Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)
Part III. THE TRIAL
Chapter 24. THE CHIEF WITNESS
Susan’s attention was trained on the witness stand, where Gabriel Polk sat in a suit and tie, ready to testify for the prosecution. Now nineteen years old, the teen appeared composed and in control that Wednesday morning. It had been three years since Susan last saw her youngest son. Susan’s cross-examination of Gabe would mark the first time the two had spoken since Felix’s death. A restraining order had barred any contact between the mother and son during the intervening period, and Gabe had refused repeatedly to read any of Susan’s written correspondence.
Gabriel was the State’s strongest and most sympathetic witness. That Susan had allowed the then-fifteen-year-old youth to find his father’s dead body in the family’s guest cottage would be a major obstacle for jurors to overcome as they considered her explanation of self-defense. Sitting before the jury, Gabe’s once slender frame had filled out and what had been gaunt, sullen cheeks were now bright and healthy. He had grown into a handsome young man, with his mother’s strong jaw and deep-set eyes framed by thick, dark lashes.
Susan, dressed in black slacks and a blouse, appeared unsettled as she sat at the defense table. She blotted away tears with a tissue and sipped on a glass of water she poured from the gold and black carafe on the table. Saying that she felt ill, she took two Tylenol after getting permission from Sheriff ’s deputies.
When asked by Sequeira to identify his mother, Gabe Polk looked in Susan’s direction and pointed. The two seemed to avoid direct eye contact. In response to questions from the prosecutor, Gabe described how he stopped attending school as a youth because his mother insisted that administrators were “out to get him” and were purposely giving him bad grades. Susan believed that his father was behind a conspiracy being perpetrated by members of the school faculty, that Felix had designated Adam for success and Gabe and his middle brother, Eli, for failure.
Jurors scribbled in notebooks as the teen responded to questions about Susan’s breakdown during the family’s visit to Disneyland. Gabe said he was nine or ten when the family made the trip and recalled his mother crying “uncontrollably.” Later he was told that while on the trip she had remembered being abused by her father, mother, and brother as a child, and that she believed her parents had murdered a police officer and buried his body in the basement of her childhood home. On the stand, Gabe recounted his mother’s recollections of the alleged abuse, which included “very disturbing details,” information he was ill-equipped to handle at the time.
Recalling Felix and Susan’s dramatic accusations of molestation against their sons’ day care providers, Gabe claimed that it was Susan who had convinced his father and brothers that he and Adam were victims of a satanic sex cult. Gabe went on to say that he now believed that his mother had “brainwashed” him against his father and described her as “full-blown delusional.” During his testimony, he recalled how she would sit at the breakfast table, scanning the newspaper for hidden codes and messages sent to her husband from the Mossad. She later elaborated on this, saying that this was how Felix communicated with undercover operatives. Gabe had no reason to doubt his mother’s claims; he simply went along with what she was saying. It was easier to agree than to debate what she was telling him.
During the courtroom proceedings, Gabe seemed distant, wearing an inscrutable stare as he sat in the witness chair or raised his eyes to the ceiling when contemplating answers to the prosecutor’s questions. Throughout the morning, Gabe used the word “delusion” countless times to describe his mother’s behavior. He recalled a car ride with Susan six months prior to the homicide during which she began speaking of ways to kill Felix. “She talked about drugging him and drowning him in the pool, hitting him over the head and drowning him in the pool, running him over with the car, or tampering with his car.”
Mentioning that she had been making threats for almost five years, Gabriel was accustomed to Susan’s emotional outbursts and, at some point, stopped taking her seriously. “She talked about killing him every day,” he said.
Still, Gabe said he was alarmed when she announced in September 2002 that she intended to leave him with Felix while she traveled to Montana to look for a place to live. He told the court that he found it odd that she would leave him with the man she deemed a monster, but after spending several days with Felix, Gabriel began rethinking his feelings about his dad. He was both surprised and pleased to find that Felix wasn’t the ogre that Susan had portrayed.
“Dad’s not such a bad guy,” Gabe told Susan during one call, recalling that his mother was “furious” about the divorce proceedings.
One week before the murder, Gabe said he warned his father that “he feared for his [dad’s] life” because of “all the things that his mother was saying.”
