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

Part III. THE TRIAL

Chapter 26. DEFENDING HER LIFE

On Monday, April 24, Susan arrived at court ready to begin her case. A blue, long-sleeved T-shirt and chinos replaced her drab prison attire. She looked very thin and bony; reports were circulating that Susan now weighed less than 110 pounds. It was not clear who delivered the clothing to her at the detention center, although her former case assistant, Valerie Harris, was amid the journalists and spectators cramming the gallery that morning.

Susan’s trial had already filled thirty-four days when she informed Judge Brady that she had subpoenaed more than one hundred witnesses and anticipated her case would take another three weeks to present. On Susan’s extensive list were both her mother, Helen, and her son, Eli, who was still being held at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond on charges of misdemeanor battery and violating a restraining order. These charges stemmed from the incident with his girlfriend, but Eli also faced a probation violation for the high-speed chase that resulted in charges of evading a peace officer. Authorities had agreed to push back his trial date from May 2 to May 16 so that he could testify in his mother’s case. Also on the list were the doctor who examined her in January of 2001 after her failed suicide attempt at Yosemite National Park, a high-tech crime investigator, a psychic, and a forensic pathologist who would testify that Felix Polk died as a result of a heart attack—and not from the multiple stab wounds she had inflicted.

During her one-hour opening statement, Susan called Felix “Dr. Frankenstein” and told jurors that he drugged, molested, and manipulated her during their twenty-year marriage. She quoted from Thoreau and Dickens and referred to other literary works to illustrate that many narratives have surprise endings and that innocent people are sometimes wrongly accused of horrific acts.

In her speech, Susan maintained that she went to the guest cottage “just to talk” with her husband that fateful night and that Felix fell back and hit his head during the violent struggle.

“I was framed,” she said. “I did not stab my husband twenty-seven times, nor did I hit him. He fell.”

Susan promised a “nail biting, edge of your seat thriller” defense. “You may think you know all there is to know,” she told jurors. “But it’s my turn now.”

As her opening progressed, Susan insisted that she was a medium and claimed her husband had used her psychic talent to gain information that he reported back to his “handlers.” Though she warned Felix about her vision of the 9/11 terror attacks, he failed to report her prediction to authorities. Despite her unique abilities, Susan explained that hers was an ordinary situation, one that could have happened to anyone in an unhappy marriage.

“What happened to me could happen to any family,” Susan said. “The D.A. will have you believe that I was controlling…that I was a Lolita.”

This was a case of systematic spousal abuse that had gone on for far too long. To Susan, the events were clear: she had not killed Felix that night in the guest cottage; he had a heart attack. Further clouding his death was the conspiracy that she alluded to concerning her family members and law enforcement.

During the final minutes of her remarks, Susan revisited the parallels found in literature. Jurors had heard only one side of the story, but before they could truly pass judgment, before they could decide her fate, they had to hear her version of the twenty-four years. When that happens, “it will be up to you to write the ending.”

Jurors immediately took a liking to Susan’s mother, Helen Bolling. Petite and high-spirited, Helen had the panel in hysterics with her humorous responses to Susan’s questions. Barely five feet tall, she almost disappeared in the witness chair beneath the judge. Clutching her daughter’s childhood writings, school assignments, and photos, Helen adjusted herself in the seat and waited for Susan to begin.

“You’ve only been married once?” her daughter asked, referring to Helen’s marriage to her father, Theodore Bolling.

“Oh yes, once was enough, it cured me,” Helen cracked, as the courtroom erupted into laughter. Susan’s seventy-three-year-old mother grinned as she told jurors that she was “almost a virgin” when she married Bolling. “You know what I mean,” she smiled.

During her testimony, Helen boasted of her daughter’s creativity and imagination. Her pale blue eyes sparkled with pride as she pulled out the awards, prize-winning writings, and photographs of Susan’s youth that she brought to court that day. Her props, and the homespun stories that accompanied them, provided jurors their first glimpse into the tender side of Susan Polk—a side that most had not witnessed in the courtroom.

