Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)

Part III. THE TRIAL

Chapter 23. GOING IT ALONE

On February 27, 2006, three hundred prospective jurors arrived at the Contra Costa County Courthouse in Martinez to begin jury selection in the murder trial of Susan Polk.

Surprisingly, Polk’s original prosecutor, Tom O’Connor, had announced his resignation from the D.A.’s office just one week earlier to take a job in the private sector. A senior prosecutor, Paul Sequeira, was immediately assigned to take his place. Though new to the case, Sequeira told the media that he was rapidly getting up to speed and regarded the case as fairly straightforward.

With no lawyer by her side, Susan was relying on Valerie Harris and had a jury consultant to help with the selection process. Prospective jurors arriving at the courthouse were first directed to an assembly room where Judge Brady informed them about Susan’s decision to represent herself. She asked jurors if they could fairly adjudicate the case under that scenario. Those who expressed doubts were immediately excused. The others were directed to the courtroom where Susan and Paul Sequeria would conduct their questioning.

As jury selection began, Susan seemed in control of her defense. Her questions were measured and appropriate, although in some instances she revealed too much about the specifics of her case and was admonished by the judge to restrict her comments. Soft-spoken and articulate, Susan’s demeanor was more of a schoolteacher than a murder defendant. She showed up for court each morning in well-tailored outfits, gold-rimmed designer glasses—and a uniformed court officer on each arm. Though she appeared self-assured at the start, it wasn’t long before it became clear that she was very nervous about her case and somewhat uncertain about how to proceed.

Late in the afternoon, Susan erupted into tears after a potential juror voiced alarm over the possible length of the trial, estimated at over two months, and Susan’s decision to serve as her own attorney—or to go pro per.

“I feel this is my one chance,” Susan defended, wiping tears from her cheeks. “I’m taking a calculated risk, and I realize all of you have things you’d rather do.”

In the courtroom, Susan was timid one minute and more like an articulate, thoughtful law student the next. She could be confident, emphatically arguing legal points with the judge and citing information from a law book. Other times, however, she was apologetic and ill at ease. She grew visibly upset one afternoon when she misplaced one of her documents. After Susan spent several anxious minutes rifling through the stack of papers on the defense table, she finally gave up in exasperation and carried on from memory.

By the end of the second day, Susan had dismissed eight prospective jurors while the prosecutor had dismissed six through the preemptory challenge process. Susan’s questioning made it clear that she was most anxious to have a juror who could be objective in adjudicating a case in which a defendant was acting as her own attorney.

While questioning one prospective juror, a building inspector, Susan crafted an analogy, asking him how he would react if he went to someone’s house and found that the homeowner had fixed his own toilet and done his own construction and wiring, while following the appropriate rules.

The man said that wouldn’t trouble him.

“And so, here in the courtroom, if I follow the rules, although I sometimes might make mistakes, would it annoy you that I’m doing it myself?”

“No. It wouldn’t annoy me,” he said.

Despite his positive responses, Susan would later strike the building inspector from the jury because of his friendships with a local judge and members of law enforcement. She excused another potential juror after the woman told Judge Brady that she thought Susan “was a fool” for choosing to go pro per. And she let a third man go after he joked about her decision to represent herself.

“It’s like a game of wrestling, where a flyweight is with a heavyweight,” the retired draftsman chuckled. “If I bet on it, I bet with the heavyweight.”

While Susan took the courtroom proceedings seriously, she invoked a little humor when one prospective panelist raised concerns over how Susan intended to cross-examine her sons and take the stand on her own behalf. With a giggle, Susan recounted a scene from a Jim Carrey comedy in which the actor played a defendant who was representing himself, leaping from the podium to the stand as he conducted his cross-examination.

“I’ll actually have notes and questions for myself and an outline leading me through what I need to tell you,” Susan told the woman, a registered nurse, who was later selected to serve on Polk’s jury.