In response to questions from the prosecutor, Gabe said that he never witnessed any physical abuse in the home. “The most I’ve ever seen my dad do to my mother was slap her once,” he said. “About six months before the murder, I saw my mom slap my dad and police came out to arrest her.”
“Objection!” Susan bellowed, voicing opposition to her son’s use of the word “murder.”
Judge Brady sustained that objection, as well as Susan’s second protest over the word “killing.” Susan argued that Felix’s death should be referred to as “the incident.” But the judge disagreed, and substituted “homicide” as an acceptable alternative.
When Sequeira continued his direct examination, Gabe was asked to speak about his parents’ relationship. Here, Gabriel’s testimony corroborated Sequeira’s opening statements, portraying Felix as the dutiful working husband and Susan as the aggressor who would get in his face within minutes of his return home. Susan often degraded her husband, calling him “old” and “decrepit,” and making sexually explicit comments, including derogatory remarks about the size of his penis.
After Gabriel answered questions about the events of October 13 leading up to his gruesome discovery, the judge adjourned the proceedings for lunch and directed the defendant to begin her cross-examination when they returned. It had been a difficult morning for Susan, who spent much of Gabriel’s testimony quietly weeping in her seat. Listening to her son vilify her was hard, but she left the court vowing to return with renewed composure and determined to get Gabriel to admit that his father had been a tyrant.
Questioning Gabriel proved to be an arduous process, one that lasted for five grueling days. During that time, Susan challenged his recollections about his childhood, suggested he was hiding things when he couldn’t remember any abuse, and elicited facts about his early brushes with the law. She asked innumerable questions about the relationship between Felix and herself and probed her son’s affection for his brothers. She repeatedly broke down in tears when their memories differed and when he wouldn’t corroborate her claims of spousal abuse.
Early on, Susan questioned Gabe about the alleged ritualistic sexual abuse of Adam at the day care center in an attempt to demonstrate that the accusations came from Felix, not from her. Over Sequeira’s objections, Susan played a tape of Felix’s speech at the Berkeley Conference of the California Consortium of Child Abuse in 1988. It was at this event that he was introduced as a “parent of a ritualistically abused child.”
Gabe sat impassively as his dead father’s voice filled the courtroom. “The children were raped on stage, raped in every form imaginable,” Felix told conference participants. Meanwhile jurors were transfixed by the audio-taped lecture in which Felix claimed that his eldest son, Adam, had witnessed a baby being stuffed into a plastic bag and “hammered to death,” and that cult members ate flesh, vomit, and blood in front of his son and other children.
“My rage is omnipresent…my fantasy, of course, is to kill them,” Felix’s recorded voice resounded over speakers in the courtroom. “And I’m a rather moral person. I want to kill them.”
“Did you recognize your father’s voice?” Susan asked Gabe when the tape ended.
Gabriel responded affirmatively.
Afterward, Susan asked about allegations that he, too, had been sexually abused while in day care and that both his parents had gone to police to file a complaint. Still, he insisted that he and Adam had no recollection of being molested while in day care. He maintained that Susan was the one who had created the whole scenario and ultimately convinced Felix that it was real.
“Did it ever occur to you that he might be making it all up?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know,” Gabe replied.
While the questions were exhaustive, Susan never really probed Gabe’s recollection of the night he found his father’s body in the guesthouse. After three days of cross-examination, she asked the teen, “On the night you found your father’s body, were you scared?”
“I wasn’t scared, I was completely devastated,” Gabe replied. “But I wasn’t scared.”
Questions like this made it clear that Susan’s examination was going nowhere. She asked her son if he was “completely truthful” with police during his interrogation, and if he recalled how many times he told officers that his mother “had never been violent” with his dad. But she failed to delve further into the events of that day.
Instead, she pushed Gabe to portray his father in a negative light.
“You don’t recall your father poisoning Tuffy, the family dog?” she asked.
“No, I don’t.”
“Are you aware that your father woke up every day thinking about killing people?”
At times, Susan seemed determined to engage her son in a dialogue, invoking Judge Brady to issue a warning that cross-examination “is not a conversation.”
Even the prosecutor expressed frustration after it became clear that Susan intended to question his star witness until she was content with his responses—no matter the relevance to the case.
