On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court denied a man’s claim that he had a right to confront witnesses and present a complete defense. In 2010, Jerry Watson was arrested for a 1978 murder. Among the pieces of evidence he challenged was a T-shirt from a 1983 concert tour.
Even though the shirt was just a speck of a mountain of evidence that was used in the case against Watson, it was one of the more curious things about Watson’s claim.
The case began with the murder of 61-year-old Carroll Bonnet in October 1978. He failed to report to work two days in a row. A friend called the manager of his apartment complex to check on him. When Bonnet failed to answer the door, the manager looked through the mail slot on the door and saw Bonnet lying on the floor, appearing to be sick or injured.
When Omaha firefighters forced their way in they found Bonnet dead of a stab wound. Police investigated and found, among other things, a telephone cord that had been severed. There was also a note claiming to have been written by the killer that stated one piece of evidence had been left at the scene. The note ended with a derogatory statement to police.
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Fingerprints and palmprints were found in the apartment. Some of the fingerprints were eventually matched to Watson. Other fingerprints were never matched to a particular person.
Bonnet’s car was discovered two days later abandoned in Cicero, Illinois. Illinois police collected evidence from inside the car, including cigarette butts. Only two fingerprints were identified. One of them belonged to Bonnet. The other was never matched to anyone in particular including Watson.
Fast forward to March 2009. An Omaha police officer was assigned to the case while working in the cold case homicide unit. Just before Officer Douglas Herout took the case, the crime lab reviewed the fingerprints taken in 1978 from the crime scene. Using technology that was not available in 1978, one of the fingerprints was matched to Watson.
Officer Herout examined other physical evidence taken from the crime scene. Some items were tested for DNA. His investigation revealed that Watson grew up in Cicero and had moved many times as an adult. He learned Watson had visited a relative in Omaha in the fall of 1978.
On December 2, 2009 Herout and another officer traveled to Illinois to obtain DNA evidence, fingerprints and palmprints from Watson. Watson was eventually charged with first degree murder either premeditated or as a felony murder during the attempt or commission of a robbery.
A jury trial was held August 16-25, 2011. After 33 years, only a few witnesses who were directly connected with the case were still available. Some witnesses were deceased, others could not be located. Some of the state’s evidence presented was circumstantial.
So, what about that T-shirt?
When police began to investigate Watson as a suspect in 2009, all of the evidence that was taken from the crime scene and the victim’s car were reopened and re-marked. The note that was found at the crime scene was missing. Curiously, a “Def Leppard” T-Shirt from a 1983 concert tour was in with the evidence of the 1978 crime.
During the trial, Watson attempted to show problems with the integrity of the evidence based on the passage of time including the T-Shirt
During Watson’s trial, 23 witnesses testified or had their statements read into the record as testimony.
In its ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that the issue with the T-shirt is irrelevant to Watson’s murder conviction. More importantly, it ruled that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Watson was guilty of first degree murder.