Ex-Soldier Convicted Twice of Eastburn Triple Murder Appeals Again

After first appeal succeeded, new evidence put Timothy Hennis back in prision.

August 31, 2011, 12:56 PM

Sept. 2, 2011— -- He was convicted, then acquitted, then convicted again in a triple murder case that dates back to 1985. Now, for the second time in his life, a Washington state man is fighting to get off death row.

Timothy Hennis, then a sergeant in the U.S. Army, was convicted in 1986 of the murders of Kathryn "Katie" Eastburn and her two daughters, Kara, 5, and Erin, 3. The three were killed in their home in May 1985, on the outskirts of Fayetteville, N.C. near Fort Bragg. Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn, Kathryn's husband, was away for training at Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama. Police found the military wife next to her bed, raped and murdered. Kara and Erin were also stabbed to death, their throats cut. Eastburn's youngest daughter, Jana, not yet two years old, was left alive in her crib in a room down the hall, where she lay for nearly three days before she was carried to safety.

PHOTOS: Ft. Bragg Murder Mystery Spans 25 Years

Hennis' 1986 conviction was overturned on appeal in 1988. At his new trial the following year, Hennis was acquitted. 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.

In 2006, police say DNA testing on a swab taken from Kathryn Eastburn's body linked Hennis to the crime. The Fifth Amendment's "double jeopardy" provision prevented North Carolina state officials from trying him again but authorities found a loophole: he was tried and convicted in military court. Hennis was later sentenced to death and is being held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

But the case is not closed. Hennis, now 53, has appealed the 2006 conviction, claiming that the Army did not have jurisdiction to try him for the murders, an argument the government contests. Arguments are slated to begin in the case in late October at the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Hennis' 2006 conviction and sentence are also under review by Fort Bragg's commanding general, who has the authority to overturn the conviction or change the sentence. The commanding general is expected to take action this fall.

The Eastburn family, meanwhile, has said they are confident in Hennis' 2006 conviction.

"I just feel that justice has finally been done," Gary Eastburn told "20/20" last year.

Evidence Against Hennis

Police zeroed in on Hennis, then 27, after learning that he had adopted the Eastburns' dog, Dixie, just days before the murder. Prosecutors would later claim that Hennis had learned that Kathryn Eastburn's husband Gary was away. They alleged Hennis returned to the house a few days after adopting the dog, tied up and raped Kathryn, then murdered her and her daughters. Before leaving the house, prosecutors argued, Hennis stole an ATM card and money from Kathryn Eastburn's purse.

The case against Hennis in the two previous trials relied largely on eyewitness testimony. One neighbor said she'd seen a white Chevy Chevette, the same car that Hennis drove, parked near the Eastburns' home, and another neighbor said he'd noticed a man, later identified as Hennis, leaving the crime scene at about 3 a.m., soon after the murders were believed to have taken place. Someone else said she'd seen someone she later identified as Hennis using an ATM card that detectives had traced back to the Eastburns.

But eyewitness testimony can be problematic, and during his 1989 appeal -- which ultimately proved successful -- Hennis' defense attorneys raised questions about the witnesses who had identified him.

Reopening the Eastburn Cold Case

In 2006, a cold case detective at the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office took 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 original Hennis trial.

The results showed, with 12,000 trillion 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."

The sheriff's office shared the DNA results with the military prosecutors. 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.

In the defense's closing arguments, attorney Frank Spinner noted that there was no blood, fingerprint or fiber evidence that connected Hennis to the crime and that Hennis had been seen working on a dollhouse, presumably for his young daughter, at the time bank transaction records showed the stolen ATM card had been used.

Spinner even suggested that it was possible there was no rape, but rather that Eastburn and Hennis had had consensual sex a couple days before she and her children were murdered by some other unknown person or persons.

The military jury rejected the defense's arguments, and in April 2010, found Hennis guilty on three specifications of premeditated murder. A lawyer filed an appeal to Hennis' conviction with the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later that year. The Fort Bragg commanding general's review of the case, which is separate from the civilian court appeal, is typical of court-martials where the defendant is sentenced to death.

Watch the full story on "20/20" online here.

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