John Matthew Stephenson

When I start researching a case I go in with the belief that the outcome is the correct one.  In cases where a jury trial has occurred I have to believe that the jury "got it right." To have faith in our criminal justice system you have to think this most of the time.  Now, I am human, just as juries are and I know that they do get it wrong sometimes. But as a rule, before knowing facts we should always believe in our justice system. If you are a reader of my blog already then you know that by the time it is over I do not always feel that way.  And then of course if there is a trial that ends in a conviction there is the sentencing.  When the death penalty is being asked for by the prosecutors there is often another "mini trial" so the jury can make a recommendation on the sentence. I am neither an advocate for or against the death penalty.  I do think that it is sometimes warranted but no, I do not think that it is a deterrent for other criminals. Sometimes I just think a crime is so heinous that only death is justification.  However, in those cases I believe that there should be absolutely no question as to the guilt of the person.  That does not mean that I could not find someone guilty of a crime at all, it just means that I would look again at the evidence before determining sentencing, as it should be.  I would have the ability to convict someone on what my gut tells me the evidence says (and my gut is pretty awesome) but I would need more than my gut to make the decision to take someone's life.  This is just such a case. 

On the early morning of March 29, 1996 a man by the name of Lindy Hutchison was driving to work on a rural Warrick County Indiana road when he saw a pick-up truck on the side of the road.  It was up against a fence post and the passenger door was open.  When he got to work he called the local sheriff's department and reported it.  My research indicated that Hutchison did not see anyone or anything in the truck when he saw it.  Police and EMT's were dispatched to the location.  The EMT's arrived first.  They noticed that the truck was riddled with bullet holes and inside lay three people.  They quickly determined that all three were deceased. They would later be identified as John "Jay" Tyler (29), his wife, Kathy (29) and their friend Brandi Southard (21).  It would be determined at autopsy that not only had the three been shot but at least the women had also been stabbed. There were bullet casings from a SKS assault rifle in the area.

As in any investigation the starting points are identifying the victims and talking to people.  One of the first people they spoke to was Lindy Hutchison, the man who reported seeing the truck.  Police quickly determined that he was not a suspect and had simply seen the truck on his way to work as he had stated. One can presume (although that is not always a good thing to do) that they had looked for identification on the bodies and then took their investigation to their homes. It does not seem that the Tyler home had much to offer.  In fact, it was later determined that the Tyler's had picked Brandy up from work in nearby Evansville the evening before and were on their way to their home at the time of their deaths.  Brandy's home on the other hand had signs of trouble.  The front door of her mobile home was open and a window in the back of the house had been broken.  Inside it looked as if someone had ransacked the home.  As the investigation continued of course the next move was to talk to the people closest to the victims to determine things such as when they were last seen and if any of them seemed to have "trouble" with anyone.  As we know in so many cases the perpetrator is often a spouse or someone who is dating a victim.  Investigators were able to quickly rule that out in this case.  As far as the Tyler's, they were obviously both together and Brandy, while she was dating Charles "Troy" Napier, he was incarcerated in another nearby county.  

As I have said many times in the cases that I cover, when it comes to friends and witnesses prosecutors have no control when comes to the characters of the people that they find.  This is just such a case.  I believe this may have been the only case that I took every associate or friend of family that I had written down and put their name into the Indiana Department of Corrections database as well as a local database that compiles past newspaper articles.  Why?  Because it seemed like anyone, and everyone associated with this case had issues with the law at some point or another.  One of the first names outside of Napier to bring serious consideration was a man by the name of Guy James Knight Jr.  He was looked at almost immediately for a few reasons. The first was that Brandi's mother informed investigators that Brandi had told her a few days before that Knight had threatened her.  The story was that Napier was spending time in jail because he had been caught while driving on a suspended license and apparently Knight felt this had been the fault of Brandi.  The other reason Knight became a suspect was the fact that inside one of his pockets there was a note found on John Tyler.  The note was written in John's handwriting and was addressed to Napier at the county jail.  The note talked about the fact that Knight had supposedly threatened not just Brandi but also John Stephenson (as indicated with the name John S.).  