“Did you see any signs that I was going to grow up like the D.A. says, a homicidal.”

Helen interrupted her daughter mid-sentence. “No.”

Helen did not hold back her dislike of her son-in-law, and in defense of Susan, told the story of her own life-and-death encounter. While she did not identify her attacker, who had throttled her violently, she described how she had to react in an instant to save her life. Helen “played dead” to thwart the attack, but her daughter had not been as fortunate. Susan had no choice but to resort to violence against Felix’s onslaught, she said.

“Boo-boo Susie” as she lovingly referred to her daughter, was not the violent type. Helen maintained that Susan didn’t have it in her to deliberately harm anyone. As far as she was concerned, it was her son-in-law who had provoked the assault.

She claimed Felix “had an exterior of being acceptable. Hidden under that, is all that shit. Excuse me, I beg the court’s forgiveness, that’s not proper language.”

Helen drew a deep breath before completing her thought. “Felix had a way of persuading you into thinking he was a good guy.”

She told jurors Susan had attempted suicide shortly after beginning therapy with Felix but provided few details.

When asked about the possibility that Susan could have been behind the allegations of the ritualistic sexual abuse of Adam and Gabriel, Helen balked. “That was from Felix. It didn’t come from my side of the family. When we hear about Satan, we run like hell.”

On cross-examination, Helen told Sequeira that her “falling out” with Susan happened over time. She denied accusations that she and her husband had abused their daughter during her childhood. “Absolutely not!” she replied. But Sequeira pressed the issue, wanting to know why Susan would make such claims during her police interrogation on the night of her arrest.

Helen sat poker-faced as the prosecutor played the videotape of that portion of the interrogation for jurors. “Maybe when she gets angry at people, she has a falling out with them, she makes up things about them. If she did it to you, she did it to Felix, too.”

Susan jumped up and objected. “Torture of my mom on the stand. It’s not right.” Her repeated protests were overruled by Brady.

Helen continued to defend her daughter, even after viewing the video clip in which Susan called her father a “pervert” and accused her mother of abusing her. She argued that Susan was a victim of Felix’s mind control and was just spitting back beliefs that he had drilled into her. Proof of this was the fact that now, almost four years after his death, Susan no longer believed her parents abused her during her childhood.

On redirect, Helen said she forgave Susan for “the lost years.”

“Of course, you’re my daughter. You’ll be my daughter until my last breath. Furthermore, I think people are placing too much blame on you.”

Susan’s mother expressed disappointment with her grandsons Adam and Gabriel, accusing the boys of being concerned only with themselves in the days and weeks after their father’s death. She described them with their “palms up,” implying that they were looking for money.

Outside court, Helen continued to defend her daughter. “All I have to say is you live practically as a hostage for forty-eight years, and then let’s see how you do.”

In retrospect, Helen would be seen as Susan’s best witness. Her testimony gave a fascinating look into the early years of Susan’s relationship with Felix. In order to win this case, Susan had to convince the jury of the profoundly disturbing psychological impact of Felix’s seduction. Since she was the only witness who could testify to Susan’s behavior before and after she met Felix, Helen was in a unique position to provide insight into the unhealthy relationship between the couple. Her charm and straightforward manner made her words convincing, but with so much of the trial remaining, it was unclear what impact this testimony would have on the verdict.

At 4:30 PM, with Helen’s testimony concluded, Judge Brady suggested they adjourn for the day and put off Eli’s testimony until the next morning, but Susan insisted that her son had been waiting in a holding cell all day, and she wanted to use her remaining time to begin her direct testimony. Ten minutes later, a clean-shaven Eli strolled into the courtroom. Susan broke into tears immediately. Her son was wearing the county’s bright yellow jumpsuit, but his hands and feet were not shackled. Taller and broader than his two brothers, Eli also possessed his mother’s angular features and strong jaw.

“On the whole, did you have a happy childhood?” Susan asked him when he took the stand.

