Delaware man challenges murder conviction

Says victim drowned in Md., not killed in Delaware

August 31, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Authorities in Delaware are convinced that Franklin C. Foraker strangled Margaret Essick and threw her body off a bridge and into the Conowingo Creek back in 1975. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Foraker, however, insists he did not kill the woman. Despite several confessions, he now says Essick ran from his car in a Delaware shopping center after she and his girlfriend argued, and he has no idea how her body ended up in the creek.

And he now says there's hidden evidence to prove he's innocent.

Foraker says he's heard that an autopsy performed by the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office 35 years ago found water in the victim's lungs. That's only possible, he contends, if 19-year-old Essick was alive when she went off the bridge and into the water.

At the very least, Foraker argues in a civil lawsuit he's filed in federal court in Baltimore seeking the autopsy report and notes, he was tried and convicted in the wrong court and in the wrong state. Foraker wants a judge to throw out his conviction, or barring that, a new trial — in Maryland.

Maryland officials declined to comment on the pending litigation but they managed to find the autopsy report in their archives. Dr. John M. Byers ruled Essick's death a homicide by asphyxiation, and he noted marks on her neck and broken bones consistent with being strangled.

The doctor wrote that her body was wet and muddy and that she had been wearing a fake fur coat, a white long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans. There was a yellow fishing lure hooked to the side of her pants. And, the report notes there was 200 milliliters of "pale water" in the victim's body cavities.

A date for a hearing in Maryland has not been set, though U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake on Aug. 10 ordered that Foraker's case can proceed and that the U.S. Marshall's Office should retrieve the autopsy report from the state medical examiner. At the moment, officials in the Medical Examiner's Office are prepared to give Foraker a copy, but for the standard $120 fee.

Much has been written in court documents about Foraker throughout a flurry of lawsuits he's filed over the years seeking new trials, none of which have been granted. But newspaper clippings of the slaying could not be located, nor could the victim's relatives.

Foraker wrote in his petition to the court that medical information "has been wrongfully withheld by the Delaware Department of Justice … [and] establishes that the victim died in the state of Maryland, undermining the legitimacy" of the case.

But two forensic pathologists said Foraker is wrong. Dr. J.C. Upshaw Downes, a Georgia medical examiner recommended by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, said it is a common misnomer that water in body cavities indicates a drowning.

He and Ed Winter, the assistant chief of the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, said water can seep into the body after death in many ways, including through decomposition and even by force through strangulation. In fact, just as the Maryland Medical Examiner did 35 years ago, Downes said, doctors omit the word "lungs" from their report and write "cavities."

"The layman's term is 'water in the lungs' and they say it proved the person drowned," the doctor said. "No it doesn't." He said the opposite also is true — a person can drown even if no water is found in the body. "That test," Downes said, "is meaningless."

The murder case is both convoluted and intriguing. On Jan. 26, 1975, court documents show, Foraker walked into the Newark Police Department headquarters and told a sergeant that he had killed a girl "but he did not know her name." He told the sergeant he had thrown her body into a Delaware river.

He later told police he had been in a car and that a man in the back seat ordered him at gunpoint to strangle the victim, and that he did it because the gunman had kidnapped his girlfriend and conditioned her release on the killing.

At the time, police had no idea that a woman named Margaret Essick was actually missing.

They did locate Foraker's girlfriend, Barbara Jordan, who they said in court papers regaled police "with an incredulous tale of kidnapping, rape and attempted murder."

But, according to court papers, "Because of the absence of a body, defendant's multiple confessions and his inability to locate either the body or the site of the crime, and Barbara Jordan's fantastic tale, the police suspected that the entire incident may have been a hoax." Police charged Foraker with filing a false statement.

Five days later, on Jan. 31, police in Maryland recovered Essick's body and Foraker was charged with murder. Court documents say Foraker confessed a sixth time, saying he strangled Essick with a belt as she and Jordan argued in the car.

More than three decades later, Foraker's latest attempt to at least get heard in court seems to have gained some new traction. But if the medical examiners agree that his medical conclusions are wrong, it won't get very far.

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