Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)
Part III. THE TRIAL
Chapter 25. FORENSIC FACTS
Of all the police officers on the case, Susan was most interested in Detective Mike Costa. Susan watched from the defense table as the thickset detective climbed into the witness box Tuesday morning. Costa had recently retired from the force and had been flown in from his new home 100 miles away to testify. His first order of business would be to address the videotaped late-night interview he conducted with Susan at police headquarters on October 15, 2002.
Susan tried to get the judge to suppress the tape, claiming that she had not been Mirandized before the interview. When that failed, she insisted that the detective should have halted the interrogation after she complained of being “very, very tired” and “showed obvious signs of shock.”
Judge Brady denied her requests. “There was a clear understanding of the rights and a clear waiver,” the judge told Susan during a sidebar that morning. “It was probably the gentlest interview I’ve ever seen in a homicide investigation.”
Jurors waited in the hushed courtroom as Sequeira cued up the videotaped recording of the two-hour interrogation. Susan was now sitting at a table adjacent to the jury box so that she could watch along with the panel. The lights had been dimmed and the vertical blinds on the two windows on either side of the judge were pulled shut for the presentation.
As an image of Susan flashed onto the television screen, sobs could be heard from the defendant—emotional at the sight of herself in the interrogation room. She was dressed in a pair of shorts and a polo shirt; an official police jacket was draped over her shoulders. The jury could not see her at the counsel table, but they could hear her whimpers, which grew louder as the videotape played on. She was so upset that her case manager, Valerie Harris, slid a box of Kleenex in front of her.
“Do you want to talk to me about what happened?” Costa’s voice boomed from the TV monitor.
“I do, and I am very, very tired,” Susan responded. She appeared toned and at least ten pounds heavier in the videotape and her hair was styled and neat—nothing like the overgrown, bushy mop that she wore to court each day.
“So am I. I haven’t been to bed all day either, but we have to do this.”
Susan wore a puzzled look, “What did happen?”
“Well, that’s what I’m hoping you can tell me.”
For the next two hours, Susan repeatedly denied any involvement in her husband’s death, even as the detective presented evidence to the contrary.
In the courtroom, Susan managed to quiet down and now sat beside Valerie wiping tears as jurors listened carefully to the interrogation tape.
“And you don’t know what happened to your husband?” Detective Costa asked for a second time.
“Something happened, obviously. That’s why we’re all here. That’s why you’re here. You’ve had ongoing marital problems for sometime now, living in different places, money difficulties. So something happened, Susan.”
“That doesn’t mean that I killed him.”
“Was he seeing any other ladies?”
“I don’ t even know that he’s dead,” Susan replied. “All I know is I was lying in my bed reading and I heard Gabe get on the phone and ask to speak to a police officer, so I got out of bed and asked him ‘What’s wrong?’ He accused me of having…killed his dad.
“I did not kill my husband,” Susan insisted. “I am not that kind of person.”
Jurors listened to Susan dance around the detective’s questions, spending an inordinate amount of time detailing the couple’s financial woes and how Felix had terrorized her during their marriage. Finally, she told Costa about the call she received from her husband while in Montana, alerting her to a judge’s ruling to cut her spousal support and award Felix custody of their minor son. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Her reaction to the phone call was crucial to the state’s case. Prosecutors claimed that the conversation triggered Susan’s murderous rage, prompting her return to California and killing her husband. The videotaped interrogation was intended to demonstrate how she initially denied any role in the homicide—an outright lie.
On the stand, Detective Costa reported that his investigators had confiscated a number of incriminating items during their search of the Miner Road crime scene, including Susan’s computer, which contained her diary and the knife with “red dried stuff” on its tip. Although that knife would not match Felix’s stab wounds, the prosecution tried to show that investigators had come away from the Miner Road home with physical evidence that could be used against Susan.
During his testimony, Susan demanded that Costa be reprimanded for conversing with a juror while seated in the witness box. According to Susan, her case manager, Valerie Harris, had witnessed the exchange and Susan wanted the detective admonished.
