Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case - Catherine Crier (2007)
Part III. THE TRIAL
Chapter 28. SUSAN’S SOLILOQUY
On Wednesday, May 17, Susan called her most compelling witness to the stand.
“Mrs. Polk, your next witness?” Brady directed.
The gallery brimmed with journalists and trial watchers looking on in complete silence as Susan announced with a nervous giggle, “Yes, I’m going to testify, so the defense calls myself.”
Raising her right hand, Susan swore to tell the “whole truth.”
Over the prosecutor’s objections, Judge Brady ruled that Susan’s testimony would be a straight narrative; a Q & A with both questions and answers coming from Susan would be too confusing.
“This is not carte blanche,” the judge warned Susan before inviting jurors into the courtroom to begin hearing the testimony. “This is not an opportunity for a speech. This is a privilege, not a right. You may not like it, but the reality is now that the defendant—you—do not dictate how we proceed in this courtroom.”
“I object,” Susan said, telling Brady that it was her legal right as a pro per defendant to voice objections. “It may appear impertinent or argumentative or unruly to some members of the audience, but it’s not. This is not a playground. This is a battle for truth. This is not a movie. This is not a script.”
Jurors filed in that morning to find Susan outfitted in prison issue greens and seated in the witness box. “I’m not going to go into every detail,” she assured them. “Everyone wants to get on with their lives.”
Despite this disclaimer, Susan began her testimony with a two-hour slide show depicting her life. She narrated the show herself, with the help of on-again, off-again case assistant, Valerie Harris, on the overheard projector. Throughout the slide show, Susan’s demeanor seesawed between weepy and mournful to thoughtful and contemplative as she identified photos of herself as a young girl, as a twenty-five-year-old bride, and as wife and mother, posing with her husband, children, and the family dogs. She broke into sobs when an image of her son, Adam, popped up on the screen.
“I think he said what he said to survive, and that’s what he had to do,” Susan told jurors of the twenty-three-year-old who called her “evil” on the stand. “I think you saw a different Adam. The real Adam, the one I knew, sent me poems [in jail], came to see me, and was extraordinarily loving.”
Jurors were riveted by Susan’s narrative, which she delivered in a soft, folksy manner, her hands folded in her lap, along with a copy of her diary marked with yellow Post-Its. Throughout her testimony, she would refer to the diary that documented the actions of her husband and others who had come out against her.
As she spoke, Sequeira sat quietly in his seat, listening to her testify for much of the morning without voicing a single objection. Instead, he allowed Susan to talk about her relationship with Felix and her realization at the age of forty that she wanted out of the marriage. The twelve-member panel had already heard much of what Susan would testify to through other witnesses and in her opening statement. Still, she insisted the jury needed to hear “her story.”
Susan said the onset of Felix’s alleged abuse came soon after they were married, and she retold for jurors her story of premarital doubts about their relationship, saying that she later felt “ashamed” of her decision to marry “my therapist.” Despite her reservations and subsequent abuse, she never spoke up because she “thought telling someone would precipitate getting me killed…. I kept thinking I could fix it. His refrain was that nobody would ever believe me if I told them anything.”
Susan told jurors the first time she left Felix was in March 2001. He had a restraining order against her so she rented a room at the Claremont Hotel. She compared the experience to “recovering from an accident.” The peace and quiet was broken only by repeated calls from Felix. Susan held up a photo she took while at the hotel, showing the bruise she allegedly received on her wrist during an argument with him. Later that month, at her then-attorney’s request, Susan documented the alleged spousal abuse she suffered from October 2000 to March 2001 in an attempt to secure a restraining order against her husband. She recited the five incidents for the panel, contending that Felix had slapped, punched, and abused her, once tossing a drink in her face.
Moving on from her abuse, Susan recalled her January 2001 suicide attempt and her decision to move out of the Orinda house and rent a cottage in Stinson Beach. During that trip, Susan decided not to return home but experienced a change of heart when Eli and Gabriel begged her to come back. It was while she was living in Stinson Beach that she began her diary, vowing to look at life with more humor. Normally, Susan said, she would run from the room crying when Felix would bully her. Now, she would not let herself become unglued; she would adopt a more sarcastic attitude when he tried to intimidate her. But according to Susan, her new approach only succeeded in further enraging her husband.
“I finally made up my mind,” she said. “I wasn’t going to behave like a caged bird. I would live my life. I could go shopping if I wanted to.”
