Apparently, they’re afraid of witches in jail.
A jailhouse informant claimed that other inmates stayed away from murder defendant Donald Hartung, 63, while in lockup. The defendant stands trial in the murders of mother Voncile Smith, 77, and his half-brothers John William Smith, 49, and Richard Thomas Smith, 47. The victims were shot and their throats were slit on July 28, 2015, deputies said.
Prosecution witness Marlin Devon Purifoy testified Friday that he got to know Hartung pretty well while in jail. He said the defendant confessed to the killings and revealed the motive to him. The defense, however, worked to suggest this jailhouse informant is only angling for a reduced sentence.
— Law & Crime Network (@LawCrimeNetwork) January 24, 2020
The case initially caught attention, in part, because of the defendant’s participation in Wicca, and the suspected ritualistic nature of the slayings. Indeed, Hartung often discussed the Pagan religion while in jail, and said that using a Ouija board convinced him to engage in the murders, Purifoy claimed. But even according to this story, the actual motive was way more mundane that witchcraft: It was money. Hartung wanted to eliminate his mother and half-brothers because he and his son had been been cut out of the mom’s will, the witness said.
The defense leaned in hard during cross-examination, and worked to undermine Purifoy’s perceived credibility for the jury.
“The defense is destroying him on cross,” Julie Rendelman, a defense lawyer who is not affiliated with the case, told Law&Crime in an email. “Calmly walking him through each and every inconsistent statement he has made in the past.”
During direct examination, the 45-year-old Purifoy acknowledged having six or seven felony convictions, as well as a “crime of dishonesty”: petty theft. He said he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempted murder (he almost killed his girlfriend with a hammer, and left her with a traumatic brain injury, the state said in 2017). According to direct examination on Friday, the prosecutor in that case requested a cap of 30 years in exchange for Purifoy’s cooperation in the Hartung situation. The judge still handed down 30 years. Purifoy said he wasn’t promised anything, but the prosecution can still file a request for an even shorter sentence.
Purifoy said he met Hartung in March 2016. They belonged to the same “pod,” an area with 12 cells and a total of 24 inmates. They could go to each other’s cells. The pair initially started talking about college football, he said. The witness admitted falsely claiming to believe in Voodoo, so he could make Hartung comfortable. The defendant tried to get him into Wicca, he said. They talked five or six times a week, according to the witness.
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Purifoy told a detailed account: That Hartung revealed an ugly family history, and gave a step-by-step description of how the murders occurred. The defendant allegedly admitted to the informant that he committed the slayings for the money. Hartung killed the mom for an inheritance, and he killed his brothers so the money wouldn’t go to them, the witness said.
At opening statements, the prosecution emphasized that a neighbor saw the defendant leave the home that day at around twilight. There’s no indication at the murder scene of a break in, the state said.
The defense said there’s no evidence Hartung ever saw the mother’s will. Investigators settled on the defendant as the suspect without looking at anyone else, according to his lawyer’s side of the story. He loved his family, and there is evidence these slayings were done in a rage, the defense said. The only thing tying him to these murders is his DNA at his mom’s home, where he cooked dinner at least every Tuesday.
The question is: Will jurors buy Purifoy’s account?
“The use of a jailhouse informant, particularly one who is looking for a deal, is often a dead giveaway that the prosecutor thinks their case is in trouble,” Rendelman said. “First, unlike many cooperators who can provide eye witness testimony, a jailhouse informant is usually only an ear witness to some admission on the part of the defendant. Jurors are often skeptical that a defendant is going to ‘spill the beans’ to the informant, particularly when they have never confessed to anybody else in their life. Further, the fact that the informant is looking for the deal in order to give up the information is an instant credibility issue for the jury, particularly when a good defense attorney may be able to show that the informant may have accessed the information he’s testifying to from some other means other than from the defendant’s own mouth. (ie. newspaper, tv, or the defendant’s own police paperwork).”
That’s what Hartung’s defense lawyer did during cross-examination of Purifoy. She tried to suggest that the defendant brought his discovery papers into his cell, and that the informant gained access to it to learn about the allegations. Purifoy said Hartung did have paperwork, but he denied reading it, or knowing if it was discovery in the murder case.
The defense brought up that it was common knowledge among inmates that the defendant was charged with three counts of murder. She attempted to cast some doubt on Purifoy’s story that Hartung admitted giving the money to a Harley Davidson-riding priest, who worked at a church on High Mile Road.
She also challenged him on inconsistent statements he’d made. For example, he downplayed his number of felony convictions during an earlier deposition: he initially said a couple or three.
The defense brought up that Purifoy previously agreed to testify against his co-defendants in a federal case in 2004. He received a reduced sentence.
The witness asserted that he stepped forward because he had a close relationship with his mother, and didn’t like that Hartung committed matricide. (The prosecution brought this up again during redirect.)
He denied receiving a benefit for testifying, even though his potential life sentence for attempted murder was dropped to 30 years. Purifoy, in his 40s, maintained that it wasn’t really a benefit because he’d be in his 70s when released from prison. The defense challenged him on this framing.
Hartung’s lawyer suggested that the witness might have tried to get other men to jump on the case. He denied doing so, or really knowing most of the men she named.
Purifoy had an initially meeting with prosecutors in the Hartung case, and wasn’t offered a deal at first, according to cross-examination. He followed up on June 17, 2016, saying he had more evidence.
The attorney confronted Purifoy on how he changed the amount of money that Hartung took from one of his mother’s safes during the murder. On Friday, the witness said the defendant stole a couple of hundred thousand. In a deposition, he said that Hartung got almost $500,000, the defense said.
The lawyer also challenged Purifoy on falsely claiming to like Voodoo, so Hartung would become comfortable.
That was just a lie to get him to talk, she said.
“Not really,” Purifoy said.
[Screengrab of Law&Crime Network]