Out of earshot of the panel, Costa admitted to Judge Brady that he had inquired about the climate in the courtroom. “Is it me, or is it warm in here?” he had asked the juror seated closest to him in the jury box.
“Don’t talk to the jurors,” Brady instructed. “You know better.”
But Susan couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Are you acquainted with courtroom decorum?” she asked the detective once jurors had returned to their seats.
Brady immediately reprimanded Susan for improperly raising the subject in front of the panel.
Despite her lack of experience in the courtroom, Susan did a commendable job of cross-examining Costa about his investigation. Her first line of inquiry focused on whether police had looked into her claims of spousal abuse.
When the detective replied that they had not, Susan went after him.
“It was a murder investigation, wasn’t it?” she asked derisively.
“Yes,” the detective agreed.
“And you didn’t check any of these things out?” Susan demanded.
“Did anybody?” Susan asked, firing off questions like a veteran lawyer. “Yes or no?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Costa replied.
“Were there any individual sources, not from the defendant’s mouth or pen, that you came across that gave you a domestic violence background?”
“Not even Eli?” Susan asked, referring to her middle son.
Costa said he hadn’t heard any accusations, not even from Eli.
Susan criticized the detective for not conducting more interviews with her son. She also raised questions as to why police had only confiscated some of the knives from her kitchen and not others. She even got Costa to concede that approximately thirty law enforcement officers had “trampled” around Felix’s body that first night.
“That could be—not all at once I assume,” Costa said.
Susan also elicited admissions from the detective regarding Felix’s computer. Costa told the court that his officers found only the monitor and the keyboard in the trunk of Felix’s Saab. Susan suggested that her husband’s computer might have contained evidence to support her claims of spousal abuse. She also noted that police had not interviewed her eldest son, Adam, until October 2005, just days before her first, aborted murder trial got underway.
For all the salient points, Susan suddenly lost momentum when she veered into an outlandish inquiry that put her own mental stability in question. It was a pattern throughout the trial that repeatedly overshadowed her productive moments.
“Didn’t I accuse my husband of being a Mossad agent?” she asked, referring to an entry in her computer diary. “Did you follow up on that at all?”
The detective said he had not.
Susan next pointed to her written claim that Felix had betrayed his country by failing to turn over information provided to him about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Susan later admitted that she gave that information to her husband while under hypnosis and in a trance.
“Did you report it to the FBI?” Susan asked Costa.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Do you believe there is no such thing as the Mossad?”
“Do I believe? Yes, they exist.”
“Normally, if there is some kind of treasonable activity, doesn’t that get reported?”
“Are you aware that my husband believed he was a psychic?”
To raised eyebrows from jurors, Costa said he was not.
“Do you believe in psychic phenomenon?”
“No, not really.”
“No?” Susan was incredulous. “Are you aware that most Americans do?”
“No, I was not aware of that.”
“Did anybody tell you that I am supposed to be a medium?” she persisted.
Costa had not heard that, nor had his investigators looked into accusations that Felix intended to overthrow the U.S. government, as Susan claimed in her diary. This elicited jeers from the gallery. Still, Susan continued firing questions at the detective about her husband’s supposed anti-American activities. Claiming that two private investigators had looked into Felix’s dealings, she said that the pair had stumbled upon writings that detailed his plan to bring down the U.S. government and take over the country.
Susan grew surly when the detective suggested that Felix had several restraining orders against her at the time of his death. “To your recollection, how many restraining orders do you think my husband had…?”
“Maybe two,” Costa replied with an air of confidence.
“Oh really? Two? How about zero?” Susan snipped.
“At least one I can think of,” the detective assured the court.
Susan retorted in a mocking tone to chortles from the gallery. “Oh you do, do you?” She got him to admit that he was incorrect in his belief that Felix had gotten some type of order of protection as a result of his 911 calls to police.
Her offensive continued when the detective said that, during the course of his investigation, he never learned that Felix was violent. Susan pointed to two letters she wrote detailing Felix’s alleged abuse; one that was found on her computer hard drive and another that police confiscated from a safe hidden beneath the wet bar in the master bedroom.