Upon her return to Orinda, Susan observed that her three boys had changed. They were growing increasingly chauvinistic, more like Felix. To remedy the situation, Susan arranged to travel with her sons to show them the proper way to act around a woman, taking Gabe to Thailand and Hawaii, and Eli to Paris.
At lunchtime, jurors filed out of the courtroom, notebooks and pens in hand, but they were pretty much the only people who were guaranteed seats upon their return. Interest in Susan’s testimony was so great that court officers returned from the lunch break that afternoon to find a line that stretched from the second-floor courtroom across the hall to the public bathrooms. In a rush for one of fifty seats in the gallery, Susan’s own mother, Helen Bolling, was pushed to a spot in the back of the courtroom to hear the remainder of her daughter’s testimony that day.
While listeners had been riveted by Susan’s testimony in the morning, their interest would wane before she was finished for the day. What had begun as a poignant story of a flawed relationship between a fragile teen and her much-older therapist would soon degenerate into an outlandish tale of brutality, and spies and conspiracy theories. After the lunch break, Susan described how she had been repeatedly raped and drugged by her therapist husband who used her as a “project” to further his studies of hypnosis and ESP. Susan maintained that as a teenage patient, Felix spiked her tea with drugs, lulled her into a trance, and coerced her into sex. He later demanded that she make predictions on world events that he could pass along to his Israeli operatives.
“I wanted a normal life. I didn’t want to be a medium. I didn’t want to live like that,” Susan said, claiming to have predicted both attacks on the World Trade Center and to have thwarted the assassination of Pope John Paul II.
“Looking back over my life, I became convinced that he was actually poisoning me,” Susan told jurors, recalling that at one point she started experiencing numbness and tingling in her extremities. “Felix smiled and said it was MS,” she said. But when a doctor discounted that diagnosis, Susan surmised that her husband likely was poisoning her. To be sure, she stopped accepting food and beverages from him, a tactic that put an end to her symptoms.
It was soon after her surprise fortieth birthday party that Susan realized she could no longer stay married to Felix. “I looked around that room and saw mostly patients, patients who were his friends,” she recounted. “I thought, my God, what am I doing? I’m married to this guy who’s twenty-five years older, he’s my dad’s age, he was my therapist. I was ashamed of his values.”
When Susan told Felix of her desire to leave the marriage, he allegedly threatened to harm their children and hinted he might alert one of his patients, a lawyer who moonlighted as an assassin, about the situation. “It was a recurrent theme,” she added. “Whenever I brought up divorce, he would say, ‘You better think of the consequences to the children’ and ‘You better think of the consequences to the dogs.’”
The comment about the dogs seemed to strike a particular chord with Susan, who shuddered when she recalled the fate of the family’s German Shepard, Maxi, a dog that Felix had supposedly poisoned. When she confronted him about Maxi’s untimely death, he fingered the neighbor as the guilty party.
By day two, Susan’s plodding narrative and penchant for minutiae grew even more tiresome. She had been on the stand almost six hours and had yet to discuss the events that led to her indictment. Surprisingly, Sequeira had only voiced a handful of objections, the majority of which were related to hearsay testimony, but as the day wore on, even he appeared to be wilting.
Susan’s gentle tone grew brusque as she role-played both sides of the argument she had with Felix when she tried to leave the house for Stinson Beach in March 2001.
In a gravelly voice intended to be that of her husband’s, she asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To the beach,” she then replied in a soft tone to indicate she was speaking.
“No, you’re not,” Felix fired back, allegedly striking her in the face as she attempted to flee the house.
Susan contended that for much of their marriage, Felix forbade her from having friends, leaving the house without his permission, and shopping for herself.
On Thursday, Susan told jurors she wanted to clear up an inaccuracy in previous testimony provided by Dr. Peters, the one who evaluated her after her Yosemite suicide attempt. It was Dr. Peters who had agreed during cross-examination that Felix’s call to 911 had saved her life that day.
Susan said she wanted to make it clear that she had called Felix, not because she was reaching out to a supportive husband, but simply because his was the only phone number she could remember in her alcohol and drug-induced haze.
Calling the jury’s attention to the actual timeline of these events was not a bad idea. Dr. Peters portrayed Felix as ultimately caring about the fate of his depressed and troubled wife. If Susan could make it seem as though this phone call was her doing, it might make Felix seem more the callous husband who cared little about his struggling wife.
