Trial for 1985 triple slayings begins

WILMINGTON, N.C. — A soldier acquitted of killing a mother and two of her young daughters in North Carolina about 25 years ago is now going on trial in military court after prosecutors say new DNA tests link him to the crimes.

Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis, 51, is charged with premeditated murder in the May 1985 stabbing deaths of Kathryn Eastburn and two of her daughters — 5-year-old Kara Sue Eastburn and 3-year-old Erin Nicole Eastburn. Opening statements in the court-martial are set for Wednesday and the death penalty trial could last up to two months, featuring 100 or more witnesses.

Hennis couldn’t be tried again in civilian court so he was charged by the military, which can pursue the case because its court system is a different jurisdiction. Hennis retired from the Army in 2004 but was recalled to active duty to face charges.

Hennis, who had adopted the Eastburns’ dog several days before the killings, was arrested four days after the bodies were found when a witness who reported seeing someone in the Eastburns’ driveway late at night picked him out of a photo lineup.

Eastburn’s husband, Air Force Capt. Gary Eastburn, was in Alabama at squadron officers training school at the time of the stabbings. The Eastburns’ 22-month-old daughter, Jana Eastburn, was at the home but was left unharmed in her crib.

Hennis, then an Army sergeant, was convicted in 1986 of the killings in civilian court and sentenced to death, but the state Supreme Court gave him a new trial, in part because the justices said the evidence was weak. Jurors acquitted Hennis in 1989, saying then that it was a quick decision for many because prosecutors couldn’t prove Hennis was inside the house at the time of the slayings.

The case spawned a 1993 book entitled “Innocent Victims,” which was followed by a cable television miniseries.

Hennis retired from the military in 2004 and was living in Lakewood, Wash., when a detective reviewing the case said he uncovered DNA evidence that couldn’t be tested in the mid-1980s. The new evidence was given to Army investigators, who recalled Hennis to active duty in 2006 and brought him back to Fort Bragg.

The DNA evidence was collected from a rape kit. Hennis was also acquitted of rape, but doesn’t face that charge because too much time has passed since that alleged crime occurred.

Military prosecutors and Hennis’s attorney Frank Spinner have refused to talk to the media about the case, but Spinner claimed in preliminary hearings that the DNA evidence is unreliable because it was collected 25 years ago and has not been properly handled.

Spinner has also challenged the military’s jurisdiction in federal court, but a federal judge has asked for more information in the case and has yet to issue a ruling.

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