“How’d you guys get my safe open?”
“Again, I don’t know anything about a safe and I don’t know who might have opened it,” Costa said, claiming that he did not know about the safe.
Susan handed the detective a copy of the letter that she claimed was locked inside the safe. “You don’t recall that the letter contains a history of my husband’s threats, violence…”
“Objection!” Sequeira interrupted.
“Ms. Polk, this is inappropriate,” Judge Brady said, sustaining the prosecutor’s objection.
“Did you investigate whether my husband did the things in that letter? For example, did you investigate whether he raped me when I was a patient in his care?”
“Objection!” the prosecutor jumped up again.
Talking over Sequeira, Susan quoted the evidence code.
“Do not argue with me,” Judge Brady snapped.
Brady’s admonishment did little to deter Susan. Handing the detective a crime scene photo depicting the safe lying open on her bed, she asked, “It’s not likely I’d keep my safe on the bed.”
“No,” the detective agreed.
Once Susan jarred his memory with the photo and had him read the letter while on the stand, he vaguely recalled entering it in his police report.
“So how can you say nothing ever came to your attention about spousal abuse,” Susan demanded. She was visibly annoyed with Costa and his claims.
“No other sources indicated your husband was violent,” the detective retorted. He admitted that he had not read Susan’s complete diary. To do so would have violated the terms of the search warrant that detectives used to seize evidence from the house. Susan was incredulous, charging that detectives read the diary before the warrant was even signed.
In spite of this setback, Susan pressed on. At one point during the cross-examination, she trotted out police photos of the overturned ottoman that detectives claimed was kicked out from under Felix after he was struck on the head during the attack. Susan argued that the position of the ottoman, upside down and on the opposite end of the living room from its cover, proved her claim that Felix had used it as a weapon and thrown it at her early in the fight. Marching to an easel set up in the courtroom, she sketched a diagram of how police claimed to have found the furnishings. To Susan, it was apparent that officers had “staged” the crime scene.
“Why is the ottoman cover across the room from the ottoman at the ‘so-called’ crime scene?” Susan asked Costa. She was so thin in her black slacks that it looked as though they would fall from her hips if she moved too quickly.
Costa studied the photo. “It was due to the fight.”
“Is an altercation between a 110-pound woman and a 170-pound man a fight?”
“Yes,” the detective replied matter-of-factly.
“And how much do you weigh,” Susan asked.
“Too much,” Costa grinned. “Two-hundred-and-fifty-pounds.”
Susan asked that the clerk and bailiff bring out the ottoman for jurors. She continued to suggest that police had moved it in an attempt to bolster their theory of events in the guest cottage that October night.
Susan’s own omissions would prevent her from questioning Costa about the pepper spray she said she used on Felix that night. More than two years passed before she told authorities about the spray, and the window of opportunity for effectively testing the ottoman for residue had come and gone. Had the authorities been able to find evidence of the chemical, it would have given credence to Susan’s argument that Susan felt threatened by Felix that night, and she went to the guest house armed with the spray for protection.
Unable to use that argument, she was forced to focus on the ‘inconsistencies’ in the crime scene. She asked again about the bloody footprints she believed were made by “two right feet.”
“I think you’re wasting your time,” the detective told her. “It’s a question for a criminalist.”
“Oh really, you’re a detective. You’ve accused me of murder. I’m asking you for your professional opinion as a detective.”
Refocusing Costa’s attention on the photo, Susan intimated that the only way the bloody prints could have been made is if somebody had taken a shoe, “stuck it in some wet blood and then stamped them on the floor.”
Still, the detective maintained that he did not see “two right feet.”
Unwavering, Susan pointed to blood found on the soles of Felix’s feet and inquired as to why investigators hadn’t found any bloody footprints from him on the floor of the living room.
“There was nothing in this case that led me to believe that this scene had been staged,” Costa huffed.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Susan learned that Costa was asking to leave the trial so that he could refill a medical prescription for an unspecified condition. Although she had been questioning him for two full days, she insisted that she needed one more day to complete her cross-examination. Susan recommended that Costa have the prescription called in to a local pharmacy.
