Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Eleven

Now we wait.

We wait after readers shared, discussed and took to heart each of 11 columns about Juanita Todd’s 1972 tortured killing I wrote and published each consecutive Sunday on my website and on Facebook.

We wait after more than 50 years of heartfelt grieving.

We wait amid the brutal fog of sexism and racism.

Today we wait some more.

Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce and Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Joe Coffay must now decide whether to reopen the unsolved murder investigation.

We only move toward resolution if they do.

Yet, two long months after reading my first column, Sanguedolce has not kept his word to contact Juanita Todd’s daughters, Odetta and Tamu, who have pressed for justice during the more than half century they have lived without their mother’s touch.

To disrespect these Black women in such a cold manner is unacceptable. To reject their pain is unjust. Now mothers themselves, the daughters of Juanita Todd continue to mourn. Systemic disrespect gives people valid cause to question why these sisters are being ignored.

Always remember 22-year-old Juanita Todd was Black.

Sanguedolce and Coffay are privileged white men – just like the white men who neglected the pain of a family, a city and a county bereft of equity – powerful men sworn to protect and serve a community they have thus far denied and deprived of fairness.

Like it or not, race always matters in Wilkes-Barre.

If law enforcement officials ever do regroup for a thorough, modern investigation, all evidence police gathered, removed and stored remains more important than ever. My conclusion assumes all evidence still exists. But what if police lost or threw away evidence? What if somebody tried to cover his tracks – and I’m not talking about Juanita Todd’s killer. What if somebody today tries to cover for bad cops from yesterday?

More than 50 years ago Wilkes-Barre police collected essential crime scene evidence that should still be secured in a locked locker or wherever else responsible officers store evidence that might help solve a murder.

Police science textbooks highlight this “chain of evidence” method as a “process and record that shows who obtained the evidence; where and when the evidence was obtained; who secured the evidence; and, who had control or possession of the evidence. The “sequencing” of the chain of evidence follows this order: collection and identification; analysis; storage; preservation; presentation in court; return to owner.”

That priceless chain is as strong as its weakest link. Preserving evidence is crucial to any successful homicide case. If all evidence in this case does not exist, law enforcement officials owe Odetta and Tamu detailed answers as to how that evidence disappeared.

You don’t have to tell us what you have.

But you damn well better tell us what you don’t have.

Blood samples investigators retrieved from the bloody crime scene should still be secured.

The knife Luzerne County Deputy Coroner Walter W. Lisman described in his report as “approximately 4 1/4 inches long (blade) by ½ inch in width” that the killer used to slash, cut, and stab Juanita Todd 22 times and kill her should still be secured.

The “length of white material which could have been a portion of a bed sheet,” according to Lisman’s report that police found tied around Juanita Todd’s neck should still be secured.

Although no mention of a tire iron is made in any official report I’ve seen, Juanita Todd’s daughter, Odetta, says John Lowe, the now deceased city police captain and lead detective in the original 1972 investigation, told her in 2002 when they spoke on his front porch that police found a bloody tire iron in the sink in the apartment where Juanita Todd died. If that’s true, that bloody tire iron should still be secured.

Odetta Todd said Lowe also told her police found three sets of fingerprints at the crime scene – one set belonging to the man Odetta and others believe killed Juanita Todd. Odetta said Lowe told her that suspect, unlike several others, refused to take a Pennsylvania State Police administered lie detector test.

Fingerprint evidence and lie detector results should still be secured, documented and easily available to investigators.

Fibers removed from beneath fingernails on both Juanita Todd’s hands should still be secured.

A bloodstained coin a Wilkes-Barre police officer told me long ago he removed from the apartment of a suspect in the case should still be secured.

If that evidence exists, forensic scientists can test all that evidence for DNA that could lead to the arrest and conviction of whoever killed Juanita Todd. DNA covered that crime scene. But only law enforcement officials have access to the reports and files that should show whether police collected what they should have collected. Only law enforcement officials hold the power to authorize powerful new and improved DNA testing on whatever evidence remains – if, in fact, evidence does remain.

A criminal prosecutor recently told me one of the premier responsibilities of a recharged investigation into Juanita Todd’s murder would be to determine what evidence Wilkes-Barre police still possess. A former prosecutor told me Wilkes-Barre police should still have all that evidence and the results of any already completed testing, including the names of everyone who handled each piece of that evidence.

Forensic testing has advanced dramatically over the past 50 years, continuing to advance each day. Since no new testing of any kind occurred during the 1994 reopening of the Juanita Todd case, new testing is the key.

State-of-the-art DNA testing is the main reason to reopen the investigation.

In building their case, Sanguedolce and Coffay should also have at their disposal an equally large abundance of direct and circumstantial evidence drawn in 1972 from police interviews with people who might still offer testimony as witnesses – not necessarily witnesses to the crime itself but witnesses to the context of the crime and/or the criminals. People police privately considered suspects might even share clues they did not share in the past. Approached properly, one of these suspects might even confess to killing Juanita Todd.

Pennsylvania State Police detectives just a few weeks ago traveled to Georgia and obtained the confession of a killer who murdered 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington in 1975 in Delaware County near Philadelphia.

Capable prosecutors consider many kinds of evidence police gather in any criminal case, especially a homicide. I have addressed in previous columns a variety of evidence in the Juanita Todd case.

Physical evidence is crucial in this case.

Unfortunately, evidence tampering, evidence destruction, loss and deterioration are not uncommon among America’s countless dysfunctional police departments. If all physical evidence does not exist in Juanita Todd’s case, police have a civic and moral duty – an obligation – to inform the public, particularly Juanita Todd’s family members, of this loss. Odetta, Tamu and the rest of us have a right and a need to know.

Transparency in this case is thus far nonexistent.

That must change.

We have waited too long.

Police and prosecutors must be forthcoming about the true status of this case. If investigators fail because they haven’t tried to succeed, the Todd family continues to suffer.

Carelessness and irresponsibility can kill hope. Keeping hope alive fuels the promise of a better future for everyone. Letting faith in the system perish kills the dream.