There was a break in the case during the second day of testimony when Susan arrived for court and told the judge that she had a bad sore throat, vowed that she “wasn’t making it up” and asked for a postponement. The judge acquiesced and instructed everyone to return to court the following Monday, March 13.
Still, Susan felt well enough to object to Marjorie Briner’s presence in the courtroom before the adjournment. She argued that Briner, her son’s guardian, was influencing Gabe’s testimony. She also insisted that Briner stood to profit from the outcome of the trial because she was entitled to Social Security benefits as his guardian.
In a telephone conversation early in the trial, Marjorie Briner expressed Gabriel’s concern over how he was being portrayed in the media. Some members of the press had been speculating over statements the teen had made during a telephone conversation with his brother Adam while at police headquarters that were being aired on Court TV. Briner explained that Gabe was anxious to clarify one remark in which he appeared to say “Dad left us a pile of ‘money,’ when in fact, Gabe claims that he told Adam, ‘Dad left us a pile of debt.’
“This young man is under a great deal of stress, and it’s not unreasonable to have a support person in the court,” Sequeria argued with regard to Briner’s presence in the courtroom, telling Susan that just because she thinks something is happening doesn’t make it so.
Judge Brady ruled that Briner could remain in the courtroom, except when Gabriel was responding to specific questions about financial matters.
“I am going to need a therapist when this is all over,” Sequeira told reporters outside court that Wednesday afternoon.
That following Monday, Susan confronted the judge over the recent arrest of her middle son, Eli, on charges he beat up his girlfriend. On March 9, police arrested Eli and charged him with misdemeanor battery based on claims that his then-girlfriend made to authorities at the Polks’ Miner Road home.
Eli had been released on bail and was standing in the doorway of the courtroom when his mother asked the judge to issue a restraining order against his girlfriend.
Brady refused and instructed Susan to get on with her cross-examination. “Mrs. Polk, your son is an adult, and if he feels a restraining order is necessary, there is an appropriate process for him to go through.”
“His life has been threatened,” Susan went on. “There are physical marks on his face. He called police for help.”
Susan claimed that it was Eli who had summoned police that past Thursday after his girlfriend entered the house without permission and assaulted him for not returning her phone calls. She then argued that Eli was entitled to an emergency restraining order from Brady because he was a witness in her case.
“I’m not going to issue a restraining order unless I hear from both parties,” the judge declared.
It was then that Susan spotted her son in the vestibule outside the courtroom. “This is my son,” she shouted, pointing to the courtroom door. “Look at his face!”
Susan directed her case manager, Valerie Harris, to retrieve Eli and bring him inside. But her son declined to enter, prompting Judge Brady to set a hearing date for March 16 to address the matter. She also ordered that Eli’s girlfriend be notified of the court date.
A second interruption occurred when Judge Brady advised Susan that she was not permitted to have witnesses in the courtroom after spotting her mother, Helen Bolling, in the third row of the gallery. Susan appeared surprised at the judge’s comment. Turning to look in the gallery, Susan smiled. “Oh, there she is! Hi Mom!” she shouted, waving at the gray-haired woman in the ankle-high cowboy boots. “I didn’t know she was here.”
Judge Brady instructed Susan’s mother to step out of the courtroom, explaining that she was a witness in the case and could not stay for testimony.
By the end of the day, Sequeira was throwing his hands up in exasperation. “I give up,” he said, after Susan repeatedly questioned Gabriel about a pair of brass knuckles that he supposedly kept in his car, despite the D.A.’s objections.
“She’s been cross-examining her son for three days and she’s been talking about Tuffy and Ruffy and whatever else she’s got going,” Sequeria complained. “She’s absolutely torturing that kid. And she’s abusing her cross-examination privileges. She’s abusing the process.”
Finding it pointless to continue objecting, the prosecutor stood silent as Gabe again explained that he carried the brass knuckles because he was scared of his mother and brother Eli. He said that Eli told him he would do “whatever” it took to prevent him from testifying against their mother. Gabe took his brother’s remark as a threat and obtained a restraining order against Eli. According to Gabe, Eli held “a lot of resentment” toward both his parents and acted out a lot, both at home and in school.