The detective complained, saying he didn’t feel he should have to do that. He also pointed out that the questions she was now posing were out of his area of expertise and would be better answered by a criminalist.
Despite Costa’s argument, the judge told him to contact his doctor about phoning in the prescription so that Susan could continue the cross-examination.
“Well, what’s his condition?” Susan demanded, after the matter was resolved.
“It’s completely irrelevant,” the judge told her.
“I think it’s relevant, I mean, is he on psych meds?”
“It’s a physical condition,” the prosecutor jumped in. Sequeira was anxious to move the case along to accommodate the out of town witnesses he had waiting to testify.
“Is it visual?” Susan wanted to know.
“It’s totally irrelevant and I don’t want her to make references to it in front of the jury,” Sequeira told Judge Brady.
“I had no intention of doing that, but now I’m curious. This IS a deviant prosecutor,” Susan charged.
Her remark elicited laughter from the gallery.
“All right, that’s it,” Judge Brady warned. “We’re done. Ladies and gentlemen of the gallery, this is not for entertainment.
“Mrs. Polk, there will be no mention of this issue in front of the jury.”
By Friday afternoon, Sequeira was asking Judge Brady for help. “I’m at my wits end,” he announced. “At this point, it’s becoming absurd. She won’t follow the rules. She won’t stop interrupting. I don’t know what else to do. I’m asking the court for guidance.”
Finally, Sequeira tried helping his opponent. Susan kept questioning about a March 16, 2001, letter in which she alleged domestic violence. The judge had ruled the letter inadmissible when offered through the detective but explained that Susan could enter it later during her own testimony.
During a break, Sequeira offered Susan advice on how to question the detective about the letter. “You can ask him if they investigated claims made in the letter.”
“I understand your point,” Susan replied. “But the jury has to see the letter to understand what I’m referring to.”
“Ms. Polk, for the fifth time, he cannot testify to the contents of that document,” Brady told Susan. “Move on please.” Sequeira just shrugged.
Susan was now completely on her own at the defense table, having fired her case assistant, Valerie Harris, the previous afternoon. She did not provide Harris a reason for her second dismissal since the trial began.
Harris later told reporters that Susan simply said, “I think I have to do this alone.” Those close to the case later learned that Susan was angry that Harris had given her dog away after Eli was arrested and incarcerated at the same detention center as his mother. She could find no one to care for Dusty.
Having Harris off the case would present additional challenges for Sequeira. The prosecutor had been using Harris as a middleman after citing his unwillingness to deal directly with Susan. He would later admit that trying the case against Susan was extremely challenging—something he would have been ill-equipped to handle as a younger man.
Meanwhile, Susan would also suffer. Valerie had been selecting Susan’s clothing for court each day. The chore was not without its challenges. On days that Susan didn’t like the outfit, she would refuse to get dressed. Now, she would have no one to bring her clothes and came to court in prison attire. Court watchers remarked that even in jail garb Susan still managed to look elegant. She had a natural flair for making sweat pants and a T-shirt look stylish.
On Tuesday, April 5, the prosecutor called former Contra Costa criminalist Song Wicks to the stand. Wicks had collected and evaluated evidence at the Miner Road crime scene on the night of October 15, 2002. He testified that he found Felix Polk’s body splayed on the tile floor of the couple’s guesthouse when he arrived at the crime scene that night. When Sequeira brought up Susan’s accusations that he and other members of the sheriff ’s department had moved furniture to bolster their theory of the homicide, Wicks scoffed indignantly.
“Who had the most time to spend at the crime scene—the detectives, the criminalists, or the defendant?” Prosecutor Sequeira asked Wicks.
“Would your job have been made easier if you had the defendant’s bloody clothing?”
“Objection!” Susan shouted from the defense table. She was quickly overruled by the judge.
“It could have allowed me to draw conclusions, if I had the defendant’s clothing,” Wicks said over a second objection from Susan.
Anxious to get the query out before Susan could object again, Sequeira shouted his next question. “Did you find any bloody clothing anywhere?”
“No,” the investigator replied.