By late Monday, March 6, Susan and Paul Sequeria announced their agreement on a panel of six men and six women, among them a woman who had served in the U.S. military, a retired female U.S. Parcel Service worker, and a sales manager for the local plumber’s union who shared one attribute with Susan—a young son. The jury selection process had taken a full five days.

Judge Brady could have started the case with opening remarks that same afternoon, but at the request of the prosecutor, she agreed to begin the following day, March 7.

The case had drawn considerable attention from local and national media for a variety of reasons—the relationship between Susan and her therapist husband, the allegations of an abusive household, and the anticipated testimony from all three of the Polks sons—two were expected to testify against their mother and one was expected to take the stand on her behalf. The fact that Susan had fired four different defense attorneys and was now going to represent herself at trial made the case all the more interesting.

With people routinely questioning her sanity and judgment, the trial offered her an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong and show that she could handle the task. Building from the material that Horowitz had prepared, she would present a straight self-defense case, alleging that Felix attacked her with a knife that October night and that she had fought back before fatally stabbing him to save herself. Furthermore, she would present evidence that Felix died from a heart attack—not the multiple stab wounds she inflicted during their heated altercation—and would call an expert to support her claim.

On Tuesday, members of the media, law enforcement, and curiosity seekers occupied most of the fifty seats in the gallery. Others sat on chairs that had been set up along the walls or stood in the rear of the courtroom, awaiting the opening remarks from Paul Sequeira and Susan Polk.

Susan looked drawn and frail as she stood organizing her papers at the defense table. Dressed in a white sweater and khaki pants, Susan’s sporty attire contrasted sharply with the conservative dark suit and solid gray tie worn by her opponent, Paul Sequeira. The prosecutor looked to be about ten years Susan’s junior, with thick, layered hair and wire-rim glasses that tended to perch on the end of his nose. Obviously comfortable in the courtroom, Sequeira made a habit of strolling across the commercial-grade carpet and sometimes leaning on the railing of the jury box.

Polk immediately surprised the crowd when she asked and was given permission to postpone her opening statement until she began her case-in-chief. It was just after 3 PM when the prosecutor rose to address the jury. He told Judge Brady that his remarks would take about fifty minutes to deliver, but in reality the remarks took a lot longer, as Sequeira was interrupted repeatedly by Susan’s objections.

“You are about to embark on a journey through a dysfunctional relationship that ended in murder and destruction,” the prosecutor began. “Felix Polk was a Holocaust survivor. Susan was fifteen when she went to see him. They had a relationship that went wrong. The physical relationship began when she was seventeen or eighteen. They married when she was twenty-four and had their first son, Adam, in 1983. What was born out of dysfunction began to look like a normal, loving relationship.

“The defendant worked in the home raising children, but there were always conflicts. Wherever Susan went, there was a trail of conflict and confrontation. If there were problems in school, it was the teacher’s fault. This also became the children’s reality because it was easier to go along than to take responsibility for their actions.

“Susan also had a theory that Felix controlled the school. Gabe admits that he was sucked into this delusion. As time passed, Susan became more paranoid and began making things up. Then, five years before the murder, Susan’s mental instability intensified on a trip to Disneyland. She had a full-blown break and claimed to have repressed memories. She claimed she was raped as a child by her father and brother, and described in graphic detail the rape scenes to her children.”

“I object, your honor!” Susan announced, rising to her feet. Judge Brady admonished Susan that she was not permitted to object during the State’s opening remarks. But her words fell on deaf ears. In fact, Susan began interrupting the prosecutor at almost every turn. These interruptions set the tone for the entire trial. Throughout the proceedings, Judge Brady would attempt, often unsuccessfully, to control Susan’s flare-ups and accusations, including allegations that she and the prosecutor were colluding against the defendant.

Turning his attention back to the jury, Sequeria took a deep breath and once again tried to complete his opening remarks. The prosecutor described how Susan’s delusional behavior soon focused on Felix. She believed her husband was in the CIA, the FBI, and the Mossad. She believed he had offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Susan told her three sons that Felix “was a monster,” the prosecutor charged, triggering yet another objection from Susan.

