Today, the third anniversary of Susan Keegan’s murder, offers us a chance to express both admiration and indignation about how this case has been handled. The contours of Susan’s death are well known to readers of this blog. Less certain is when the long-delayed prosecution will get underway.
Family and friends are still pleading, scolding, hollering, and weeping as they struggle to push the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office to pursue justice. We believe our frustration at the endless delays is more than justified. But we also want to take a moment to offer praise where praise is due.
Shortly after taking office a few months after Susan died, DA Eyster was handed a file about her case by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office – a file filled with holes, errors, and sloppy police work. Laid before him was a botched investigation.
The mistakes had begun within hours of Susan’s death. “The home should have been declared a crime scene that morning,” one investigator told us.
But Peter Keegan, Susan’s physician/husband, had fast-talked Sgt. Scott Poma, at best an indifferent police officer, into believing a story that defied credibility – that Susan, an engaged writer, reader, actor, and budding artist, was disguising a lethal substance abuse problem. No facts supported his claim, but the Harvard-educated physician was authoritative, and the cops walked away from the scene with far less evidence than they should have collected.
Next, the autopsy was put in the hands of Jason Trent, MD, a medical examiner whose questionable competence has been an open secret in the county. Trent twice recanted his testimony in an unrelated homicide case, saying, “that’s what I swore to, that’s what I signed, but I was wrong.” So unskilled was the medical examiner that at least one attorney told us she often went outside the county to have her evidence analyzed. Trent’s contract with the Sheriff’s Office was finally severed this summer, almost a year before it was due to expire, but not before his grossly inadequate examination of Susan Keegan’s body.
Faced with such clumsy police work, the DA must surely have been tempted to walk away from the case. Instead, his office looked hard at it, and saw enough to investigate further.
Slowly, Eyster’s team took steps to recover some of the evidence that had been lost. Investigators twice sought and executed warrants to search the Keegan house. They consulted with experts and listened to others who could speak knowledgeably about various aspects of the case, and ultimately learned enough to convince them, and indeed the entire law enforcement community of Mendocino County, that Susan’s life had been stolen from her.
In August 2012, they acted on that knowledge by changing her death certificate to read “homicide.”
For the determination all of that took, we are grateful. And yet, as the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a steadfast ally in the effort to give voice to Susan’s story, has quipped, “this isn’t the Kennedy assassination.” Why the continuing delay in making an arrest and bringing the case to trial? There is a single suspect in the case, a man who has reportedly refused to speak to authorities, even to proclaim his innocence.
The initial slipshod investigation has not made things easy for prosecutors, who understandably prefer guaranteed convictions. But there is enough evidence to persuade every experienced cop and investigator who has looked at it. Put that evidence before a jury of the suspect’s peers. Let the community understand what happened. Let the system work.
Susan was cheated – of books she would have read and foreign capitals she dreamed of visiting, of wisdom she sought and kindness she would have offered. Of the grandchildren she yearned to nurture. She did nothing to earn her terrible fate.
The friends and family of the Justice4Susan Committee, and the many community members who tell us they support our goals, feel a powerful obligation to advance the cause of justice in Susan’s name. Let us hope that the officials sworn to protect the people of Ukiah feel that same obligation – and fulfill it.