Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Wise County murder case comes to prime time
"Accused in Appalachia" airs tonight at 8 on A&E's "American Justice."
Did Dennis Pease wound his wife and then kill himself by putting two bullets through his stomach?
Or did Merry Pease shoot her husband and then wound herself in an attempt to cover her crime?
Those are the questions that have been asked again and again over the past 11 years in Virginia's coalfields - through three indictments, two trials and a series of appeal court rulings that found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct but, ultimately, found no reason to stop Merry Pease from serving an 18-year sentence for second-degree murder.
Now, the Wise County case will be considered by a larger public - a cable television audience for the A&E Network's "American Justice" series.
The hour-long segment, titled "Accused in Appalachia," will air at 8 tonight.
The show digs into the details of the case but sheds no new light on what happened in Dennis and Merry Pease's home on Nov. 18, 1993.
Producer Jennifer Maiotti said "American Justice" doesn't reach conclusions about the cases it covers.
"We try to let everybody have their time to talk and to state their case," Maiotti said. "This one especially is not a simple, straightforward case - as you can tell by the indictments and the convictions and the ins and outs of jail."
Maiotti was able to get everyone involved to talk, including Merry Pease. She was interviewed at Fluvanna Correctional Center, where she reported in February, after the Virginia Supreme Court rejected the appeal of her second conviction.
"She'd never done a television interview before," Maiotti said. "But she's a natural speaker. ... She knew exactly what she wanted to say."
It was a case without a confession or an eyewitness for the prosecution. The state based its case on circumstantial evidence, noting, for example, that Merry Pease had a gunpowder burn on her hand and arguing that it would have been impossible for Dennis Pease to have shot himself twice with a single-action revolver.
A defense expert, meanwhile, argued that Merry Pease could have gotten the powder burn trying to grab the gun as her husband fired it. The defense called the state's case "theory and fiction," pointing to a state medical examiner's report that concluded that Dennis Pease's death was most likely a suicide.
A jury found Merry Pease guilty in 1994, but that conviction was overturned when the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutor Tim McAfee had improperly influenced the grand jury that indicted her.
Pease was indicted twice more before another Wise County jury convicted her in the spring of 2000.
From prison, Pease still maintains that she was a victim of a drunken, violent husband: "I want to shout it from the rooftops that I'm telling the truth - and that I'm innocent."
Prosecutor McAfee is equally adamant that justice has been done, by two juries no less: "There's no other explanation other than Merry Pease murdered Dennis Pease."