Peter Keegan died of cancer on November 13, 2017, seven years and two days after the murder of his wife, Susan, and three months after he was arrested for that crime. The case against him has been closed – due to the “death of the offender,” in the District Attorney’s legal parlance.
With that, the work of this blog comes to an end. Peter’s indictment, by a 19-member Mendocino County Grand Jury on the charge of second-degree homicide, stands as the most compelling statement we have about what occurred that tragic night in 2010. Seventeen witnesses, including the defendant, told their stories in 700 pages of testimony, which have now been made public. The evidence they provided will remain online across all time – and it offers a persuasive portrait of guilt to anyone seeking truth. (Read highlights of the case and follow links to the six volumes of court transcripts here.)
While we celebrate that achievement, it would be a disservice to Susan not to consider the troubling questions raised by the seven-year journey that followed her murder. One of Susan’s unique gifts was an ability to seek larger themes in the particular stories of one individual. And the theme here is one that mattered deeply to her – justice and the failure of systems intended to serve the people of a democracy.
Susan’s story lends truth to the old saw “justice delayed is justice denied.” Something went terribly wrong with the legal process in her case, as local authorities have acknowledged both publicly and privately. The flawed early investigation is described elsewhere in this blog and in media articles that covered the story, and incompetent police procedures are revealed throughout the Grand Jury testimony.
Together, they show clearly that the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office cast off its responsibilities almost entirely the morning Susan died, during her autopsy, and afterwards. The officers responding to Peter’s 911 call brought their suspicions to the attention of people with the authority to act on it, but they responded indifferently. Numerous friends and family members howled at Sheriff Thomas Allman and many others in his office for months – barraging them with letters and phone calls, pleading that they do their duty and conduct a rigorous investigation. Those pleas fell on deaf ears.
District Attorney David Eyster stepped in shortly after taking office in January 2011. The strengths and weaknesses of his involvement in this case are more complex. There is no doubt that the Keegan indictment would never have occurred without the determination of the DA, and especially of his passionate and persistent detectives. Eyster inherited error-riddled findings from the Sheriff’s Office and insisted that his team dig further, deeper and harder to ferret out the truth. They gathered forensic evidence, summoned expert testimony, pursued multiple search warrants, paid for costly outside laboratory analyses, and attempted to revive lost evidence.
But responsibility for the seven-year delay in taking legal action against Peter Keegan also rests with the DA. The same evidence that was sufficient for the Grand Jury to bring an indictment in August 2017 could have been presented to the court perhaps five years earlier. Had that happened, there could have been a robust airing of the facts, undercutting the defendant’s attempts to spread vicious misinformation about his wife. A trial could have been held when Peter was alive to face his peers and hear the jury foreperson read out the words “guilty,” and when appropriate punishment could have been meted out. The DA has never explained his failure to act in a more timely way.
All told, the criminal justice system served Susan and the Ukiah community poorly. Citizens who believed in the structures set up to identify and prosecute wrongdoing were largely let down by their leaders. Who takes responsibility for that? Has anyone been held accountable? Are safeguards now in place to handle a suspicious death appropriately, even if it occurs in the home of a well-connected local resident? Have new protocols been established to prevent another violation of justice?
Those questions demand answers, and the elected officials charged with protecting public safety and pursuing criminals should provide them. No one can bring Susan back to life, but many people can learn from her death, and make broad changes as a result. Who is taking on that effort in the offices of the Mendocino County Sheriff and the District Attorney? When will they report back to the people whose taxes pay for their work?
The systemic problems that failed Susan surely deserve a public reckoning. Sadly, we probably won’t get one, and that may be as frustrating to the dedicated, boots-on-the-ground investigators in the DA’s office as it is a relief to those in the Sheriff’s office who displayed such chilling ineptitude.
The friends and family members behind this blog longed for their day in court. Together with countless supporters, we fought hard to have the evidence against Peter Keegan heard in a public trial so that a unanimous verdict could be delivered. The Grand Jury indictment is the closest we came to seeing justice done, but it is only second best. The process should not have ended there.
Nonetheless, we are grateful that the case came as far as it did. One thing we know with absolute certainty is that Susan needed us to do what we could for her, and we take no small measure of comfort in having obliged. We’d like to believe that if the Keegans should ever meet in that mysterious place known as the after-life, Susan would look Peter squarely in the eye and say, in that firm, melodious voice of hers, “I knew you would never get away with this.”
And he did not. Rest in peace, Susan.