Bettie J. Thomas confessed to assaulting her friend Margaret Williams the day after Thanksgiving 2002. But that was not enough for a jury to convict her of murder more than three years later.
After deliberating for approximately four hours, a Fairfax Circuit Court jury found Thomas not guilty of second degree murder on Friday, Feb. 10.
"What happened to Margaret Williams? The answer is nobody really knows," Thomas' defense attorney Michael F. Devine told the jury during closing arguments of the trial last Thursday.
But Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Ian M. Rodway spent portions of the three-day trial explaining the prosecution's theory of the case.
"This was somewhat of an obtuse crime — not one that is charged very often, but under Virginia law one that is called felony homicide," Rodway said, at the beginning of the trial. "The defendant, by accident, while stealing property from Margaret Williams caused her death."
"It’s not a shooting, not a stabbing, it’s a little esoteric," he said. "You can come to the conclusion Bettie Thomas is guilty as charged."
<b>THOMAS SPENT</b> the majority of Nov. 29, 2002 with Williams. In addition to spending time at Williams’ apartment, they went to the bank as well as to the Wonderbread, 7-Eleven and ABC liquor stores.
Williams’ body was found the next day on the living room floor of her Foxcroft Colony apartment. Police found the receipt from the Merrifield ABC liquor store next to her as well as her keys, a crucifix from her necklace, a torn $20 bill and other cash. An autopsy revealed that Williams died from a subdural hematoma — a blow to her head — according to testimony from the medical examiner.
During the next two years, Detective Michael Boone talked with Thomas five times. Thomas gave varying accounts of what happened, Rodway said. "It appeared she was the last person who saw Margaret Williams alive," he said.
Boone obtained transcripts of a taped telephone conversation Thomas made to a friend in January 2004 when she was jailed at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center for forgery and uttering forged checks.
"I confessed to everything, me and Margaret got in a fight," Rodway read from the transcripts during his closing arguments.
"I told him that I did not kill Margaret. Margaret was up on her knees when I went to leave," Detective Boone read from the transcripts of the conversation during the trial.
"I know one thing, when I left there Margaret was alive, she was talking with me."
<b>BUT PAY CLOSE ATTENTION</b> to the time line of events that night, defense attorney Devine told the jury during opening arguments. Devine cast doubt on the prosecution’s theory that Thomas was robbing Williams, since cash was left behind and Thomas was seen trying to get cash from two nearby ATM machines.
"Does this crime scene look like a larceny?" asked Devine.
Devine brought aerial photographs of Fairfax to show Thomas’ trek from Williams apartment to her own home at a battered women’s shelter. Devine produced a detailed time line showing Thomas’ actions from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. the Friday after Thanksgiving. Thomas called a cab at 7:50 p.m., was taped on a Giant store surveillance camera trying to get cash from an ATM around 8:20 p.m., she caught a bus at 8:39 p.m., and was back at the shelter by approximately 9:30 p.m.
Margaret Williams’ next-door neighbors and upstairs neighbors testified that they heard Williams arguing with someone later that evening, closer to 10:30 p.m., when defendant Thomas was already at home.
"Cases like these are decided not on theories, but on facts," Devine said. "These little facts are troublesome things to the Commonwealth’s little theories."
Devine posed other possibilities for how Margaret Williams might have died. He called Williams an alcoholic and said she might have fallen, since she was found with a blood-alcohol level of .27. He pointed to Williams’ estranged husband and her adult son, who also lived in the apartment complex, as possible suspects and read to a jury their past criminal convictions.
"The facts in this case create more than a reasonable doubt, but certainly that," Devine told the jury. "I ask you to depend on facts, not theories, and find Bettie Thomas not guilty."