With dueling DNA experts and a difficult case before them, the jurors in the Charles Helem murder trial remained deadlocked, Wednesday evening, after nearly three days of deliberation.
"Mr. Helem is presumed to be innocent," said Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Stanley Klein, at the start of his instructions to the jury. "Suspicion of probability of guilt is not enough for a conviction. You are the judges of the facts, the credibility of the witnesses and the weight of the evidence."
Helem, 33, of 8100 Pointer Lane, Manassas, is accused of the April 2002 strangulation murder of Chantilly resident Patricia Bentley, a
37-year-old, single mother of two. The crime occurred sometime between Friday, April 5, and Saturday, April 6, while her sons, now 9 and 17, were spending the weekend at their grandmother's in Centreville.
Friday, around 10:15 p.m., Bentley called her mother, Rose Bentley, to check on them. Saturday morning, when Patricia Bentley's friend Alesia Robinson couldn't reach her by phone, she drove to Rose Bentley's and returned around 9 a.m. with Anthony, the older of the two boys, so he could unlock the door of their Brookfield townhouse.
HE FOUND HIS mother's lifeless body, face down, on the floor of her bedroom. According to the medical examiner, she had been strangled two ways — with a phone cord and an extension cord, and also by someone's hands or crook of an arm around her neck.
Bentley also had bruises on her arms, legs and lower chest, plus hemorrhaging inside her head that Northern Virginia medical examiner Frances Field testified was caused by blunt-force trauma. Believing that Helem, Bentley's ex-boyfriend, was responsible for her death, police arrested him Sept. 18 and charged him with first-degree murder.
He's been in the Adult Detention Center ever since then and, at presstime Wednesday, his fate still hung in the balance as a jury of six men and six women grappled with his guilt or innocence. He went on trial last Monday, June 16, and, after hearing five days of testimony and arguments (each weekday, except Friday), the jury received the case Monday, June 23, around 1:30 p.m.
The jurors may find Helem guilty of either first- or second-degree murder or acquit him, altogether. But whatever their decision, it must be unanimous.
Helem and Bentley met in July 2001 and, early that November, he moved into her townhouse with her and her sons. But the relationship proved rocky and, in January 2002, he moved to Sterling. Three months later, he moved in with a woman in Manassas, but Bentley allowed him to continue going to her home to use her exercise treadmill.
Helem has pleaded not guilty to her murder, although Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kimberly Pace has tried to prove otherwise. She said Helem told police he hadn't been with Bentley for three weeks prior to her death and was in Prince William County when she was killed. But his DNA was found on her breasts and abdomen, and his cell-phone records placed him in Fairfax County on April 5, near Bentley's home.
LEAD CRIME-SCENE detective Richard Netherton testified that, although police had certain items in the house tested for fingerprint and DNA evidence, other things — such as two shoe impressions from the kitchen floor — were not tested because "there was no database with which to compare them."
He also testified that "three fingerprints were found that were able to be compared against the [police] database, and one print was found that couldn't be compared." Explaining that police only analyze that evidence which appears will provide the most clues about what happened, Netherton said police only submitted the phone cords to be tested for fingerprints, but not Bentley's phone, itself.
Bentley's body was found lying on soiled exercise clothing belonging to Helem, and he testified that he always left his sweaty exercise clothes in Bentley's home after using her treadmill. Pace showed him a shirt found at the murder scene, and he identified it as his. He also said the last time he was at her house was March 27.
He said they passed each other in traffic, the morning of April 5, while each was on their way to work. That evening, he said, he went to various auto-parts stores and then made some repairs on his car.
Under questioning, Pace got Helem to admit that some of the initial statements he'd made to police were not true. For example, he spoke with Bentley by phone, Friday night, April 5, but he'd told police they hadn't had a phone conversation since the Tuesday or Wednesday before her death.
Pace also caught him in a lie about Bentley's house keys. "Do you remember telling Detective Wallace you returned her keys to her when you moved out?" she asked. "Yes, I do," replied Helem. "It's not true." Asked Pace: "There were things you told Detective Wallace that you knew weren't true?" Answered Helem: "That's right."
HE SAID SOMEONE had poured paint on his car, March 31, while it was parked outside Bentley's home. "I was angry — I gave the police her name and address," he said. "I suspected she'd done it." Pace said his anger at the vandalism might have been Helem's motive to kill Bentley. But he also testified that he'd received $2,100 compensation from his insurance company.
The case also contains several unanswered questions, plus evidence interpreted in conflicting ways by the defense and prosecution. Forensic biologist Kelly Ledbetter testified that the phone cord contained Bentley's fingerprints and prints that couldn't be identified.
She also said that, although Helem's DNA was found on Bentley's body, it couldn't be determined whether it was from saliva or sweat. Defense witness Dr. James McClintock, a forensic analyst and owner of a DNA consulting firm, said DNA from an unknown person was found on the phone cord.
He testified that Helem's DNA would have still been in the home from when he'd lived there and inferred that Helem's DNA could have transferred to Bentley's body from her coming into contact with his exercise clothes on the floor or the carpet where he did crunches. Yet Ledbetter testified it's "impossible" for DNA from his shirt on the floor to have transferred to Helem's body to become the major contributor to the DNA found on her breast.
In another puzzle, defense attorney William Reichhardt noted the sliding-glass door to Bentley's home was found unlocked. A receipt dated April 5, 11:56 a.m., from a Food Lion in North Carolina was found in her wastebasket, and Reichhardt offered the possibility that it belonged to an unknown person who entered through the unlocked door and killed Bentley.