Judge Brady interrupted. “Mr. Sequeira, I am not hard of hearing. Please moderate your tone.”
“Sorry,” the prosecutor apologized, glaring at Susan, who sat grinning at the defense table.
“I’d like to just finish without you interrupting,” he told her after she voiced yet another objection. But Susan continued, claiming a conspiracy.
By late Wednesday, Sequeira had regained his sense of humor and was mockingly referring to Susan as “Madame Defendant.”
“The sarcasm can be done without,” Susan scolded. “Ms. Polk is fine.”
During her cross-examination of Song Wicks, Susan accused the criminalist of plotting to frame her for her husband’s murder and claimed that he and some thirteen other law enforcement officials were responsible for dousing water on Felix’s bloody head to “create a more dramatic photo opportunity.” Once again, she brought up the ottoman, accusing Wicks of having moved furniture at the crime scene. Addressing the bloody footprints, Susan went a step farther than she had with Detective Costa, suggesting that Wicks or other officers on the scene that first night took a shoe from her bedroom closet and “stamped” footprints into the blood encircling Felix’s head to further implicate her in the homicide.
Wicks shot Susan an incredulous look.
“When you frame someone for murder, you don’t think you are going to have to come up with an explanation, do you?” Susan retaliated.
“I don’t know,” the officer shot back. “I have never framed anyone for murder.”
Wicks agreed with the prosecutor’s charge that a person who defended herself against an armed attacker wouldn’t need to dispose of her bloody clothes—as Susan had allegedly done.
When forensic pathologist Brian Peterson took the stand, Susan levied similar accusations at him, attempting to show that he too was also a member of the elaborate conspiracy to frame her for Felix’s murder. “You have a bias to produce evidence for the prosecutor, isn’t that correct,” she asked the pathologist when he took the stand later that week. She went on to insinuate that he was paid by the Contra Costa Sheriff ’s Department to render results favorable to the county.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Dr. Peterson balked. “Everybody is paid by somebody.” He insisted the sheriff ’s department would have to be “stupid” to try and force him to alter his findings.
Peterson said the stab wounds found on Felix’s hands, arms, and feet were the result of the victim trying to defend himself from a knife-wielding attacker. “There might be times when you want to get your feet between you and the blade,” he explained. “Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to get wounds on the bottom of your feet.”
When asked by Sequeira if the wound on Felix’s head was the result of falling or getting “whacked,” Dr. Peterson said, “I believe it was more consistent with being hit with something.” This statement directly contradicted Susan’s claim that Felix had struck his head on the tile floor when he fell backward shortly before his death. According to Peterson, there was no medical evidence to support Susan’s purported chain of events, and instead, he reiterated his opinion that Felix’s wounds to the head were the result of being hit rather than a fall.
In addition, Peterson and Susan differed on the subject of what had actually killed Felix. While his post-mortem examination revealed that Felix suffered from advanced heart disease that could have played a role in weakening his ability to stave off an attack, he testified that Felix Polk died as a result of stab wounds to his stomach, lungs, and the area close to his heart—not heart disease. Susan, on the contrary, maintained that Felix’s injuries from the knife were not life threatening and that his death was the result of a heart attack he suffered while aggressively assaulting her in the guest house that night. In order to support her views, Susan intended to call another forensic pathologist to challenge Peterson’s testimony when it was her turn to present evidence.
Over the course of the trial, Susan had worked diligently to discredit Felix’s professional reputation. On March 27, Neil Kobrin, the clinical psychologist and former president of Argosy University, was called by the prosecutor to testify about a phone call he received from Felix in the days before his murder.
“He [Felix] said that his wife, Susan, was going to kill him and that he was at a hotel hiding out,” Kobrin told the court. He also said that Felix told him that Susan had a gun.
Susan responded by raising allegations that ranged from Felix’s supposed affair with his patient turned colleague, to cocaine abuse. She pushed Kobrin to acknowledge that he was aware of Felix’s many indiscretions. Unfortunately for Susan, Kobrin could not substantiate the claims.