Susan then turned to the family’s time in Piedmont and Gabriel’s difficulties while in middle school, where he admitted to being involved in fights and being suspended for “drugs.” Responding to Susan’s insinuations, Gabe blamed the constant arguing at home for his behavior, for his acting up in school, and for the hard time he had making friends during childhood.
“Parents in the neighborhood were scared of you,” he said. “Scared of our family, generally.” Gabe went on to name one parent who refused to let her child play with him and his brothers because of concerns about Susan’s mental state—or as Gabe put it “you and your delusions.”
His sharp remarks did not appear to faze Susan, who plowed ahead, at one point displaying photographs of family trips to Disneyland and Gabe as a child playing with a friend and the family dogs, Max and Mitsie, in an attempt to elicit fond memories of their times together.
“Didn’t you say ‘even if she is delusional, we love her because she’s fun?’” Susan asked, holding up the “Best Mom” plaque that her three sons awarded her in 1997.
“Yeah, we loved you. This [the plaque] was Dad’s idea by the way,” he shot back. Susan wept when Gabe said he couldn’t confirm her claims that his dad punched her in the face, dragged her up the stairs by her hair, and told her that he would never give her a divorce.
“He threw water in your face one time,” the teen acknowledged.
“One time?” Susan fired back.
Gabe admitted that his father may have picked up and thrown small items around the house during arguments with Susan but said that he never threw anything directly at her.
Continuing, Susan asked Gabe about his strained relationship with Eli, tearing up as the questions came out of her mouth.
“Do you recall telling your brother Eli that he was your best friend?”
“Yes,” Gabe replied in a monotone.
“Do you remember when you went to school wearing his oversized clothes and shoes?” Susan asked, referring to Gabe’s time in elementary school. “Do you miss your brother?”
There was silence in the courtroom as Gabriel contemplated his answer. “Yes, I do miss him,” the teen replied, straightening himself in the chair. “I still have affection for Eli, Dad, and you…. I do have good memories. I do love you. But there’s terrible memories with the good memories.”
“You still have affection for your brother?” Susan posed. “Then why did you sue him?”
“I didn’t sue Eli, I sued you.”
“Didn’t you and your brother settle a wrongful death suit with me for $300,000?” Susan said, referring to the civil action that Gabe and Adam filed after her arrest.
Gabe was visibly upset when his mother brought up the suit in court, insisting that he wasn’t allowed to talk about it because of a confidentiality agreement that both parties had signed. “You know that,” he snapped at his mother.
“Couldn’t you have just left him off?” Susan asked, referring to Eli.
Gabe told his mother that he was not a lawyer, but it was his understanding that he and Adam had sued her, and that since Eli took her side, he had to be named in the suit.
“These things are obviously very important to you but they don’t seem to add or subtract from your case,” Judge Brady told Susan.
“I hope you don’t think I’m picking on you,” Susan told Gabriel before court adjourned that night. “You are aware that I loved all three of my sons the same?”
“Yes, I know,” he acknowledged. “You appreciate Eli a lot more now because he buys into your delusions and we don’t.”
On Tuesday, jurors arrived for a third day of cross-examination. Instead, they learned that Susan had asked for another delay.
“I’m sick and I think I’m getting bronchitis,” she sniffled.
The judge arranged to have her seen by a doctor; Brady also let Susan know that she was anxious to keep the proceedings moving along and hoped to resume court after lunch.
When Susan returned that afternoon, she reported that she had been prescribed antibiotics for her condition. She then requested an adjournment until the following Monday to get some “much needed rest.” “I was up half the night coughing,” she told the judge. “This is a murder trial and I want to be at my best.”
Judge Brady was sympathetic to Susan’s infirmity—she, too, was nursing a sore throat, but denied her request for what she deemed an “unreasonable” delay and ordered all parties back to court on Thursday, March 16. This adjournment was further evidence of the judge’s extraordinary patience. Brady rarely lost her cool even as Susan accused her of conspiring with the prosecutor or showing bias against the defense in front of jurors.
At times, Brady’s interchanges with Susan were akin to a kindergarten teacher scolding a young student, soothing the child until she calmed down. When it became clear that Susan could not be reigned in, Brady would order a “time out,” punishing Susan with fifteen minutes in a holding cell to regain her composure. Remarkably, Susan continued to push even as the judge reprimanded her. “Well, then I’m taking papers with me to read!” she told Brady after being ordered to the holding cell one afternoon.
