By Cody Stark
The state is close to wrapping up its case as the final witness took the stand Friday in the capital murder trial of an inmate accused in the murder of a correctional officer during an attempted escape five years ago.
The Brazos County jury —which will decide if John Ray Falk Jr. faces the death penalty if convicted in the murder of Texas Department of Criminal Justice employee Susan Canfield on Sept. 24, 2007— heard testimony from Dallas County medical examiner Dr. Tracy Dyer on Friday. Dyer testified that Canfield died from blunt force trauma to her head when inmates in a stolen truck rammed the horse she was riding while she tried to prevent their escape.
The state is still waiting for 278th Judicial District Judge Kenneth Keeling of Huntsville to rule on whether a letter Falk wrote to his mother a month after he and Jerry Duane Martin broke out of the Wynne Unit farm in Huntsville is admissible as evidence before the state rests. Keeling said Friday he would read the letter over the weekend and make a decision when court reconvenes Monday morning at the Brazos County Courthouse.
According to testimony, Martin and Falk overpowered another correctional officer and stole his firearm while a group of inmates were working in a vegetable field at the Wynne farm. Testimony this week showed that Falk exchanged gunfire with Canfield, who worked as a “high rider” on horseback in the City of Huntsville Service Center yard adjacent to the garden. Martin, who has already been sent to death row for his role in Canfield’s murder, stole a work truck and rammed Canfield’s horse.
Witnesses this week testified that upon impact, Canfield flew off the horse and crashed into the windshield of the truck, hitting her head on the roof. She died at the scene.
Dyer, who performed the autopsy of Canfield’s body, said Canfield suffered numerous fractures that “involved most of the bones of the skull.”
The medical examiner noted during the autopsy that Canfield had sustained a significant head injury with hemorrhaging below the scalp, a fracture underneath the eye and a hinge fracture along the base of the skull running from ear to ear.
Walker County District Attorney David Weeks asked Dyer to explain to the jury what a hinge fracture was.
“In pathology terms, when you have fractures all along the base it makes the skull stretchy so you can move it like a hinge,” Dyer said.
Dyer said that in her findings, which was signed off on by all the medical examiners in Dallas County, Canfield’s injuries were consistent with the scenario presented to her by investigators that Canfield’s head hit the roof of the truck.
Defense Attorney Michelle Esparza objected to the testimony because she said Dyer was not a crash reconstruction expert. Keeling overruled it.
Dyer also testified that she had performed autopsies on a number of deaths resulting in hinge fractures and that it requires a “significant force.” She gave examples such as car crashes, people being ejected through windshields or people falling off overpasses.
The defense argued that Canfield might have sustained the injury from hitting the asphalt, not the truck. Dyer said it could have happened.
The state also pointed to a large bruise on the inside of Canfield’s right thigh that could have been caused when Canfield hit the horn of her saddle at the point at which the truck collided with the horse. During cross examination, Dyer agreed with the defense that there was no way to know for sure if that was what caused the injury.
Keeling also Friday excluded the testimony of a witness on death row in Arizona for the murder of two people in 2009. During a hearing Thursday it was revealed that the TDCJ Office of Inspector General intercepted a letter from inmate Michael Carlson, who was incarcerated at the Wynne Unit at the time of the escape, claiming to have information about the case.
The defense argued that Carlson was a “known liar” who enjoyed the “limelight.” Esparza brought up an interview Carlson gave to an Arizona television station during which he confessed to multiple murders in Kansas and Texas. Detectives in areas where the supposed murders took place said there were no cases that fit the descriptions of murders for which Carlson claimed credit.
That interview, which was taken shortly after Carlson was arrested for the murders of Kenneth Alliman and Rebecca Lou Lofton, helped an Arizona jury convict Carlson of two counts of first-degree murder and kidnapping in August.
Esparza said it violated Falk’s rights to put a witness on the stand in a capital murder trial who has been deceitful in the past.
“He is not truthful, and the state should not be allowed to represent him as a witness in this case,” she said.
Keeling sided with the defense.
“I do agree that the state or defense should not sponsor a witness known not to be telling the truth,” Keeling said. He later added, “You can’t be bringing liars in here.”
Weeks said the state believed there was more to Carlson’s claim since the letter was written the day of the escape before the news got around about what happened.
Special prosecutor Jane Starnes said “to let the jury decide whether to believe (Carlson) or not.”
“I don’t think this guy needs to be here,” Keeling said.