In a lengthy explanation preceding his decision, Burge said he believed New, now 70, could have been convicted of Dorothy Spencer’s murder more than three decades ago, but the length of time it took to bring the case made it impossible for New to receive a fair trial today.
“The delay of 37 years is too long and not justified,” Burge said.
New’s attorneys had argued that prosecutors took too long to indict New, who was charged with murder in 2011.
“Even if a delay was justified,” Burge concluded the case against New and his ability to defend himself against allegations leveled against him in 2010 by his nephew, Perry Strader, were complicated by the deaths of key witnesses, including Strader’s now-deceased parents, Ezra and Zula Strader.
Burge said he took no pleasure in his decision to throw out the murder charge against New because he believed the retired Ford worker was guilty.
“I take no comfort in dismissing a case involving a defendant who caused the death of another, but the law does not permit me to do otherwise,” Burge said.
A woman, identified as Spencer’s daughter, who sat through the hearing, slid to the floor following Burge’s ruling, sobbing uncontrollably.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said Burge’s decision likely will be appealed.
“Absent something unforeseen, we will probably appeal it and go from there,” Will said.
But Will also said his office needs to review the decision before committing to asking an appeals court to overrule Burge and reinstate the charges against New.
“As soon as we read the transcript and review the record, we will start that process,” Will said. “We felt confident in the case and that we had a sound legal basis for proceeding. We will use that same logic in pursuing an appeal.”
Spencer, who was 45 at the time of her death, was found beaten and shot in the head in her Camden Township trailer on March 14, 1976, and died three days later. New was long considered the chief suspect in the case, but refused to talk to sheriff’s deputies.
The case was presented to a grand jury in the 1970s, but no charges were filed at the time.
Perry Strader came forward to deputies in 2010 following the death of Zula Strader, who was New’s sister, and told them the family had covered up New’s role in Spencer’s slaying.
“He flat out admitted to it,” Strader told Burge in court Wednesday. “He said she kept running her lip and he smacked her, and she kept it up and he shot her.”
Strader’s voice quivered when he explained his reasoning for not coming forward previously.
“I wanted to protect my parents,” he said. “They would have perjured themselves if they had come forward.”
Strader said the family decided to rally around New from the beginning, regardless of the cost.
“I would have lied if I had been questioned at the time, but I was never approached,” Strader said. “Bob told me not to say anything at the time and we didn’t.”
After contacting deputies two years ago, Strader made a call to New during which he falsely claimed his mother had left a letter for prosecutors in which she detailed New’s involvement in Spencer’s death. During that conversation, which deputies recorded, New didn’t deny killing Spencer and questioned his nephew about who else knew about the letter.
In seeking a dismissal, defense attorney Andy Robinson argued the prosecution delayed charging New “until my witnesses are dead and can’t contradict the prosecutor’s case.”
Ezra Strader died in 1997.
Robinson also called the original investigation “botched” and said the defense “doesn’t believe a word Mr. Strader said today. His parents would have contradicted his testimony today if they were here.”
Strader, who now lives in Kentucky, told the court New came to his parents’ home the night Spencer was shot and confessed what he had done.
Strader said he gave his uncle $60 and a winter coat the night he came to the Strader residence.
“He was trying to disappear for a few days,” Strader said.
Deputies suspect that Zula Strader called Allen Memorial Hospital to report the shooting around 2 a.m. March 14, 1976, and gave details only someone with intimate knowledge of what happened to Spencer would have known.
New and others, however, insist that he arrived at a bar known as the Honky Tonk between 11 p.m. and midnight on March 13, 1976, and stayed through closing time. A bartender testified at an earlier hearing that New accompanied her and other bar patrons to breakfast.
Citing his review of court filings, Burge said New admitted to the murder to Spencer’s son, Alfred Lilly, when New told Lilly he would one day tell him how his mother died.
“Where I come from, that’s a confession,” Burge said. “The only person who would know how someone died in a case like this is the person responsible for the death.”
The judge also said the investigation into Spencer’s death was “terminated through negligence” on the part of the county prosecutor and sheriff’s offices. Burge said during the original investigation authorities failed to follow up sufficiently on evidence, including that New’s Ford Ranchero was seen at Spencer’s trailer the night she died and that her family and co-workers had told investigators New beat Spencer and she was afraid of him.
“They saw regular bruising on her when she came to work,” Burge said.
Retired sheriff’s detective Ralph Gale testified Wednesday that New was insanely jealous of Spencer, who was reportedly seeing another man at the time.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.