Ultimately it was uncertain what impact the clarification had on the jury, since, on Friday, Susan interrupted her direct testimony to recall her eldest son, Adam, to the stand. It was an interesting move and her underlying motivation for it was not immediately clear. Susan seemed more concerned with trying to win her son’s affection and stir his emotions with remembrances of the past, than with providing evidence to counter the State’s claim that she murdered her husband in cold blood.
“Adam, you’ve testified that I’m crazy,” she continued.
Adam told his mother that he was the first person to suggest to his father that she was mentally ill. “I was the one who brought it to the table. He refused to believe it at first.”
“Are you aware that your dad tried to have me committed?”
“All that I’m aware of is that you’ll say anything you feel like, drag him and our name through the mud, to serve your cause.”
Susan cried as she read aloud from a Mother’s Day card from her eldest son: “Mom, I know we’ve all had our share of troubled times, but I will always love you.”
“Did you mean that?” Susan asked.
“Yes, I do love you,” Adam said flatly. “And I will always be there, but I’ve stated it before, you need some help.”
Susan asked her son if he was aware that the psychologist who examined her right after her 2001 suicide attempt testified that she was not crazy.
“I have a much better vantage point,” he replied. “I’ve spent twenty years in this situation. You’re a sick, sick person who’s in dire need of a very controlled environment for a very long time. If that doesn’t happen, I won’t feel safe, and I’m sure a lot of other people won’t feel safe.”
On Monday, Susan continued her testimony with a long-awaited explanation of the events of October 13, 2002. Her story of that night began by explaining how she went to the guesthouse to talk to her husband. When he answered the kitchen door, he was wearing black briefs but refused to put on pants, saying that he couldn’t be bothered.
Upon entering the house, Susan sat as far from Felix as she could in the tiny cabin-like guesthouse, intending to discuss their finances and a plan for Gabe’s education. During the conversation, Susan made a sarcastic comment that infuriated Felix, and he hit her in the face.
“I staggered back and pulled out the pepper spray. I sprayed him right in the face, and he was just angrier.”
She reached for the metal Maglite flashlight sitting on the coffee table beside the leather chair and “tapped him on the right temple,” indicating that the “tap” “did not stop him at all.” He was “absolutely enraged” and raced at her with the ottoman, eventually grabbing her by the hair and dragging her to the floor. She was on her back, knees up, and Felix was on top of her.
“He rubbed the pepper spray off his hands and into my eyes,” Susan contended. “It was oily and orange-ish. My eyes were burning. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God. I’m dead. I’m in the worst possible situation.…He punched me again in the face. I was completely stunned. I opened my eyes and I saw the knife coming down and it went into my pants,” Susan said, without explaining how, or where, Felix had obtained the knife.
“It’s hard to see the cut ’cause I sewed it up later,” Susan insisted, holding up a pair of jeans she pulled from a brown evidence bag. Several coins tumbled from the pockets as she scanned the jeans for a tiny “nick” the knife made when it entered her left pant leg. “I saw it come down and go in,” she insisted, putting on her eyeglasses to aid in her search of the garment. Susan noted the jeans were her favorite pair and she had washed them after the tussle. She also showered several times that night.
The bailiff held the jeans up for jurors as Susan described the “flash” she experienced as Felix was stabbing at her with the knife. “I thought, ‘unless you do something right now, you’re going to die. He’s going to kill you.’” With this realization, Susan briefly contemplated letting herself die but quickly changed her mind, and pulling her leg back, she delivered a swift kick to Felix’s groin with the heel of her foot and then grabbed for the knife, which nearly fell from his grip as he reacted to the sharp jolt. “It was a very strong kick,” she said. “He was stunned.”
Susan claimed she warned her husband, “Stop, I’ve got the knife.” But he kept coming at her. She recalled stabbing her husband just five or six times. After repeatedly demanding that Felix “get off” of her, he finally rose to his feet and said, “Oh my God, I think I’m dead.”
“He rocked back and forth on his feet. He swayed…and he just fell straight back.”
Susan ran to the bathroom to clear the pepper spray from her eyes. When she returned, Felix’s eyes were open, staring up at the ceiling, but he was not breathing. At that moment, memories of their years together flooded back. She recalled their first meeting, the day they wed, the children they raised, but the good memories soon gave way to bad, and the façade of their relationship crumbled as she thought about the years of abuse and marital difficulties.
According to her version of events, Susan remained in the cottage for about thirty minutes, carrying on a conversation with her dead husband, asking the questions in death that she never managed to ask in life. Standing on the stairs, she spoke to him, trying in vain to understand this man who had been a mystery to her for more than twenty years, at one point yelling at the body, “How could you do that to your children?”