“No,” the judge shot back. There was no reading during a time out.
It seemed that Susan had mastered the art of knowing just how far to push before landing in serious trouble, and she continued to press throughout the trial. Sometimes the judge’s latitude went too far as Brady allowed Susan to disrupt the flow of testimony and antagonize the prosecution. The end result was a highly irregular relationship between the bench and the attorneys, but in this case of many bizarre relationships, no one seemed particularly surprised.
On Thursday, jurors learned of yet another delay. An alternate juror had called in sick and, of course, there were more objections from the defendant. This time, Susan was upset that the leg shackles she was being forced to wear were causing runs in her pantyhose. Next, Susan objected to the prosecutor’s request to interrupt her cross-examination of Gabe so that he could put Adam on the stand. Adam had been waiting in the wings to testify for the prosecution since the trial had begun and was on the State’s list to take the stand after Gabe. But Adam was growing increasingly concerned that all the delays would prevent him from returning to UCLA in time for final exams and a scheduled trip to South Africa with his girlfriend.
Susan argued that it was unfair to disrupt her case merely to accommodate her son’s vacation plans. Besides, she felt that Gabriel’s testimony was too important to interrupt.
“You would think that the defendant might have some consideration for her child,” the prosecutor said.
“I object,” Susan shot back. “That’s an outrageous comment.”
“We will start fresh on Monday and hopefully move along,” the judge ruled, choosing to postpone the trial another day rather than replace the sick juror with an alternate. Already, one juror had been excused from the case and with the trial expected to last another two months, she did not want to risk losing another. This postponement would be the fourth delay since the trial began one week earlier.
Susan took two final shots at the prosecutor before the court adjourned Thursday. Out of earshot of jurors, she accused the D.A.’s office of “coaching” her two sons to slander both her and Eli on the stand. She also accused Sequeira of prosecutorial misconduct, charging that he deliberately tried to provoke a mistrial with his supposed underhanded strategies.
“I’d rather have needles shoved in my eye than have a mistrial,” Sequeira shot back.
“I would be very careful about making such accusations without any proof,” Judge Brady admonished Susan.
Court reconvened on Monday, March 20, with Susan continuing to question Gabriel about his childhood. “I don’t remember, I was five,” the teen responded to one question. “I was just a little kid,” he replied to another.
“I think we’re having a forest-for-the-trees problem,” Judge Brady told Susan at one point during her examination. “A lot of time is being spent on minutiae about events that are extremely important to you—again, I’m not telling you how to try your case, but my concern is that [the jury’s] attention will be lost for the important things.”
At the end of Monday’s proceedings, the judge informed Susan that she would allow her just one more day to question her son. She refused to bend even as Susan demanded to continue for “as much time as it takes to get to the truth.” Susan would have to finish her cross-examination by 5 PM Tuesday.
The following day, Susan escalated her attack, engaging the prosecutor in a number of heated exchanges.
Before Gabriel even took the stand that morning, Susan accused Sequeira of “making faces” in the courtroom. She claimed the prosecutor was rolling his eyes at jurors to imply that her cross-examination of her son was tedious.
“I can’t freeze my face,” Sequeira replied dryly, remarking that he had an expressive face.
Judge Brady intervened, telling Susan that she had not seen any “eye-rolling” on the part of the prosecutor, only a look of fatigue when Sequeira briefly shut his eyes in court.
“He is goading me,” Susan complained, talking over the prosecutor as he tried to defend against her latest accusation.
When he finally got the floor, Sequeira charged that Susan was making a “farce” of the trial with her unending objections, demands for a mistrial and accusations of prosecutorial misconduct “every fifteen minutes,” and he implored the judge to revoke Susan’s right to represent herself in court.
“We have gone far beyond the pale of what is reasonable,” he said, after jurors were cleared from the courtroom. “This jury, God knows what they’re thinking now.”
Even the court reporter voiced complaints about Susan’s behavior in court that day, at one point rising from her chair and telling the judge that it was impossible to record the proceedings with Susan repeatedly talking over the witness. When she complained a second time, Susan instructed the judge to “admonish the court reporter!”