“For the most part, yes.” Eli pulled out a letter he had written to his mother in November 2002 and read it aloud:

Dear Mom,

I miss you a lot. Whatever happens, I will always hold close what you taught me…. Going to Dad’s funeral this Saturday. I don’t think I am going to say anything. What could I possibly say? Nothing good.

Jurors looked on as Eli’s eyes welled with tears and he began to cry. “I pray that one day I will have control over my life,” he read between sobs. “I want so badly to tell you not to change…but jail changes a lot of people.”

The following morning, Eli was back on the stand describing the time he “split his mother’s lip,” testifying that he “threw a punch” at his mom after he found her crying in her bedroom, with his dad by her side.

“I’ll kill you, I could just kill you, Susan,” Eli claimed he heard Felix threaten. “It just popped into my head. Next thing I knew, I was throwing a punch.”

Eli claimed the incident followed a violent display by his father, who, he said, had dragged his mother up the stairs to the bedroom by her hair. Later, Felix rewarded Eli for punching his mother by taking him out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. “It’s not your fault, it’s her fault,” Eli claimed his father told him after the incident, which sent Susan to the emergency room for stitches.

On Tuesday, because of scheduling conflicts, the remainder of Eli’s testimony had to be postponed, and instead, the jury heard testimony from the psychiatrist who examined Susan after her 2001 suicide attempt at Yosemite National Park. Dr. Alan Peters told jurors that he assessed Susan after she was transported by ambulance to Columbia General Hospital in Sonora on January 20 and transferred to the psychiatric unit where he was on duty. She had overdosed on aspirin, Vicodin, and Scotch, he said.

At the time, Dr. Peters said he diagnosed Susan with “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He believed her state of mind was a result of her failing marriage to Felix and Eli’s punch. Referring to his case notes, Dr. Peters related that during his one-hour examination, Susan was articulate, cooperative, and aware of what was real and what was fantasy.

“Your manner was quite proper and composed, there was no delusional thinking,” he said in response to her questions. “You were overwhelmed and increasingly despairing over how you were going to manage.”

Referring to Susan’s description of the “power struggle” she was facing with her husband, Dr. Peters said that she was “constantly on the losing end. You were isolated off within your family as being the quote-unquote ‘crazy one,’” the psychiatrist told Susan in court.

On cross-examination, the witness admitted that Susan was also recalling sexual and physical abuse, supposedly inflicted by her parents, and that Felix Polk expressed concern for his wife and was anxious to take her home. He also testified to a notation in Susan’s record that Felix had requested Susan be committed to the psychiatric hospital for observation. Dr. Peters said that Felix had made no such request to him.

In addition, Sequeira pointed out that it was Felix who called the ambulance that day, arguably saving Susan’s life.

“One could say that, yes,” Dr. Peters replied.

On Tuesday, after calling Eli’s former rugby coach to testify about her son’s character, Susan then called David Townsend, a forensic computer expert, originally hired by Dan Horowitz, to discuss the tests he performed on Susan’s home computer. Townsend, a former police officer, claimed that someone had twice accessed the files containing Susan’s two-hundred-page diary before officers had obtained a search warrant. This contradicted Detective Mike Costa, who, under oath, denied reading the diary, but it remained unclear who might have done so. While this accusation suggested a violation of police protocol, his tests showed that, though the diary was accessed, it did not appear to have been altered. Townsend’s examination also revealed that law enforcement did not document the required chain of custody for the computer.

The court adjourned for lunch but when the session resumed, it was Eli who returned to the stand. He testified that his father was a violent and controlling man who regularly tried to convince his children that their mother was crazy. Wearing a pained looked, he sat hunched in the witness box, listening to an audiotape of himself reacting to news of his father’s death the day after Felix’s body was found.

Eli’s sad demeanor on the stand did not match his commanding figure. Broad shouldered, at just over six feet tall, nevertheless, Eli appeared vulnerable and in need of emotional support. Unlike his two brothers who seemed defiant and expressed a loathing for their mother, it was clear that Eli had a special connection to Susan. Eli’s subdued appearance also stood in stark contrast to his lengthy juvenile rap sheet that included various assaults and encounters with the police.