Susan’s testimony proved surreal. While she had long highlighted different aspects of that night, she had never fleshed out the full picture to the court, never provided any of the details that made her narrative seem human. Now, the court was transfixed by her story, picturing her huddled around the body and trying to make sense of her tenuous situation. It was a vivid image, one that displayed her many inner contradictions. Though she professed to have loathed her husband for years, she could never completely let go of him. In this ending, his death was too abrupt, their relationship too flawed to simply be over, but somehow it was.
Once she moved past the initial shock of her situation, her next thoughts were more practical. “I’m going to be in big trouble,” she realized. She didn’t call police. Instead, she left through the kitchen door and returned to the main house. Holding up a pair of black clogs, Susan identified them as the pair of shoes she was wearing that night. “I don’t wear athletic shoes,” she said plainly. “I have no idea whose shoes those are in the blood. They’re not my sons’.”
That night was sleepless for Susan, who said that she drove Felix’s car to the BART station so that her son wouldn’t see it in the driveway and go to the guesthouse in search of his dad. The following morning, Susan drove Gabe to school, took him out for lunch, ran some errands, and did some housekeeping. “I kept putting off calling the police. I wanted to have a nice day with Gabriel. I just didn’t want to tell him what happened.”
Later in the day, when Gabe asked about Felix, she claimed she had no idea where he might be. “It was like living in two worlds. My husband was dead in the cottage and I was acting and pretending like he hadn’t died,” Susan testified. “I wanted to hang on to some semblance of a normal life for a few more hours.”
She said her son knew better. “He knew. I knew he knew. I just wanted to deny. The look in his eyes,” Susan’s eyes filled with tears. “He thought I’d killed his father…. But Gabe knew there was something wrong. I just wasn’t the mom I always was,” Susan sniffed. “Gabe is so sensitive. We were all so close; we finished each other’s sentences.”
Addressing Gabriel’s earlier claim that Susan had asked Gabriel if he was happy that his dad was gone, Susan claimed that she never actually said those words, but in actuality said “‘He’s gone. You aren’t happy, are you?’” Susan recalled. “I was buying time to put off telling him he’s dead.”
According to Susan, it was this initial lie to Gabriel that enabled her to carry her story forward, even as officers presented her with evidence to the contrary.
“At some point, I decided to lie,” she said. “I thought my best shot at getting out of custody, to take care of my dogs and my son, was to lie. So I did. Once I denied, that was it. I just kept doing that.”
In spite of her lie, Susan admitted that she “would have confessed” if police indicated they were going to arrest Gabe for the crime. “I was relieved that Adam was coming for Gabe,” she said.
Susan went on to maintain, “I didn’t murder Felix, and I didn’t want the stigma of people thinking I murdered him. I just hoped I wouldn’t be charged, but I was.”
As the afternoon progressed, Susan presented jurors with “explanations” for the accusations made in court by prosecution witnesses, but the more she talked the more it appeared that she was fabricating stories. For example, she insisted that Gabe had misconstrued her discussion of purchasing a shotgun, saying that it had nothing to do with murder. In her version of the story, she was shopping for a weapon on the advice of huntsmen in Montana who told her a shotgun would provide good protection from bears during her frequent hikes in the woods. Similarly, she also challenged Gabe’s testimony that she threatened to drown Felix in the pool unless he wired millions of dollars into her bank account. Instead she claimed that she had simply expressed concern that his father would get too drunk one night and “drown” in the pool.
On Tuesday, before the jury was brought into court, Susan asked that she be allowed to have attorney Gary Wesley of Mountain View present during her cross-examination by Sequeira. Susan told Brady that if she agreed to allow him to act as assistant counsel, he would be in court solely to make objections on her behalf. Sequeira immediately objected, arguing that the attorney was unfamiliar with the case and had not been in court during the thirteen weeks of trial. Allowing the lawyer to join at this late date would be “setting up a disaster” and could lay the groundwork for an appeal on the basis of “ineffective assistance of counsel,” he said.
“I’m extremely concerned about his competence. He can’t possibly know the ins and outs of this case,” Sequeira went on, insisting that Susan Polk “knows the case as well as anybody.”
