a swab taken from Kathryn Eastburn's body contained DNA from Hennis.
In the defense's closing arguments, attorney Frank Spinner urged jurors not to convict his client out of passion. He noted there was no blood, fingerprint or fiber evidence connecting Hennis to the crime and that he was seen working on a dollhouse, presumably for his young daughter, at the time the stolen ATM card was used.
"In this world there are evil men, evil men who do evil things," Spinner said. "But there is nothing to suggest Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis is such a man."
Spinner even suggested that it was possible there was no rape, but rather that Eastburn and Hennis had consensual sex a couple days before she and her children were murdered by some other unknown person or persons.
This morning, after about three hours of deliberation, the jury panel of 14 Army officers and non-commissioned officers rejected the defense argument and found Hennis guilty on three specifications of premeditated murder.
When it was announced that the jury was returning to the courtroom with a verdict, several military police entered the courtroom. Hennis turned to his wife, Angela, sitting directly behind him, and took her hand, holding on for a few moments.
The jury entered. Hennis and his defense attorneys stood. And the verdict was read.
Eastburn Relatives Cry and Hug Prosecutors
Hennis had no obvious reaction, but his wife began sobbing.
Across the courtroom sat Kathryn Eastburn's elderly parents next to her husband, Gary Eastburn, and his only surviving daughter, Jana, who was an infant and in the house when her mother and sisters died.
After the verdict, they cried and hugged prosecutors, some of whom also were in tears.
This evening, Hennis was ordered into confinement. As his wife looked on, MPs escorted him from the Ft. Bragg military courthouse in handcuffs.
As Hennis walked to a van waiting to take him to the Fort Bragg Detention Cell, he turned and smiled, seemingly in his wife's direction.