ELYRIA — An appeals court has overturned Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge’s decision to throw out a murder charge against 71-year-old Bobbie New for the 1976 slaying of Dorothy Spencer because of a delay in bringing the case.
Burge ruled last year that prosecutors couldn’t justify the delay in charging New with murder, something that wasn’t done until 2011. But the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Burge’s reasoning for throwing out the case wasn’t supported by the evidence.
Spencer was found beaten and shot in the head in her Camden Township trailer on March 14, 1976, and died from her injuries three days later at the age of 45.
New, who had been involved in what many have described as a violent relationship with Spencer for years, was the primary suspect in the case at the time, but he disappeared for several days following the killing and when he reappeared he refused to talk to county sheriff’s deputies on the advice of his lawyer.
The case was presented to a grand jury in the 1970s, but the grand jury declined to issue an indictment.
In 2010, however, Perry Strader, New’s nephew, contacted deputies and reported that he and his parents, Ezra and Zula Strader, had assisted New in covering up his uncle’s involvement.
Perry Strader testified that on the night Spencer was shot, he saw his mother hiding in a closet making a phone call. Detectives believe that was the anonymous call that led first responders to Spencer’s trailer, which didn’t have phone service. Investigators later traced the call to what was then Allen Memorial Hospital to the Strader residence.
Perry Strader also has said that his uncle confessed that night to beating and shooting Spencer.
But he also said at the time that even if he had been questioned by law enforcement, he wouldn’t have said anything about what he knew because he had been raised to protect his family at all costs. Both Ezra and Zula Strader testified to the grand jury in the 1970s that New hadn’t been at their house the night Spencer was shot.
A former bartender testified last year that she was with New for most of the night Spencer was shot.
Burge concluded that the failure of investigators to interview Perry Strader in the 1970s was a mistake that led to the unfair delay in New being charged with murder. He also wrote in his decision that the two witnesses who could counteract the testimony of Perry Strader, his parents, were both deceased.
The appeals court noted that both sides suffered by the passage of time and the death of witnesses. The original lead detective on the case also has died.
“The testimony provided by Mr. Strader was not known to the State until 2010,” the appeals court wrote. “We cannot conclude that the sole reason this evidence was not available was because the State failed to interview Perry Strader.”
Burge also noted that he believed that he had little doubt that New was responsible for Spencer’s death and suggested if the case had gone to trial in the 1970s, New would have been convicted.
The appeals court disagreed, writing that Burge’s conclusions were not supported by the facts.
“The same evidence, with the exception of Perry Strader’s testimony and possibly the telephone records that demonstrated that the anonymous call for help came from the Strader residence, was presented to the Grand Jury in 1976,” the appeals court wrote. “The Grand Jury returned a no bill on the case. We, therefore, cannot conclude that the State could have successfully prosecuted New or that the same evidence was available to the State in 1976.”
Gerald Smith, New’s lawyer, said Monday that he is reviewing the decision for a possible appeal.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he was glad the appeals court agreed with his office’s argument that New should face the murder charge.
Burge declined to comment.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.