The Indianapolis Star made a stab at a significant story regarding my book, the Edgar-nominated Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender, and a change of heart by the prosecutor who sent the 23-year-old Pender to prison in 2002 for 110 years on a double homicide.
Sadly, the Gannett newspaper misses the mark in a crucial way. Instead of portraying prosecutor Larry Sells as a man with a doubt, it paints him as a man who believes Pender is innocent. What he has said in numerous conversations we’ve had over the past two years is that Pender did not receive a fair trial – a huge difference.
I have to doubt that this reporter was at fault. It looks more like crazy train that is Gannett incorrectly cast the story at a higher level. It was initially to run June 2, but it was held over. A lot of damage can be done to a story at the editorial level in a week.
And here’s where it all started, as I wrote about a key witness in Pender's trial named Floyd Pennington.
From the book: But still, there was a problem with his testimony and, in the rearview mirror, its impact on the jury. A letter discovered after the trial in the police file found that Pennington had offered to turn evidence on a list of people, from drug dealers to chop-shop owners. He named names on a yellow legal pad in his own writing. But the list was never presented by the defense during Sarah’s trial.
“I never saw that list, and it would seem that the defense never saw it either, since it wasn’t in evidence or used to combat Floyd’s statements for us,” says Larry Sells, who prosecuted the case for the state.
The book came out in June 2011. No one - and Pender’s advocates have railed ever since the book hit about her innocence - ever made a deal out of the list on page 115, until Sells had the courage to do so. Really, with friends like those…
From the story, which hit yesterday:
But after all that has been written, filmed and dramatized about Pender, there’s still more to her story. Well, no, there isn’t. The story is the same. The change of opinion in light of that graph from the book is different.
Sells found it in 2009 while poking through the old detective files on Pender’s case. It came to Sells when I found the letter. This was written despite the fact I told the reporter so in a conversation earlier this year. I found it as I was seated at a table in the office of Mark Rice, head of homicide for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. I dug into an accordion police file and pulled out a yellow sheet of paper that day. Sells was helping me in my research for the book and sitting to my right at that table, as we both looked at things in the file. I showed it to him. He kept his poker face but knew immediately how important it was.
More from the story: Sells now believes Pender’s account: She wasn’t there when the shots were fired. She was irresponsible and arrogant. Her actions made her appear guilty of the murders but she hadn’t really participated in them. Incorrect. “I do not know for certain who pulled the trigger, but it is my opinion that the most credible evidence suggest it was Richard Hull,” Sells says. But he certainly doesn’t hands down believe Pender’s tale of going to the store, coming back and walking in on a murder scene. The story “makes it sound like I believe her story, that she went off somewhere,” Sells says.
At any rate, it’s the fairness of the trial that is the point, and with the snitch list written by the main state’s witness that was never seen by either side, that is the issue here.
This graph was corrected in the Indianapolis Star after Sells complained Saturday to: Sells is not sure what happened in the house on Meikel Street. But he now believes Pender was not the shooter: She was irresponsible and arrogant. Her actions made her appear guilty of the murders, but in the end, she did not get a fair trial. But Gannett affiliates all over the US are still running the first version of this.
“My position has always been there is no credible evidence as to what she did in that house,” Sells told me. “That doesn’t mean she didn’t do something in there. That’s been my position all along.”
The bottom line is that there’s a big difference between being not guilty and being innocent. If Pender was there and did nothing, well, that’s like sitting in a waiting car as someone holds up a bank. You’re part of the crime, like it or not, if you do nothing. A fair trial is a whole different thing.
One more from the story: It really makes no difference why, said Joel Schumm, a criminal law professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. The fact that the snitch list was withheld at all, Schumm said, could raise serious questions about the validity of her guilty verdict.
The list wasn’t withheld – in fact its existence was never known to Sells. This graph makes it sound like the state, as represented by Sells, “withheld” evidence.
And, really, calling Girl, Wanted, a “true crime novel” is a high level oxymoron. Believe it – true crime is a true story. A novel is fiction. What are they implying?
Let’s end with something from Girl, Wanted. Make your own judgment here. The context is a letter Pender wrote to Tom Welch, the wealthy trucking business entrepreneur who became her lover after she escaped from prison in August 2008.
She professed her love for Welch and included some telling details of her own take on the crime that got her into the situation in the first place. Sarah said she was not sorry for being caught with regard to the murders, but she was sorry that she got involved in anything like that in the first place.
“I am not sorry they are dead,” Sarah wrote. “People die all the time, for lots of reasons, many at young ages . . . killing people is not such a big deal, because people die. We are human.”