Sequeira froze in disbelief. He had never seen anyone instruct a judge to reprimand a member of the court staff. But Brady remained calm, giving Susan more latitude until she, too, reached her limit and threatened to revoke Susan’s pro per status if she continued to ignore the court’s rules.
“The jury is getting forgotten in this equation,” Brady warned. “This pattern of behavior that we seem to be going through is alienating the jury.”
“The defendant’s style in this case is to be passive-aggressive,” Sequeira roared, accusing Susan of slyly introducing evidence in the pretext of questions. “She flouts this court’s authority at every opportunity so that it makes this trial somewhat of a farce.”
“Objection, your honor,” Susan yelled out. In a lawyerly tone, she informed the prosecutor that she was objecting to him raising his voice during his “diatribe” and for taking “inappropriate personal potshots” at her.
“Maybe he should start acting like a lawyer instead of being a baby,” she goaded.
It was an amusing quip and one that underscored the increasingly hostile relationship between Sequeira and Polk. For days now, Susan had been inciting direct arguments with the prosecutor, and Brady had done little to stop it. Like two siblings who loathe the sight of each other, they bickered back and forth instead of trying the case. In what was becoming the most entertaining aspect of the trial, Sequeira was routinely drawn into arguments with Susan. While her repeated objections were quite disruptive, it was surprising that she was so successful in eliciting a reaction from the seasoned lawyer.
The more she interrupted the court, the more it seemed that her actions were part of some coherent strategy, not just idle comments meant to annoy the prosecutor. While her behavior was clearly ruffling his feathers, it was also distracting him from his arguments and disrupting the flow of discussion for the jury. Perhaps looking back on Sequeira’s case during their deliberations, the jury would become confused by seemingly inconsequential and incomplete testimony. If intentional, this strategy’s effectiveness would not be known for months, but one thing was certain: by reacting to Susan, Sequeira was playing right into her hand, allowing her to dictate the pace and manner in which the case was progressing.
During the afternoon questioning, Susan probed Gabriel about his relationship with Marjorie and Dan Briner, his surrogate parents since Felix’s death.
“I consider myself their foster child,” Gabe told his mother. “I consider them my parents.”
Gabe’s remarks clearly rattled Susan. She immediately objected to his characterization, insisting that Gabe was not a foster child, as that term is legally defined.
“I am doing extremely well now,” Gabe next told Susan.
Fueled with rage, Susan sought to paint the Briners as greedy individuals who were trying to cash in on her son’s circumstances. She claimed that they held Gabe back in high school so that they could continue to collect social security benefits. “Isn’t it so that if you hadn’t been held back a year at school, your Social Security benefits would have ended when you turned eighteen?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Gabe said, holding back tears.
Gabe told the court that initially he gave the Briners his entire twelve hundred dollar Social Security check. More recently, he paid half the money to help cover his room and board.
As the day wore on, Susan grew more and more confrontational. She demanded yes or no answers from her son and continued to pursue topics that were irrelevant to the murder case. Disturbingly, she grilled him about his alleged hatred of Felix.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to ‘gut him’?” Susan asked tearfully.
“No, God no, I never said that.”
“Didn’t you express absolute hatred of your father?”
“I’ve made mistakes. I have to live with that,” he said, anxiously rubbing his forehead. “It’s not easy that he’s dead, that I can’t say I’m sorry.”
It was just before 5 PM when Gabriel Polk finally rose from the witness chair and waved good-bye to jurors. “See you later,” he said, exiting the courtroom.
“I call for a mistrial!” Susan shouted, citing her son’s banter with the jury.
On Wednesday, the crowd in the gallery had dwindled for Sequeria’s second witness, former Orinda Police Chief Dan Lawrence. The prosecutor had rearranged his witness list to accommodate Adam Polk’s vacation plans. He would call Susan’s eldest son later in the trial and forge ahead with testimony from members of law enforcement.
Lawrence, who was now the chief of a neighboring police department, was called to testify to the phone call he received from Felix Polk one week before his murder. During the call, Felix claimed that Susan had “threatened to blow his head off.”