Brady raised an eyebrow when Wesley stepped before her and admitted that since graduating from Santa Clara University Law School in 1978, he had never tried a murder case. Nevertheless, he had tried all felony cases “short of murder,” and ultimately, Brady allowed Wesley to act as assistant defense counsel during Susan’s cross-examination. This was not, however, a blank check; there would be ground rules. He could not offer any unsolicited advice. The judge also warned Susan that she would not be permitted to raise objections if she agreed to Wesley’s participation.
Brady fought back a smile when Susan agreed. “I’m going to hold you to that,” the judge grinned.
Wesley told reporters outside court that afternoon that he came on board at the request of Susan’s case manager, Valerie Harris, and had been providing informal counsel to Susan for several weeks. As if to demonstrate his familiarity with the case, he offered a criticism of Sequeira’s cross-examination of Eli Polk, calling it improper and accusing the prosecutor of crafting questions to “bait” the young man on the stand.
Susan ended her fourth day of direct testimony that Tuesday with what could only be described as a presentation of her kitchen knives. In a testimony akin to a sales presentation on the Home Shopping Network, Susan detailed each piece of cutlery, as a lanky deputy displayed them in his gloved hands. Though she was expressly forbidden to handle the utensils, she appeared happy to provide details about them to members of the jury. Jurors craned their necks to glimpse the family’s bread knife, a butcher knife, and a set of steak knives.
“That knife was everyone’s favorite knife,” Susan said of one steak knife, smiling as she explained how all three of her sons liked that one best. “It was always disappearing…. And that [a different knife] was the knife he [Felix] had in the cottage that he attacked me with,” Susan said of the one with the black handle. “Afterwards, I picked it up, brought it back into the kitchen, washed it, dried it, and put it away.”
Once Susan had finished with the detailed history of the Polk family cutlery, she moved on to an entirely new and until now, unmentioned subject. Susan attempted to raise allegations that her husband had engaged in inappropriate contact with his daughter from his first marriage. She provided no evidence and there is no evidence whatsoever to support these allegations. Nevertheless, it was Susan’s intention to introduce these allegations only by her own testimony. For much of her first four days on the stand, Sequeira had allowed Susan’s testimony to go into the record with few objections, but the period of relative calm in the courtroom came to an end with this latest development.
“I move for a mistrial based on being called a liar!” she demanded during a sidebar with the judge.
Susan flew into a rage after Sequeira objected to this line of testimony. Susan claimed that Jennifer had alluded to the abuse in letters she sent her father. But she could not produce the writings because someone had supposedly stolen her “Jennifer files.”
“I was impressed that we have gone for four days very smoothly,” Judge Brady said. “But this display in front of the jury with such a sensitive matter, especially when I’m learning for the first time that those letters just don’t exist anymore.”
“That’s not true!” Susan interrupted.
“Stop interrupting me,” Brady instructed. “I’m not done.”
“It is an outrageous abuse of your power to keep me silent on his abuse!” Susan shouted at Brady.
“Nobody’s going to keep you silent,” Sequeira mumbled aloud.
Unable to quell Susan’s rants, Brady adjourned for the day.
Before being led away that afternoon, Susan learned that Eli’s trial had resulted in a conviction on three of the six counts he was facing in connection with the March 2006 fight with his girlfriend. Valerie Harris was the one to deliver the news that a judge had just sentenced Eli to nine months in jail on the charges.
The next day, Susan’s cross-examination by the prosecutor began. That Thursday, Susan quickly charged Sequeira with using “doctored” photos of the crime scene and Contra Costa detectives with “staging” the scene to look like murder. She contended that pictures of her husband’s “defense wounds” appeared to have been magnified to make them appear more dramatic than they really were.
“They [detectives] were primarily focused on ensuring it did not look like self-defense,” Susan insisted when shown photos of the white numbered place markers encircling Felix’s bloodied body to indicate shoeprints found by police.
“Well, it looks as if someone, maybe a female deputy, because they’re really small shoes that fit in your shoe size range, maybe walked around the body and then walked to the bathroom,” Sequeira said in a raised voice. “Is that how it happened?”
“I think you guys goofed,” Susan implied. “I mean, to put two shoe prints, right-side shoes, side-by-side, like, what, I jumped up and did a whirligig?”