Guy, or Jimmy as he was called, even owned the type of gun that they were looking for.  He was not hard to find because on the morning the bodies were found Knight had turned himself to the police department as he had been charged with auto theft. So did he have an alibi?  Well yes, but in my opinion not a super solid one.  According to a man by the name of Byron Early he had given Knights girlfriend, Rebecca Beasley a ride to Knight's home somewhere between 6 and 8 on the evening of the 28th (he was not sure, just knew it was after dark) and returned the next morning to get her and take her back to her grandmother's home.  Early would not appear to be too solid on this it seems. My research sometimes seemed to indicate that while he was a bit wishy washy on the 28th in remembering if he gave her a ride, he appeared to recall the morning of the 29th.  However, apparently investigators moved on, likely keeping an eye on Knight but buying his story.  

Obviously seeing as John Stephenson apparently ran in the crowd with the Tylers, Southard and others, as well as his name being on the note in John Tyler's pocket the investigators would make their way to him.  But, they still had a few people on their list to get to as they tried to determine the events of the night.  One of those people was a man by the name of Jeff Martin.  He too owned an SKS assault, just like Knight and they would later learn, Stephenson. Martin, and his wife, also named Brandy had seen the Tylers and Brandi Southard on the evening before.  Once again, like most of the people in this story, Martin had his own legal issues. He had already served time for drugs and according to his wife, after discovering the type of weapon used in the murders he had his, along with others removed from his home.  He knew the police would be questioning him and having a gun violated his probation.  It was said that Martin was a drug dealer and that John Stephenson helped deliver them or also known as a 'courier.'  I am unsure Martin had a lot to officers except to help with a timeline of events. John Stephenson was interviewed on March 30th.  He denied the killing but he himself had sought out the police to say he had seen the three victims on the evening also.  And, here we go again, he owned or at least had owned an SKS assault weapon. He told investigators that he had sold it to a man in Kentucky but they were never able to find it. I am unsure if his wife was interviewed at the same time but she would continue to maintain that he was with her the whole night.

Then there was a man by the name of Dale Funk.  Now he had a story to tell and his story put a spotlight on Stephenson.  According to Funk he was not only with Stephenson when he committed the murders but was also with him when Brandi Southard's home was broken into.  He said that while at the home Stephenson had walked around the back and after Funk heard the sound of breaking glass Stephenson came to the front door and opened it.  Now, while there seemed to be foot prints in the mud leading to a broken window in the back and not prints appearing to return to the front it was questioned as if this were true because there was a dresser in front of the said broken window that was higher than the window and it would have been difficult, if not impossible to enter the home that way.  No prints were either taken or apparently found.  Playing devil's advocate here, I am unsure unless prints were found matching Stephenson on suspicious areas (such as outside the broken window) that prints would have mattered.  Stephenson associated with Southard and Napier and it would be likely he had been inside his home prior.  Funk would later testify at trial that he had repeatedly lied in his initially statement to police, at least 35 times. It was this statement that had led investigators to arrest Stephenson.  He also testified that he had doubted his own recollections until the police took him to the scene of the crime.  

So now they have arrested Stephenson basically solely based on the word of Funk.  They have no finger prints at the scene of the murders, or of the Southard/Napier home, nor at this point do they have a weapon.  They have pulled some things from the crime scene for forensic evidence but were awaiting results.  Then entered Brian Mossberger.  He went to the police after Stephenson's arrest to make his own claims.  He stated that Stephenson had come to his home after the murders (it was my understanding that he never mentioned seeing Funk) and while washing off a knife allegedly said the victims "are no more."  He went on to say that Stephenson had given him his own SKS assault weapon and asked him to get rid of it.  Mossberger said he took the weapon and buried it but would later take investigators to where it was.  The defense would later claim at trial that the weapon was not tested for any kind of fingerprints, hair, fibers or blood.  They would go on to claim that at no time did they as for the clothing that Stephenson supposedly wore on the night the murders occurred.  

