Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Daniel Mears / The Detroit News

After six days of testimony, a jury took less than six hours Tuesday to convict Nancy Seaman of murder.

 Jury doesn't buy Seaman's story

Ex-teacher's words convicted her of first-degree murder of husband, they say.

PONTIAC -- Too many inconsistencies. Too many hatchet blows.

And finally Nancy Seaman's own testimony, a version that an Oakland Circuit Court jury found had too many holes and was just too unbelievable to be true.

Those were some of the responses of seven jurors, explaining how they quickly reached a first-degree murder conviction for Seaman, a Farmington Hills grade school teacher who used a hatchet to kill her 57-year-old husband, Robert, following a Mother's Day argument. She contended she had endured 31 years of abuse. Her battered-spouse defense -- used only occasionally in courtrooms -- drew wide public attention.

The jury, which heard six days of testimony, took less than six hours Tuesday to return the verdict against the petite 52-year-old Seaman, who will be sentenced Jan. 24 to mandatory life in prison.

"To keep him wrapped up and bundled in a car ... it went beyond an incident in a garage," said juror Tom Rachfal. "When she laid down on the (courtroom) floor to demonstrate what happened, it seemed it caught her off guard -- like she was doing it for the first time."

Seaman smiled slightly at the jury as the verdict was read. Neither of her two adult sons was present in the courtroom and her attorney Lawrence Kaluzny said that was by design; they chose not to be there.

"You can't predict how someone is going to respond," said Kaluzny of Seaman's reaction. "We had discussed various things that could happen, and this was one of them. She always knew that. And being religious, she could accept this and realized no matter what happened, her life was never going to be the same."

Seaman argued with her husband a final time May 10 over a condominium she had purchased.

She said he cut her wrist during the argument, then chased and pushed her down on the garage floor and began kicking and threatening her. That's when her hand found a hatchet she bought the night before at a Home Depot store, she said.

An autopsy revealed Robert Seaman was struck at least 15 times with the hatchet and stabbed 21 times with a knife. His decomposing body was wrapped in a tarp and found inside his Ford Explorer by police detectives May 12. When she was arrested, Nancy Seaman, who had been telling friends and police for three days she had no idea where her husband was, told police "it was an accident ... he was beating me."

Kaluzny portrayed Seaman as a battered wife, calling experts to testify to the syndrome of women who are afraid to leave abusive husbands.

Several jurors noted how Seaman neither exhibited the type of injuries characteristic of battered women nor showed a lack of knowledge about support groups in the area.

Jurors also said Seaman did not fit the psychological profile experts described of victims. In contrast, Seaman had a college education, a good teaching job and a car. She had options.

"We believe she loved him but had planned on leaving him, but it had to be on her terms," said juror Rachfal.

Several jurors said they knew Seaman had to take the witness stand in order to put forth a version of self-defense, but as one said, "Her testimony killed any chance she had."

Evidence suggested it was more likely the killing occurred, assistant Oakland County prosecuting attorney Lisa Ortlieb contended, on Sunday night and that Seaman cleaned up as much as she could and put it out in the trash pickup Monday before she bought bottles of bleach and a tarp to finish the job.

Many viewed Seaman's explanation of events as a "detailed cover-up" and too unbelievable.

"I think she was acting ... her verbiage seemed forced," said one juror, Sherine Coury.

Juror Patricia Bedard thought Seaman's testimony was "insincere."

Others felt the evidence was overwhelming and that Seaman planned the killing from start to finish.

Juror Michael Jerzierkski could not believe Seaman's version on how she killed her husband by swinging the hatchet to get him off her, not knowing where she struck him.

"The blows were deliberate and aimed and with quite a bit of force," Jerzierski said.

News of the verdict saddened, but did not surprise, Sue Coats, executive director of Turning Point, a Macomb County nonprofit group that works to end domestic abuse and sexual violence.

"It's very difficult for a jury or the community to understand how somebody could kill somebody in a way that's so brutal," she said. "Typically, a victim of domestic violence feels so cornered, so trapped, so isolated, that when they strike back, the situation is one of gross overkill."

Coats said some lessons could still be taken from the trial.

"What we can take from this is an understanding of how isolated battered women are. Even battered women who are working and living in Oakland County, where there are places she may have been able to reach out," Coats said.

Beth Morrison, executive director of HAVEN, a shelter for battered women in Pontiac, said, "Each day, there are lots of domestic violence cases against women that may never make the papers or make it onto TV.

"It's unfortunate that because the defendant in this case was a women that the case received so much attention."

Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning said the jury could have found Seaman guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but the panel wasn't buying Seaman's self-defense plea.

"Given the circumstances of what she did after killing her husband -- cleaning the scene and wrapping the body in a tarp -- that's a sign that this was planned," Henning said, noting most battered women who kill their husbands confess right away to authorities.

"She didn't, which makes it much harder to establish the battering claim. I'm not saying she wasn't battered, but she just reached a point where she planned this murder. Her conduct after killing her husband doesn't look like someone reacting to a sudden threat. It looks like she planned to cover it up."

After reviewing the evidence, the jury really only had one choice, Detroit criminal attorney Richard Zuckerman said. "They apparently thought the evidence of premeditation was so overwhelming that first-degree murder was the only reasonable verdict," Zuckerman said. "I'm not surprised at all. The evidence looked more than sufficient for the verdict."

Prosecutors agreed.

"Justice was served today," said Ortlieb. "But clearly there are no winners here."

Jurors said even with the evidence, reaching a verdict was not easy.

Detroit News Staff Writers Amy Lee and Tony Manolatos contributed to this report. You can reach Mike Martindale at (248) 647-7226 or