Later on, Sequeira stood before an easel, listing the names of all of the people that Susan had accused of lying about an aspect of her case. There was Gabriel, along with several members of the police department under the column labeled “Liars.” During the questioning, Susan pointed out that Felix had also lied and insisted the prosecutor renumber to put Felix’s name at the top of the list. Sequeira obliged, and changed the order to read: “1. Victim, 2. Gabe, 3. Sgt. Hanson.” Appearing at once ridiculous and true to Susan’s form, the display succeeded in demonstrating her confused paranoia. In Susan’s eyes, it was everyone against her—not because she was wrong but because she was persecuted. With this single gesture, Sequeira managed to show the entire court the skewed lens through which Susan viewed the world, while giving the members of the jury a concise look at the “enemies” that Susan claimed to have in the case.
As the cross-examination continued, Susan responded to questions about her motive for destroying potential evidence in the case. Sequeira asked why she laundered and repaired her blue jeans, got rid of the pepper spray, and washed the knife that Felix allegedly wielded that night, stripping it of potential fingerprints to prove her claim he had provoked the attack.
“Did you use that knife the next night?” Sequeira asked Susan. “Did you warn Gabe, ‘Hey, don’t use that knife?’”
“I don’t recall.”
“Is it possible that Gabe used the knife to eat his dinner? The same knife that was used to kill his father?”
Susan recoiled at the implication, claiming she had no idea if the knife was ever used again.
“In emergencies I get very fastidious. That’s just who I am. I cleaned it and put it away,” Polk said. “If you think that makes me a murderer? I mean, c’mon. But it makes a good story, so I guess you like that part.”
“It’s about the truth, Mrs. Polk.”
Expressing frustration with the District Attorney’s implication that she “snapped” inside the guest cottage that October night, Susan insisted that “snapping” was not in her nature, but it was in Felix’s. Susan also pointed out that she had successfully argued against a court order requiring that she submit to a psychological evaluation before going to trial.
“I’m not going to play crazy,” she told jurors. “I’m not going to say I snapped when I didn’t. And I’m not going to pretend this D.A. isn’t out to frame me for murder and this judge’s rulings are not biased, when I believe they are.”
“You’ve used the words ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ many times, Mrs. Polk,” Sequeira told Susan during recross-examination. “But do you recall saying in an interview on Court TV that you talked about it in a joking voice—the different actresses that might play you in a movie?”
The prosecutor was referring to an April 2006 interview that aired on Catherine Crier Live, conducted by my senior producer and coauthor, Cole Thompson. During the conversation, Susan said for the first time that she might be losing her case in court. In a moment of levity, she also joked about the possibility of a movie being made about her life, leading her to speculate that Winona Ryder should play the younger Susan, while Susan Sarandon should play her older self.
Though at the time the humor seemed harmless, Sequeira was seeking to use that televised interview to portray her as someone who pokes fun at a murder victim.
“Is it a crime to be able to find some humor in my situation?” Susan asked the prosecutor, charging that the Court TV producer “sand-bagged” her with the question. Breaking into a girlish giggle, she admitted that she still believes that Hannibal Lector is “too nice” a character to portray Felix.
“This is funny to you?” Sequeira huffed.
“I thought so,” Susan chuckled. But her demeanor quickly changed when she realized that jurors were not laughing along with her. Turning on the tears, she reminded panelists of her serious nature as a child, her difficult years as a wife, and her mother’s mantra.
“Have a sense of humor!” Susan said her mother always told her.
“I could look at my life as a tragedy. Or I could see it as a triumph,” she said as the tears flowed and she gasped for breath. “And I made a conscious choice that no matter what happened in my life, I wasn’t going to be a victim.”
Before resting her case on Thursday, June 8, Susan would call a colorful assortment of witnesses to testify. Among them was Laura Castro-Shelly, a fifth-degree Shaolin black belt who used the “fight or flight” response to explain the relatively few bruises Susan sustained during the fight with her husband.
“I believe it’s animalistic,” Castro-Shelly responded when asked how a woman of Polk’s size and stature could survive such a brutal attack by someone so much larger than she. “You become a lioness in the wilderness. You will protect yourself. You will protect your babies…. You will fight back knowing this could be your last breath.”
Susan also sought to direct the court’s attention to the role that psychics can play in crime investigation, calling Roger Clark, a retired Los Angeles sheriff ’s lieutenant and self-described psychic detective and expert in crime scene analysis to testify on her behalf. The former police lieutenant took the stand to bolster Dr. Cooper’s assertion that Felix died from a heart attack and not the massive injuries he sustained in the guest cottage. Similarly, Susan called psychic detective Annette Martin to testify; however, Judge Brady limited her testimony to a discussion of how her intuitive abilities are used by members of law enforcement—adding little to Susan’s defense. Susan touted Martin’s abilities, claiming she had a 100 percent success rate on the hundred cases she assisted on. “She testified because she cares about me,” Susan later said.