Sequeira’s examination of Lawrence lasted just five minutes, however, Susan kept the law enforcement officer on the stand for more than one hour, arguing that Lawrence was an expert on police protocol and had expertise on domestic abuse cases. It seemed she was anxious to introduce jurors to the idea that victims of domestic abuse don’t always report incidents to police, thus explaining why she had not reported the alleged abuse she now claimed occurred throughout her marriage.
“Isn’t it true that women who are victims of domestic abuse back out, get scared, fail to appear, and make bad witnesses?” Susan asked Lawrence.
The police chief agreed, saying that Susan’s scenario was possible.
Seemingly pleased with Lawrence’s response, she next asked him why her husband wasn’t prosecuted for his knowledge of underage drinking parties at the Miner Road house. She also wanted him to explain how Felix’s influence with people in high places might have spared him from being charged.
Lawrence was unable to answer many of Susan’s questions, including a number that stemmed from a letter she wrote to Moraga police complaining about their search of her home after Eli’s arrest on felony assault charges. The letter alleged that officers had roughed her up, handcuffed her, and threatened to tear her house apart, thus coloring her perception of the police department and leaving her distrustful of law enforcement officers.
Susan argued that it was her mistrust of police that caused her to flee to Montana—instead of reporting Felix’s murderous threats to authorities. She wanted to introduce her “state of mind” through Chief Lawrence. Susan had sent him a copy of the letter and was anxious to introduce it into evidence.
But Judge Brady ruled that she could not question the police official about the search warrant because he was not there. Susan’s accusations in the letter amounted to “hearsay” and could not be proven through this witness. Nevertheless, Susan ignored the judge’s instructions and continued her line of questioning.
Once Chief Lawrence had been excused, Susan questioned several more police witnesses, using their testimonies to present her theory that the sheriff ’s deputies had contaminated the crime scene by pouring water over Felix’s head to make the dried blood look wet and to make his death appear more grisly. “Doesn’t that look like a puddle of water next to my husband’s bloody scalp?” Susan asked Sheriff ’s Deputy Melvin Chamblee, one of the first officers on the scene. According to her, their carelessness and poor police work had resulted in a crime scene that looked much more like murder than the self-defensive struggle that Susan claimed it was.
She accused police of sloppy work, pointing out that officers were not wearing protective booties when they examined the crime scene. In addition, she also insisted that a photo of bloody footprints found at the scene appeared to depict two right feet, side by side. Meanwhile prosecutors maintained the footprint belonged to Susan and was the same size as the shoes found in her bedroom closet.
Dressed stylishly in a tan and green tartan kilt skirt, Susan looked lawyerly as she stood at the podium and thumbed through her papers. Displaying a photo of the bloody footprints found at the crime scene, she asked Chamblee if he saw, “two right feet.”
The deputy studied the photo, and then hesitantly agreed that it was possible, although he could not be sure.
To Susan, Chamblee’s uncertainty confirmed her claims of a tainted crime scene. Seeming pleased with her momentary victory, she shot a triumphant look at Sequeira. The prosecutor sat slouched in his chair, listening to Susan’s questions.
“What size shoe do you use?” he asked the officer on redirect testimony.
“I use size 11,” Chamblee replied.
“Size 11? And that’s men’s?”
The officer smirked, eliciting laughter from the gallery and from jurors. “Yes, men’s.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but do you wear women’s shoes?” Sequeira asked.
“Not to work,” Chamblee grinned. His response brought a half smile to Susan’s lips.
Nevertheless, the day was not without its challenges. Susan caused a ruckus when she complained that the overhead projector or LMO, pronounced “ELMO,” that both sides used to display photos and other exhibits was blocking her view of Juror Number 10. Susan had been watching this juror and another female juror over several days, seemingly convinced the two were quietly conversing during the proceedings. During a break, and with jurors out of the courtroom, she insisted that Judge Brady change places with her so that Brady could see the way her view was being obstructed.
Ordering Susan to the other side of the courtroom, the judge reluctantly stepped down from the bench and sat at the defense table, continuing her remarkable tolerance for Susan’s antics. Still, she seemed more a ringmaster than an arbiter of the law as she worked to tame Susan. It was almost comical to watch the nearly fifty-year-old woman in the flowing black robe plop down in Susan’s chair and study the jury box.
“Can I sit in the jury box to show you what view I’m not getting,” Susan asked the judge.