“Did you love your dad?” Susan asked her son.

“Yeah, he was just a damaged person…. Looking back, he was a really unstable person,” Eli described his father.

For the remainder of the afternoon, Eli confirmed Susan’s claims regarding Felix’s tyrannical behavior, his purported links to the Jewish mafia, and accusations that his brothers had turned on Susan out of greed.

“He tried to get you on medication,” Eli said. “He talked to the kids about how to handle you. His whole thing was ‘you were crazy’ and ‘you imagined things.’”

Eli insisted his mother had every reason to believe that Felix was linked to the Mossad. “We’d be at dinner and he’d talk about his patients,” Eli recalled. “He said he had a patient in the FBI who was an assassin. He said he saw numerous people involved in the FBI and the CIA.”

Eli also contended that two of Felix’s friends regularly spoke of their ties to Israeli Intelligence and the Mossad.

On Wednesday, Eli’s testimony was again interrupted when a surprise witness was wheeled into the courtroom and announced her need to speak out on Susan’s behalf.

Seemingly out of breath, seventy-seven-year-old Elizabeth Bradley’s appearance momentarily created what could only be described as a “Perry Mason moment.”

“Oh my God!” Susan gasped. “Eli, do you remember who this is?”

Eli did not recall the Polks’ former neighbor from Berkeley, but he sat quietly as Mrs. Bradley addressed the court from her wheelchair.

“I didn’t know when I should come,” she said, speaking to Susan at the podium. “But I arranged for a taxi and my son to get off from work, and my cardiologist arranged for some extra medications in case I had a heart attack or stroke, so I came without notice and here I am.”

Her shoulders wrapped in a shawl, Bradley guided her motorized wheelchair to the front of the courtroom. Her son, Edwin, trailed behind and held a microphone to her lips when she stopped in front of the clerk’s desk and addressed the court. “I’m obliged to come to the aid of a very special person.”

Initially, Sequeira objected to the surprise witness, saying that her name was not on the required list. In response, Susan told the court that she was unaware that Mrs. Bradley was planning to attend the trial. Her former Elmwood Avenue neighbor had written to her in jail, upset over the way she was being portrayed in the news. Producing Bradley’s letter for the prosecutor, Susan said that they had spoken about her coming to court but nothing had ever been firmed up.

“Elizabeth, did we discuss your testimony at all?” Susan asked the elderly woman, whose frail body shook intermittently from palsy.

“No.”

“Today is a very special day, isn’t it?” Susan said, addressing her neighbor.

“Yes, April 26 is my seventy-seventh birthday. And I have to apologize for my difficulty speaking, because I’m in the middle of some major oral surgery. If you can’t understand me, let me know and I will try harder.”

During thirty minutes of testimony, Bradley explained that she had been moved to act because the news media “was demonizing Susan in such a way, I was shocked. There was no comparison to the Susan I knew.

“She was an outstanding citizen of the neighborhood and we loved her,” Bradley tearfully recalled.

Elizabeth Bradley said that she was a single mother raising two children when Susan and Felix moved into the neighborhood with their three sons nearly twenty years ago. “We were neighbors and friends. I babysat when Susan had to go shopping. I was like an aunt to the children. They were so adorable. I loved being around them and Susan.”

“You’re being too kind, Elizabeth,” Susan said in between sobs.

“I saw no meanness in the children, except that Eli took a terrible amount of sibling abuse from his older brother, Adam. And his older brother was the apple of his father’s eye.”

Bradley charged that it was not Susan, but Felix, who was emotionally agitated. She recalled one day that she was visiting the Polk house when Felix unleashed his rage on one of his sons. She was not sure which boy it was but said the beating sounded brutal.

“[T]his little boy was screaming something awful. I wanted to cry out but I couldn’t say anything. But the beating was cruel.”

While Bradley disapproved of the physical handling of the boy, she did not interfere, believing that Felix was a therapist and “must know what he is doing.”

“I spent a lot of time around that family and one thing I can tell you, in my lifetime, I never met a more diligent mother, housewife, and assistant to her husband.”

