A blood-spattered coin.
Evidence means everything in a homicide investigation.
Police and prosecutors need physical evidence, circumstantial evidence, new and old evidence – all the evidence they can gather to solve a murder case.
Evidence shapes the soul of hope for justice in the more than 50 years since the Wilkes-Barre murder of Juanita Todd, a 22-year-old Black woman and mother police found nude and stabbed 22 times in her second-floor Academy Street apartment.
Do Wilkes-Barre police still have the evidence they collected from the September 28, 1972 murder?
Seasoned prosecutors with whom I recently spoke give police the benefit of the doubt and presume all evidence gathered at the scene still exists. After we spoke about the case I asked these veteran prosecutors if they thought investigators should take a fresh look at the Juanita Todd murder.
“There is no reason not to,” said one successful former prosecutor whose opinion I respect.
That’s why police and prosecutors should restart the investigation even without new evidence. Enough old evidence might exist to test with new technology that will lead to an arrest and conviction in the death of Juanita Todd.
I’ve met a lot of lawyers during the decades I investigated and wrote about crime. I’ve observed some of the best criminal attorneys in the country at work on some of the biggest criminal trials in the country.
In 1990 I testified at a Wilkes-Barre murder trial under cross-examination by a defense attorney who once represented Mafia boss Fat Tony Salerno. In 1994 I traveled to Los Angeles and wrote about the first week of the OJ Simson trial. In 2005 I sat in a courtroom with the late music legend Michael Jackson every day of his four-month-long child molestation trial. In 2017 I spoke for months about a Scranton political corruption case with one of the former federal prosecutors who convicted infamous Boston killer and gangster Whitey Bulger.
I’m interested in what knowledgeable prosecutors and defense attorneys think about crime, especially homicides. I’m particularly interested in what some of these hardened lawyers think about the death of Juanita Todd and the resumption of the investigation into her murder.
The lawyers with whom I’ve recently spoken said they cannot think of a good reason why police and prosecutors should not revisit the Juanita Todd case. Budgets, time constraints, staffing concerns, egos, politics and departmental rivalries can be prioritized as a committed search for truth continues.
Forensic technology, particularly DNA testing, advanced significantly between 1972 and 1994 when a team of Luzerne County police and prosecutors last reviewed the evidence in Juanita Todd’s death. In the past 30 years improvements in DNA technology and other forensic science have advanced even more.
If significant physical evidence does still exist, law enforcement officials should submit that evidence to modern scientific laboratories that specialize in high-tech testing. Other evidence police should review includes potential witnesses whom they may or may not have interviewed previously.
One crucial witness is Douglas “Bay” DeGraffenreid whom Wilkes-Barre police in 1972 at the time called their only suspect during the original investigation. DeGraffenreid is serving a life sentence for an unrelated California murder and last spoke with Wilkes-Barre police in 1994 when two city detectives traveled to California to interview him in a state prison.
DeGraffenreid fled Wilkes-Barre in 1972, the night before a scheduled lie detector test he reluctantly agreed to take. He later said he worried police might arrest him because police found his wallet at the crime scene. He said he left his wallet in the glove compartment of the car of another man he believes tried to set him up.
DeGraffenreid has consistently denied killing his one-time friend Juanita Todd.
He is crucial to the case, not because new evidence links him to the crime, but because he now might cooperate with detectives and share information he had not previously shared with police.
One veteran prosecutor with whom I recently spoke said the idea of interviewing DeGraffenreid a second time is not unreasonable. What DeGraffenreid might offer police easily justifies the cost of sending two detectives to California, the seasoned prosecutor said. Another veteran prosecutor said despite DeGraffenreid’s questionable credibility as a convicted killer, new information he might provide linked with old yet newly tested forensic evidence could lead to additional clues that could solve the case.
Assuming Wilkes-Barre police took blood samples, were all the samples tested? Do untested blood samples exist? If so, can experts test them with new technology? The doctor who performed Juanita Todd’s autopsy wrote in his report that he found fibers beneath two of Juanita Todd’s fingernails – one on each hand –that he turned over to police. If those fibers still exist, they also can be tested with new and improved technology even if police tested them more than 50 years ago.
Forensic experts can also test the bloodstained sheet somebody tied around Juanita Todd’s neck. Experts can test the pubic hair Juanita Todd’s daughter, Odetta, said police once told her and her family investigators found at the crime scene. Odetta Todd said the police told her the pubic hair did not belong to her mother. Experts can test the knife police reported they found “protruding” from the right side of Juanita Todd’s “abdomen.”
Somebody once told me about a blood-spattered coin one Wilkes-Barre police officer said he turned in to supervisors after finding it in the apartment of a potential witness in the case. Does such a coin exist? Did such a coin ever exist? Don’t ask me why police visited this apartment and an officer took a blood-spattered coin he said he found.
If this is true, a report should be filed somewhere. Numerous other reports should be filed as well – reports containing crucial details about the California prison interview with DeGraffenreid and interviews with other witnesses and potential suspects – if, in fact, such interviews occurred.
The late city detective Tom Bird who responded to the crime scene told me in 1993 he believed somebody fed Juanita Todd’s babies that terrible September night in Wilkes-Barre. Somebody might have even changed their diapers.
“It was real hot,” said Bird. “And the fan was one of those big floor model jobs. The 18-month-old (Odetta) was sitting right by it.”
Odetta’s five-month-old sister Tamu lay safe in a nearby crib.
“There was no safety guard on the front of the fan,” Bird said. “It would have sliced the little girl’s hand off if she had reached for it.”
“Somebody was in that apartment and fed those kids,” he said “Between the time of Juanita’s killing and us finding her, somebody fed them. There was even an open loaf of bread on the kitchen counter. I reached inside the wrapper and felt it. It was still soft, fresh.”
Despite police officially naming DeGraffenreid as their only suspect, police privately said more than one murder suspect existed. Were other people in Juanita Todd’s apartment when she died?
Police need to find out.
A blood-spattered coin.
The evidence should be available to a mostly new generation of diligent investigators who take seriously the painful mystery that shrouds the shameful death of Juanita Todd.
As any good detective or prosecutor knows, evidence means everything in a murder case.