Stephenson's trial would become the most expensive and longest in Indiana history, at least at the time. I am unsure if it still remains to be true.  Jury selection alone took nearly three months.  Opening statements began on December 30, 1996.  The jury returned with a guilty verdict on May 8, 1997.  He was ultimately convicted on three counts of murder, burglary and theft. They recommended the death penalty on May 20th.  The judge sentenced him on June 17, 1997.  During the death penalty phase the defense brought in Sister Helen Prejean.  Some of you may recognize her name from the movie "Dead Man Walking."  She is known for opposing the death penalty.  Aside from the 3 death penalty sentences that he received he also received ten years for burglary and 1.5 years for the theft charges.  

Now, when the death penalty is asked for there has to be what they call aggravated factors.  These can be things like the murder occurred during the commission of another crime, premeditation or as in this case the prosecution claimed that Stephenson "lied in wait." I am a bit confused at this factor.  Most of the information I found indicated that Stephenson had chased them in a vehicle.  I would imagine this information would have come from Funk considering he claimed to have been with Stephenson at the time. I found nothing that indicated how the vehicle ended up running into a fence pole. Presumably however, if we are to theorize about how a crime occurred as most prosecutors must do, I would think that with the information they had, the theory would have been that John Tyler and the other victims knew they were being chased and he lost control on the rural road and ran into the fence pole, however, I could find nothing that indicated this was a known fact.  This brings us again to the Dale Funks statements.  If indicated that Stephenson (with him in the vehicle with him) chased the Tyler vehicle would he not have told how their vehicle ended up the way it did? How then does the prosecution say he was "lying in wait" to kill them?  They had gone on to say, again presumably based on Funk's story that when he had gone into the Southard home he stole the ammo in which was used to kill the victims and yet, again there were no forensics to back this.  

I did have to snicker just a bit when I read the results from a 2007 appeal made by Stephenson. When you read an appeal from a conviction, especially for murder, you can almost always guarantee that one of the first things listed is a claim of ineffective counsel.  This appeal was rejected on all grounds that were brought up but one judge all but said he was tired of hearing this in appeals and especially denied this being the case here.  That being said, in 2009 another appeal was made and this time the issue about ineffective trial counsel surrounded the issue of the fact that during his trial he had been given an electric stun belt under his clothes.  Apparently this was a fairly common practice at the time but it was soon (at least by 2001) prohibited.  Basically it was a belt that could be activated if the defendant would get out of hand.  It was never used, or even seen in the trial.  The U.S. District Court had actually ruled in his favor as far as this but it moved through the courts and sent back to this judge in 2010 to consider other things.  The last indication I have on appeals came in September of 2014 when once again all were denied and the death penalty was upheld.  

One of the things I looked at were some of the others involved in this crime, including Southard's own mother.  There had been a statement in the trial that the defense had asked that her mother, Rita Brown, testify out of order as she was serving a jail sentence for possession of a controlled substance and would be released soon. There was a fear that she would be released and flee the area.  I found a record that in 2002 she received a one year sentence for "failure to return."  This technically goes down as "escape" but it could mean failure to appear, but just what she failed to appear for I do not know.  Charles "Troy" Napier has continued to have his problems too.  Since 2002 he has served at least four prison sentences on different drug convictions. In fact it seems he was just within the last few weeks released once again.  Knight, at least in Indiana which does not say a whole lot, served a few years for the auto theft he had turned himself in for and seems to have avoid prison (again in Indiana) since that time. Even his girlfriend, Rebecca Beasley has lost her license for life for being a habitual offender, and served some time in prison.  Jeff Martin seemed to also continue to have issues relating to drugs.  I of course put John Stephenson's name in the database also and one thing I found interesting is there did not seem to be any felony arrests before this crime.  That does not obviously mean he never had issue with the law because I am sure he did and I am almost certain that like others involved or associated with this case he would have continued to have issues involving drugs had he not been convicted of this crime. I should state that the database in which I generally use shows convictions in which time was spent in a state prison in Indiana as opposed to a county jail. So for example at the time of the murders Napier was in a county jail serving time to which is not listed on this database.