“Thank you for your courage and integrity in coming today,” Susan said.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. It breaks my heart. You deserve a better life.”

“I have a brave son like you do, Elizabeth. I have a good life.”

“No further questions.”

Bradley looked to the prosecutor. Sequeira had no questions for the elderly woman. He simply rose and thanked her for coming to court.

Jurors wiped away tears as Susan’s old neighbor rolled her wheelchair out of the courtroom, waving to Susan. “Bye, bye, honey. God bless you.”

Bradley failed to add anything new to the case at hand, but the theatrics meshed brilliantly with Susan’s showmanship. Susan maintained that she had no idea Bradley would come, but she adapted amazingly well to the moment, presenting a surprise witness who had nothing good to say about Felix and nothing bad to say about Susan.

Once back on the stand, Eli continued to bolster his mother’s claims of spousal abuse and her belief that a conspiracy was at work to wrongly convict her of murder.

“He admitted to striking Andy, his son [from his first marriage], and said that’s just the way he was raised,” Eli testified. “He told me his first wife [Sharon Mann] was crazy and delusional, and that’s why they got a divorce.”

The following day, Susan ended her examination and turned the witness over to the prosecutor, but by Friday morning she was demanding a mistrial. Furious at the way Sequeira was cross-examining Eli, she accused the prosecutor of being in cahoots with the judge to discredit the only one of her children to testify on her behalf.

“This is unfair treatment!” Susan said, jumping up at one point to object to Sequeira’s questions about Eli’s criminal past.

“Shame on both of you!” she ranted, directing her anger at both the prosecutor and the judge for their “tricky, nefarious, and devious” actions.

“I fully recognize that watching your son be cross-examined has got to be extremely difficult,” Judge Brady said, adding that the prosecutor’s questions were permissible.

During two days of cross-examination, Sequeira questioned Eli about his run-ins with the police and his on-again off-again relationship with his mother. He intended to poke holes in Eli’s claims that his mother was a victim of abuse, and not a coldhearted killer who stabbed his father in a premeditated rage. Using excerpts from Susan’s diary, Eli’s letters, and his disastrous trip to Paris with Susan when he was a teen, Sequeira stressed the often rocky relationship between mother and son.

Susan’s middle child did little to hide his disdain for the assistant district attorney and the court in which his mother was being tried. His responses to Sequeira’s questions were peppered with sarcasm and he accentuated the word “sir” when he replied to the queries.

With regard to the argument between his parents that had prompted him to strike his mother in the face, Sequeira asked, “Why didn’t you hit the abuser?”

“I don’t know.” Eli replied. He maintained that it was the first time he was ever violent with his mother.

Susan, meanwhile, raised objections when the prosecutor handed her son a copy of the police report that documented another instance of aggression toward his mother. She accused Sequeira of violating the rules of discovery, alleging that he had not provided her with a copy of the report he had just handed Eli. The judge overruled her objection, clearing the way for Sequeira to question Eli about the incident.

The report documented a call to police from Susan after another argument with Eli that turned violent. According to the report, she told police that her son had shoved her out of the house, locked the door, and then took her car without permission.

Eli claimed he couldn’t recall the incident.

Grinning, Sequeira moved on. He next inquired about the fight he had with a fellow teen in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant that resulted in a felony assault charge. Though Eli insisted it was just a “fistfight,” the prosecutor noted that witnesses told police that Eli struck the victim with a flashlight—a claim Eli denied.

“I hit him four or five times,” Eli said.

“You broke his nose and cut his face up pretty good, didn’t you?” Sequeira noted.

“I object!” Susan jumped up yet again. “He’s attempting to interject hearsay information that hasn’t been established.”

“Would you like to see the medical records?” Sequeira smiled, rummaging through the papers on his table.

“He doesn’t even have them!” Susan shot back, watching as the prosecutor fumbled to retrieve the document.

“He’s attempting to confuse and mislead the jury,” Susan complained to Judge Brady out of earshot of jurors, “when the most important part of this young man’s testimony is that his father was violent, and that his father threatened to kill me.”