Next to take the stand was family therapist and domestic violence expert Linda Barnard who supported Susan’s claim that she was a victim of “physical, emotional, and verbal abuse” during her relationship with Felix. The expert admitted she had not conducted a psychological evaluation of Susan in jail, but instead, had based her conclusions on four meetings with the defendant at the West County Correctional Facility and a review of the case documents, including recorded interviews, medical records, and naval records on Felix Polk. In response to questions, Dr. Barnard asserted that Susan suffers from post–traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the ongoing abuse she endured during her relationship with Felix.
“Can you describe for the jury what a delusional disorder is?” Sequeira asked Barnard during the subsequent cross-examination.
Referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), she described someone who might be out of touch with reality, hold false beliefs, and experience hallucinations.
Clutching his own copy of the diagnostic manual, the prosecutor read aloud from a section on “persecutory type delusional disorder.”
“This subtype applies when the central theme of the delusion involves the person’s belief that he or she is being conspired against, cheated on, spied on, followed, poisoned or drugged, maliciously maligned, harassed. Small slights may be exaggerated,” the prosecutor read on. “The focus of the delusion is often some injustice that must be remedied by legal action.”
After a dramatic pause, Sequeira read the final line of the passage aloud: “Individuals with persecutory delusions are often resentful and angry and may resort to violence against those they believe are hurting them.”
“Is this an accurate portrayal of the disorder?” he asked.
Dr. Barnard nodded in agreement.
Sequeira didn’t ask if the description applied to Susan’s conduct; the jury would make the obvious connection on its own.
On the morning of Tuesday, June 13, Susan presented her closing arguments to the jury, ignoring the remarks prepared for her by Valerie Harris and some of her supporters. For months, Harris and several others, including former Miner Road homeowner Roger Deakins, had been holding roundtables at the Polk house to plot defense strategies. Deakins had come to court during several days of testimony to show his support for Susan. But once again, Susan would do things her way.
Before she began, Susan unsuccessfully protested Judge Brady’s imposition of a three-hour time limit on the closing remarks. She also tried to convince Brady to charge the jury on just two possible outcomes—either first-degree murder or an acquittal based on self-defense. But Brady ruled to let the jury consider the “lesser included” offenses of murder in the second degree and involuntary manslaughter.
Meanwhile, Helen Bolling waited in the gallery, lost in a game of numbers. “Numbers are fascinating,” she told Cole Thompson, who secured a seat next to her in the rear of the courtroom. Bolling attracted sneers from the trial watchers, so called gavel groupies, when she continued to crinkle the plastic wrapper of a lemon candy she was fighting to open, seemingly oblivious to the amount of noise she was making. Helen looked up in time to see her daughter searching the gallery for a familiar face.
Susan’s frantic expression melted into a smile when she finally spotted Helen. Susan looked worn, as though she had aged several years since the trial began on March 7. Still reed-thin and wobbly, she stood before Brady in the same dark floral blouse and brown dress she had worn to court the day before. Her tousled salt-and-pepper hair was now mostly gray and her skin was pale and drawn.
It was 9:05 AM when the proceedings got underway. As the prosecution can both open and close the final arguments, jurors heard first from ADA Sequeira that morning. Susan would step before the court that afternoon to deliver her final remarks—after informing Judge Brady she didn’t want her photo taken after the reading of the verdict.
Jurors sat stone-faced as a weepy Susan walked to the podium just after the lunch break. Despite repeated admonishments from the judge, she had objected no less than sixteen times during the prosecutor’s closing remarks that morning.
“Imagine for a second there’s a man on top of you,” Susan began. “What would you do? I kicked him in the groin.”
Susan listed seven reasons why she could not have killed Felix: her arms are not long enough, she’s not big enough to throw Felix to the floor, she had injuries herself, the distribution of the stab wounds, the nature of the head trauma, the physical improbability and a lack of intent to kill.
Compounding her physical inability to murder Felix was the fact that, according to her, a proper investigation never took place. “Anything they found that didn’t fit with murder, they erased.” She contended that police never subpoenaed Felix’s naval records. “I wrote the navy for them and they sent them within two weeks.” In addition, she argued that they didn’t want to locate Felix’s computer “because theoretically it could have shown that Felix was trying to kill me.”
“I made up my husband’s history of violence?” she posed. “Come on.