So, do I think Stephenson is guilty and deserved the death penalty.  That is two fold for me.  In my opinion, solely based on the information that I was able to obtain, I am not certain that I would have convicted him.  That being said I surely would not have given him the death penalty. I make this statement based just on the information and evidence that was collected.  Do I think it is possible that he is guilty?  Absolutely it is possible, but I need some evidence.  Defense attorneys would point out in trial and appeals that there were nine hairs found on the victims that were not identified.  Now of course hairs are not always important, but sometimes they can be.  That alone does not help with my conclusion.  I take issue with some of the other things.  First, as we know, prosecutors are not required to give a jury a motive, or reason why the crime occurred but we also know that we all want one.  We want to know why Stephenson would supposedly chase the Tyler's vehicle and then repeatedly shoot the victims and then go and stab them.  Evidence showed that there was a note in John Tyler's own handwriting indicating that Stephenson himself had been threatened.  One could look at this note thinking that Tyler was advocating or trying to help both Stephenson and Brandi Southard, why then would Stephenson kill him, let alone the others?  Then we have to look at the evidence that is not there.  I saw nothing that indicated there were any fingerprints left in places that could not be explained, if any at all, that belonged to Stephenson. We are also talking about the year 1996, not 1970 so forensics were more advanced.  The weapon was not tested for any blood, fingerprints or fibers. While admittedly I found nothing as far as a criminal record on Brian Mossberger I take issue with investigators taking the word of anyone, especially in this case. They never asked for any clothing of Stephenson's to be tested. So I would need a few of these things to feel comfortable in convicting him for this crime.  If I need more information or evidence to convict than I surely need more proof to recommend death.  Playing devil's advocate and being fair as I feel I should be, when I say I would not take the word of anyone involved, and that would have to include Stephenson's wife who claims he was with her at the time of murders. None of the characters in this story seem to be super trustworthy, which as I said earlier is often a problem for prosecutors and something they cannot always control, but they can control what to present to a jury, and jury can control what they believe.  I will say it appears that the prosecution was able to keep the criminal history of those involved down to a bare minimum which would have helped them but also hinder the defense and not allow the entire story to be told.   

When we are going to ask a jury to consider taking the life of another person there should be transparency.  The good, the bad, and the ugly should all emerge and there should be absolutely no question what so ever that the person is guilty.  In this day and age with forensics there should never be an excuse to believe it possible that an innocent person is executed, and yet sadly that is still sometimes the case.

Comments

  1. I found this video very interesting. I'd agree with you if there is no forensic evidence. How can you convict someone of a crime.

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  2. I am Mr. Stephenson's ex sister in law. I personally find it hard to believe that John did what they accused him of, but then we hadn't seen each other in a few years. He was a good person when I knew him, and I wish he could have had more "transparency" in his trial. My oldest granddaughter has expressed a desire to write to her great Uncle John, but she's also a bit guarded about doing so. All I can do is try to find his prison address and give it to her should she decide to write. God help him, and especially if he's innocent.

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    Replies
    1. I wrote him for many years, now it's mostly phone calls and visits, since he's not much for wanting to write. He's always been consistant in everything he's said and done. I have read multiple legal documents on this case and was floored when he was granted a new trial but the State decided not to give it to him. If she decides to write him, she does not need to feel guarded, he's innocent. I know it.

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  3. Was thinking about John today and found this article. I was very good friends with him for a while in 95 and 96. We hung out almost every day and even took a trip to St. Louis in his brother's car. He was always very protective of me. He went into a liquor store in St. Louis in a bad neighborhood and made me lock the car doors and told me to drive back to Evansville if he wasn't back in 10 minutes.

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