But Sequeira wasn’t finished with Eli’s rap sheet. There was the October 2003 incident in which he shot a passing motorist with a pellet gun. The bullet lodged inches from the man’s spine.

Eli insisted he struck the man by accident. He wasn’t aiming at anything in particular when he fired the weapon toward the road. “I was sorry. Accidents do happen. That was a terrible one.”

Sequeira also cited the high-speed car chase in which Eli attempted to elude officers, reaching speeds of 130 mph in his attempt to ditch the bag of marijuana he had in his Camaro.

“And then I pulled over,” Eli insisted of the October 2003 incident.

“You had a flat tire.” Sequeira pointed out.

“I was between homes,” Eli protested. “Things were going very badly. I made some mistakes.”

Sequeira also called the jury’s attention to Eli’s troubles in school, noting that he had been suspended from Miramonte High for making racist and homophobic remarks. It was a calculated strategy to portray Susan’s ally as the bad seed. Using Eli’s record against him, Sequeira cast sufficient doubt on his credibility, demonstrating the witness to be an unreliable person whose words were equally unreliable.

Continuing on, Sequeira raised questions about Eli’s allegiance to Susan, pointing out that he seemed to side with his mother when it was convenient. Supporting Sequeira’s claim was Eli’s aborted trip to Paris with his mother, as well as the March 2001 police report in which Eli sided with Felix, telling officers that he witnessed Susan kick his dad during an argument.

“I did what my father told me to do,” Eli defended. He now related that day’s events differently, saying that his father had attacked his mother, shoved her up against the Sub-Zero refrigerator and ordered him to tell police that she had instigated the fight.

Sequeira paused to let jurors digest the information. “And sometimes you do what your mother tells you to do?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And you told a third version, too, didn’t you?”

Tossing his hands in the air, Eli blurted out, “I don’t know. I’m lost.”

Striding to the witness box, Sequeira presented the young man with a transcript from a July 2003 conversation with his mother’s former defense investigator in which he claimed that it was his father who kicked his mother that day.

“It seems like there’s been a mistake, a miscommunication,” Eli announced after reading the notes from Susan’s former lawyer, Elizabeth Grossman. Eli argued that Grossman was not really working for his mother. He then provided the prosecutor with a rambling explanation that made little sense to those in the courtroom. “It had to do with a conspiracy, a civil conspiracy, as well as the conspiracy to have my mother convicted.”

Sequeira froze in front of the witness box. “Are you telling this jury that Liz Grossman…is part of a large conspiracy to get your mother convicted and to steal from the estate?”

Eli looked directly at Sequeira. “I never said large. It takes two people to conspire.”

“You’re right,” the prosecutor said in a raised voice. “It takes two!” Pacing before the jury, Sequeira directed Eli to identify the members of the alleged conspiracy for the court.

Dumbfounded, Eli looked to his mother, who was at the podium demanding the questioning of her son be halted immediately.

Judge Brady cut Susan off mid-sentence and directed Eli to answer the question.

Repositioning himself in the chair, Eli listed the alleged participants. There was his Uncle John Polk, John’s lawyer, Bud MacKenzie, the Briners, and his dad’s friend, Barry Morris. “They’ve used their connections in this court and others to control things the best that they can.”

“Am I, me, Paul Sequeira, just some guy who works for the D.A.’s office, am I working for this big conspiracy?”

“I have not seen documentation, proof…no one has said anything to lead me to believe that,” Eli said. He also declined to speculate as to whether members of law enforcement were also involved, or that they had “staged” the crime scene, as his mother alleged.

All eyes in the courtroom turned to Susan, who was now chuckling. Addressing the prosecutor, she insisted that she never accused him of being a party to the conspiracy. “But, I’ve had my doubts,” Susan giggled. “You, too, your honor.”

“Ms. Polk, I do not find anything amusing about this,” Judge Brady reprimanded. “And I don’t think the giggling is appropriate. Stop it!”

Friday’s court session adjourned when the prosecutor announced that he had no further questions.