After sitting in Susan’s seat, Judge Brady determined that her view was fine. But Susan continued to argue, telling the judge that it was a serious violation of her rights if she couldn’t see the jurors’ faces and whether they were communicating with one another—which would be grounds for a mistrial.
“It will be moved after lunch,” Brady finally conceded.
Sequeira could not let the moment pass without voicing his objection. He told the judge that he had gone out his way to let Susan use the “ELMO” and to teach her and her assistant, Valerie, how to operate it. “Now she’s just trying to delay and control!”
“Objection!” Susan shot back. “Prosecutorial misconduct.”
Judge Brady closed her eyes and drew a deep audible breath. But the moment was quickly disrupted by Susan’s finger pointing. Now, she wanted Brady to punish members of the gallery for snickering.
“She’s just being obstreperous and obstructionist,” Sequeira barked, “for the record.”
“Prosecutorial misconduct,” Susan retorted, “for the record.”
Next on the stand was Sheriff ’s Deputy Shannon Kelly. Kelly was the officer who drove Susan to police headquarters the night Felix’s body was discovered. He said that during the ride, Susan was “unemotional” and claimed to have no knowledge of Felix’s death.
“I didn’t do anything,” Susan allegedly told the officer during the ride. “Are you sure it’s my husband? Did my son identify the body? Because his car isn’t here.”
Susan jumped up when it was her turn to question the officer. “Do you think if you had someone who was under arrest, and was accused of murder, sitting in the backseat of your car crying, and you had the music on, that you could hear them crying?” she asked from the podium.
“I could, depending on how loud the music was.”
“Have you ever heard the expression ‘crying inside’?”
“No,” Kelly replied.
The following morning, March 24, Susan was brimming with complaints, but her latest grievance was not immediately clear to members of the court.
“I’ve informed the court of the harassment and outright brutality I’ve been subjected to while in custody,” she told Judge Brady. Judge Brady looked bewildered as Susan detailed her alleged confrontation more than two years earlier with a court officer. She claimed the deputy had pulled her from the courtroom and clubbed her on the elbow with a blackjack, thus breaking her arm.
“This incident has already been dealt with,” the judge advised Susan. “I believe the facts surrounding it are quite disputed, but anyway, what’s your point?”
“Instead of giving me medical treatment I was locked in a padded cell for hours,” Susan rambled on. “Denied painkillers for the broken arm…. I have been locked in cells with urine and feces on the floor, urine soaked mattresses, broken sinks.”
The judge was losing her patience and instructed Susan to “move it along.” Susan responded that she had been given “secret” information from an officer who claimed there was a conspiracy in the works. Susan was going to be “set up.” A deputy was going to claim that she attacked him, providing a reason to discipline and harm her, Susan told the judge.
“I want bail, or to be moved to another county,” Susan demanded.
Judge Brady was incredulous. “I can’t act on information based on unnamed sources about vague allegations on some future event,” she told Susan. “I need more evidence, statements from the officer, who has a legal duty to report that kind of information to his superiors.”
“I’m certainly not going to reveal my source,” Susan huffed. “This officer is trying to help me.” Again, Susan claimed that she didn’t feel safe and asked to be moved to another county.
When the judge denied her request, Susan angrily retorted, “Well, I’ve made my record.”
Sequeira was in court for the bizarre exchange but remained silent. Once the matter appeared resolved, he informed the judge of his problems with several witnesses. One was sick and unavailable to testify. He was having trouble finding accommodations for several others who had flown in earlier to testify and had gone home because of delays in the proceedings. Now, all the hotels in town were booked because of the NCAA basketball tournament at the arena in Oakland.
“I object,” Susan interjected. “This is a violation of my right to a speedy trial.”
Sequeira shot Susan a look, then asked the judge to instruct her not to discuss the State’s delays in front of the jurors.
But Susan exhibited her usual defiance and continued to voice objections.
“Mrs. Polk, DO NOT interrupt me again!” Judge Brady threatened.
To which Susan replied, “Well, you interrupted me.”
Susan was still ranting when the judge adjourned court for the weekend, stepped down from the bench and disappeared into the hallway. Proceedings would resume on Monday with testimony from more law enforcement officers. Among those scheduled to take the stand that week was the lead homicide detective, Mike Costa.