“Felix was a therapist who couldn’t help his own wife with her paranoid delusions,” Sequeira continued amid more objections and yet another stern warning from Judge Brady.

“Until the murder, there was no extreme violence in the house,” the prosecutor went on. Citing the accounts of two of the Polk sons, the prosecutor argued that Felix was not the abuser and that both Felix and Susan provoked repeated confrontations in the household.

“Objection,” Susan yelled yet again.

“Mrs. Polk, I will not admonish you again,” Judge Brady warned angrily. The judge threatened to remove Susan from the courtroom if she interrupted one more time.

Jurors exchanged silent glances as the prosecutor continued.

“There was lots of grabbing and bumping but not extreme violence,” Sequeira said. “One time, Susan slapped Felix in front of a police officer. The boys will say that dad was an older guy and worked long hours. He came home late and tired and Susan would often verbally abuse Felix throughout dinner. Susan would challenge his manhood and poke fun at the size of his penis in front of the boys.”

“Objection!” Susan barked, seething with anger.

“I will remove you from this courtroom!” Judge Brady fumed, glaring at Susan.

For a moment, it appeared as though Susan would be barred from the proceeding. From Brady’s tone, it was clear that this would be her final warning—and Susan seemed to understand the gravity of the judge’s words.

From there, Sequeira continued his opening statement without interruption, weaving the complicated tale of the turbulent times in the Polk household. Painting a picture of dysfunction and psychological disturbance, the prosecutor detailed how Susan routinely belittled and emasculated the aging Felix. He walked jurors through Felix’s final days, detailing the brutal battle for custody of Gabriel and the fight over Susan’s alimony payments. To Sequeira, the Susan Polk who killed her husband was a cold, callous woman, not the victim she made herself out to be. She lied to the police about her involvement from the beginning, and she was still lying about her involvement as they sat there in the court.

“Susan then lies over and over and over and over at the police station,” he told the jurors as the defendant watched his every move. “Does Susan say ‘he came at me with a knife and I attacked him in self defense?’ No, she says she didn’t do it. But then forensic science kicks in and her lies are not permitted.

“She destroys evidence. Bloody clothes. Gone! Knife. Gone! Car—moved! Lies and a cover up!”

Jurors listened intently to the prosecutor’s theory. Sequeira detailed Felix’s injuries, informing them of the savage nature of his wounds and showing the jurors dramatic crime scene photos. Despite the graphic pictures, no one flinched.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence will show the defendant was upset. This festered until she made good on a repeated threat” to kill Felix Polk, the prosecutor charged. “Dr. Polk, abuser or victim of the ultimate attack of murder?”

Following Sequeira’s opening remarks, jurors were dismissed for the night, but Susan wouldn’t leave without one parting shot at the court.

“I want a mistrial!” Susan demanded as the last juror stepped out of the courtroom. “It’s all lies,” she shouted furiously, ticking off each of the prosecutor’s statements. “Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t talk about my husband’s penis in front of the boys. It’s laughable.”

Judge Brady angrily directed Susan to move on to evidentiary issues that needed addressing, but Susan wouldn’t let things rest. She complained that her case assistant, Valerie Harris, was not being permitted to visit with her in jail and that she had still not received all of the case documents from Dan Horowitz.

Ignoring Susan, the judge turned to the prosecutor and instructed that he discuss the evidence with the defendant.

“Liar!” she shouted at the prosecutor.

“Lady, I know your act, and if you try to draw me in, and try to control me like you’re trying to control the court, then I’ll deal with Mrs. Harris,” Sequeira shot back.

“Then, I’ll fire Ms. Harris,” Susan said as she promptly terminated her only assistant.

When court recessed for the night, Susan rehired Harris; she was back at Susan’s side the following morning, watching intently as Susan interrogated her youngest son.