Once Kobrin’s testimony had concluded, only one witness remained before the prosecution would rest its case. On Tuesday, April 17, Adam Polk took the stand, ready to face his mother for the first time in several years.
Sitting on the witness stand with thick curly brown hair and a soft, cherubic face, Adam told the court that his father did not abuse his mother, while also shooting down Susan’s claim that Felix had threatened to kill her during their marriage.
Adam’s testimony for the prosecution lasted just thirty minutes.
But the well-spoken college senior would be on the stand for three days responding to questions from his mother, and it did not take long for the twenty-three-year-old’s testimony to degenerate into a family therapy session gone haywire.
“Do you recall saying that you would come into court and say the worst possible things about me unless I give you irrevocable power of attorney?”
Adam told his mother, “You’re a cruel, heartless person and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Susan presented her son with the letter he wrote for her bail hearing in which he called his mother “a gentle and intellectual mother who enjoyed movies, cooking, and baking cookies.”
Adam testified that he wrote the letter to win her favor and gain the use of Susan’s car. He also claimed that the letter was “intended to manipulate Eli into giving me access to you.”
“I was in a precarious position for mediating for my two minor brothers’ financial future,” Adam continued.
Susan’s eldest son admitted that he had promised his mother he would testify at her trial “if she called him.” But Adam claimed that he never agreed to take sides. He would simply tell the truth, which Susan assumed would be in her favor.
Like Gabriel, Adam denied his mother’s claims of spousal abuse, calling Susan “bonkers” and “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” during her questioning of him. Judge Brady, usually reserved, covered her mouth and fought back a smile during the bruising exchange.
Later, he recalled that Susan broke down in tears when he first went to visit her in jail two days after her arrest. “What happened?” he asked his mother. To which she replied, “Things just got out of control.” Adam testified that Susan then said, “you can have everything, I’m just going to plead guilty.”
He said his mother had a change of heart after she learned that she was being charged with first-degree murder after stabbing Felix twenty-seven times. Adam claimed that his mother said that she had not stabbed her husband that many times and was convinced she was being set up.
“They might as well execute me because I’m being framed for murder,” Susan allegedly told Adam at the jail that day.
During the heated cross-examination, Susan repeatedly brought up unfavorable incidents from Adam’s past in an attempt to discredit his testimony, at one point calling him “a bar room brawler.” Adam sat twirling a marker and staring at the ceiling as Susan once again played the fifteen-minute audiotape of his father telling an audience about his alleged sexual abuse by a satanic cult while a toddler in day care.
Pressing the stop button on the tape recorder, Susan asked her son if he thought that she “put those ideas in his father’s head.”
“I don’t think it’s a huge leap, that it’s outside the realm of possibility.”
On Thursday, after three days of questioning, Susan was informed that this would be her last day of cross-examination. Frustrated, Susan resumed her questioning of Adam over his father’s daily treatment of her, but as the day wore on, Susan’s time was running out, and she angrily complained about the “unfair” constraints. Still, she continued to ask him about topics that Brady had ruled inadmissible or irrelevant.
At 4:15 that afternoon, the prosecutor requested an adjournment. “Your honor, I’m feeling quite faint, can we take a break for the day?” It was not clear if Sequeira was ill or if he had just had enough of Susan’s courtroom antics.
“I think we can get a little more out of this witness,” the judge replied, signaling Susan to proceed.
Less than fifteen minutes later, Brady ended the cross-examination. She was angered by Susan’s flagrant disregard for her instructions to avoid questions about Adam’s alleged prior bad acts and Gabe’s relationship with the Briners.
“Okay, we’re done for the day,” Brady ordered, instructing court officers to remove jurors from the courtroom.
Rising to her feet, Susan shook her finger at the judge and shouted at her from the podium. “I move for a mistrial for judicial misconduct on your part! You’re putting time limits on me, you’re not allowing me to recall him [Adam]…”
“SIT DOWN MS. POLK!” Brady instructed, as jurors filing out of the courtroom looked on in stunned amazement. “Recess until 9 AM Monday.”
Susan continued her ranting even as deputies rushed to the defense table and shut off her microphone.