“According to the D.A., I’m delusional. According to my husband, I was delusional, but I was in charge of our stock portfolio…. This trial has become a witch hunt,” she insisted, anxiously watching the clock in the rear of the courtroom to stay within her time limit. “Am I on trial for saying I predicted the 9/11 terror attacks or am I on trial for murder?”
Susan insisted that even if jurors believed she “is as guilty as a bedbug” they should vote to acquit her because she killed her husband in self-defense.
“Please use your common sense and do not be swayed by the misrepresentations of the district attorney,” she concluded.
And with that, Susan Polk rested her case.
She looked glum as she shuffled back to her seat at the defense table, where a framed photo of a young Eli Polk was propped in front of her. Valerie Harris was seated next to her at the table in a chair traditionally reserved for lawyers. Throughout the proceedings, local attorneys tending to matters in the courthouse had voiced surprise over the court’s decision to allow Harris to sit in that seat. Judge Brady even softened and gave Susan an additional ten minutes to finish her closing remarks that day. But there had been almost nothing traditional about the way Susan’s case had played out over the thirteen weeks. It was on this note that the prosecutor began his last argument to the jury.
“There’s two sets of rules,” Sequeira said during his rebuttal remarks. “There’s one set for Susan Polk and one set for the rest. She lives by her own rules and always has.” He noted that Susan had originally claimed that the sexual relationship with Felix began when she was sixteen. On the stand, she now realized that she was actually fourteen at the time. “The problem is, it’s just like everything else in this case. Sixteen wasn’t good enough. Then fifteen wasn’t good enough. Now it’s fourteen.
“And now she’s being raped and drugged.
“It doesn’t matter, if it was twenty, it’s still wrong.” Sequeira maintained. “But it’s never good enough.”
Walking to the overhead projector, the prosecutor replaced Susan’s childhood photo with a photo of the crime scene. He told jurors, “Susan was not a captive. She was free to leave whenever she wanted. Felix even made arrangements for travel out of the country.”
Reading from Susan’s statements to police during her interview at headquarters that first night, Sequeira strode around the courtroom and replayed her repeated claims of innocence. He also discussed her suicide attempt at Yosemite National Park, her revelations about her marriage at her fortieth birthday party and her theory about Felix’s death.
As he spoke, Susan could not quell the urge to jump up and object to his remarks, but the judge threatened her with sanctions if her protests continued. Once she settled back in her seat, Sequeira laid out his theory of how the murder unfolded. “She did it by surprise,” he said, charging that Susan had the knife with her when she went to speak with Felix in the guesthouse that night. The prosecutor noted that defense pathologist John Cooper had contended the knife used in the assault would not be the weapon of choice to commit a murder. It was too small.
“Oh really?” Sequeira said, raising his arm in the air with dramatic flourish. Standing beneath the judge’s bench, he rapped three times on the ledge of the desk, pretending he was gripping a large knife as Felix answered the door. “‘Can I come in?’” he said, mimicking Susan. “And she’s standing there with a kitchen knife this long?”
Laughter engulfed the courtroom.
Despite the previous warnings from Judge Brady, Susan continued to object, calling for a mistrial no less than five times during the forty-six-minute rebuttal presentation. Nevertheless, Sequeira was not deterred, and when referring to Susan’s accusation that police had “staged” the crime scene, he asked “How did they do it? Couldn’t they have done a better job?
“Felix had blood on his knees. Why would he have blood on his knees if he fell backward? The car, she moved it. Why? The knife, where did it come from? Did it come from his underwear? Susan took the knife from the house. This is evidence of premeditation. The Maglite, if she did not use it as a weapon, then why did she need to wash it off?
“I can only ask you to do the right thing,” Sequeira concluded. “Justice for Dr. Polk and his children is now in your hands.”
Judgment day for Susan Polk was near.
On Tuesday, June 12, jurors got the case—but not before Judge Brady informed Susan that she had failed to enter many of Felix’s naval records into evidence, meaning that jurors could not consider them in their deliberations. Susan was uncharacteristically subdued. Realizing the error was hers, she barely argued with Brady over the pronouncement. She requested only that the judge greet jurors each morning. She wanted to be sure that they were properly admonished not to read or listen to the news or talk outside the jury room about the case. She also wanted them to have a plastic magnifying device that Valerie Harris had purchased for her at Staples to be able to examine crime scene photos and other evidence carefully.
The judge agreed and then directed jurors to begin deliberations in the jury assembly room on the first floor after lunch.