Priest on trial in killing of nun

Elderly woman was choked and stabbed in 1980 in chapel in Toledo, Ohio

April 22, 2006|By P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | P.J. HUFFSTUTTER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOLEDO, Ohio -- The jurors walked through the hospital chapel sacristy yesterday morning, a seemingly stoic group on a grisly tour of a crime that has chilled this town for more than a quarter-century.

On a warm April morning in 1980, a nun found the mutilated body of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl sprawled on the floor of the tiny room, in the shadow of a small wooden crucifix.

On Friday, 16 jurors brushed past wooden drawers filled with priestly vestments, taking in the place where a killer struck as the 71-year-old Pahl was preparing for Communion services.

The Rev. Gerald Robinson - a popular and now frail 68-year-old Roman Catholic priest who helped preside over Pahl's funeral Mass - is charged in her death. The nun was choked so hard that the blood vessels in her eyes burst and bones in her neck were crushed. While she was still breathing, the killer stabbed Pahl 31 times. Some of the wounds formed the shape of an upside-down cross.

The killer then pulled down her undergarments, prosecutors said, and left her exposed on the pink-speckled terrazzo floor.

"It may have taken 26 years to solve this murder, but we have done so," prosecutor Dean Mandros told the jury earlier in the day during opening arguments at Lucas County Common Pleas Court. "Later is better than never."

Standing behind Robinson, resting one hand on the priest's shoulders, attorney Alan Konop countered that none of the evidence directly tied his client to the crime.

He said that DNA evidence, including samples taken from beneath Pahl's fingernails, did not match Robinson. He also said testimony from newly found witnesses contradicted statements taken at the time of the murder.

"There are important inconsistencies and discrepancies in the evidence," Konop said. "There will be reasonable doubt ... to the point that the puzzle pieces don't fit."

Slumped in an orange leather chair, his face pale, Robinson spent most of the morning listening to the opening arguments with his eyes closed. The priest, who is on leave from the church and free on bail, could face life in prison.

County prosecutors and defense attorneys would not comment on the case outside of court, citing a gag order.

The case has divided the faithful in this community, where neighborhoods often are referred to by the name of the local church and where one of every four residents is Catholic. Some, appalled by the murder and Robinson's alleged involvement, have questioned their faith. At least a few say they have left the church altogether. But one group of parishioners, loyal to Robinson, has taken out loans against their homes to help fund his defense.

During yesterday's court session, Mandros told the jurors that Robinson was considered a suspect early on.

Police found a letter opener, in the shape of a sword, in the priest's residence, just down a hallway from the sacristy. At least one witness saw Robinson outside the chapel right before the slaying, Mandros said, and another witness heard footsteps racing from the sacristy and down to the priest's rooms.

P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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