On August 12, 1977, a rancher found the bodies of 26-year-old Cari Talton and 18-year-old Leslie McDonnell in one of his corrals near Mountainair, in Torrance County, New Mexico. Both had been shot with a shotgun.
An autopsy revealed that they had been dead for two to three days.Talton was naked and her clothes were gone. McDonnell was fully clothed except for shoes.
The Torrance County Sheriff’s Office and the New Mexico State police opened an investigation. Albuquerque police began their own investigation when they learned the women were from Albuquerque in Bernalillo County.
The Torrance County investigation focused on Talton’s common-law husband, Randy Newell, as a primary suspect.
The Albuquerque police investigation focused on 24-year-old William Smith, after McDonnell’s mother received an anonymous tip saying that Smith had been angry because he believed McDonnell and Talton had stolen some of his drugs.
On August 19, 1977, Smith was arrested and charged with the murders in Bernalillo County. Also charged were two friends of Smith, Harvey Bylsma and Bylsma’s girlfriend, although charges against both of them were later dismissed.
Smith went on trial in October 1977, defended by a lawyer who was under federal indictment on charges of interstate transportation of forged securities. He would later be convicted and sentenced to prison.
At the trial, the prosecution presented testimony from witnesses who said that Smith met Talton and McDonnell on August 8 at a party at Smith’s house. Smith and Talton engaged in sex during the party.
When Smith woke up on August 9, he discovered that a gram of cannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, was missing from his drug stash. He suspected Talton had taken it. At some point later that day, Smith, along with Bylsma and Bylsma’s girlfriend went to McDonnell’s house to ask her where Talton lived.
They all then went to Talton’s home and confronted her about the missing cannabinol, which was worth about $100.Talton said Smith had probably misplaced it. Later, at Smith’s house, Talton came into the kitchen with a bag containing a half gram of cannabinol. Smith angrily accused her of having the drugs all along and McDonnell agreed to reimburse him for the missing half gram.
When police learned of this dispute from the anonymous tip, they found a witness who said that Smith had asked to store a shotgun with friends on August 13. They recovered the gun and found a witness who said that when Smith dropped off the gun, he said, “he had been burned and the people had been punished.”
There was no physical evidence linking Smith to the murders—the gun could not be matched to pellets removed from the women’s bodies.
Smith had solid alibis for his whereabouts beginning on August 10, but not on August 9. The prosecution presented testimony from an entomologist saying that the women were killed on August 9, based on his examination of a maggot collected from Ms. McDonnell's body. The entomologist said the maggot was at a stage of development consistent with having hatched approximately two and a half or three to eight days earlier.
Randy Newell testified that the last time he saw Talton was on the afternoon of August 8—the day she went to the party and met Smith. Newell admitted that he had been upset when she didn’t come home that night and that they had arguments from time to time, one of which ended when Talton stabbed him. Both Newell and Talton were recovering heroin addicts.
A physician who gave the couple their methadone doses said Talton came to the clinic on the morning of August 9 to get her dose.
The rancher who discovered the bodies testified for the defense that he went to the corral daily. He said that when he discovered them on August 12, he was drawn to them by the yellow shirt McDonnell was wearing. He said it stuck out “like a neon light.” He said the bodies were not there on August 9 because he would have seen them.
The owner of restaurant testified that he remembered two women who fit the descriptions of Talton and McDonnell in his restaurant on August 10.
On October 17, 1977, the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction and a mistrial was declared. Smith was tried again and convicted of two counts of first degree murder on February 4, 1978. On March 5, 1978, four days before Smith was sentenced, Newell died of a drug overdose. Smith was sentenced to two terms of life in prison.
After his conviction was upheld on appeal and motions for a new trial were rejected, Smith filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A U.S. District Court judge denied the petition, but in March 1995, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the conviction.
The Appeals Court ruled that the prosecution had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense relating to the Torrance County investigation.
The evidence included a police report showing that on August 14, Newell had been stopped near the area where the bodies were found. When officers asked to search his trunk, he said he did not have a key and was released.
Another report showed that on August 18, 1977—six days after the bodies were found—Newell was involved in a collision with a semi-tractor trailer near the site of the murders. Police found a white plastic bag in the rear of the vehicle containing women’s clothes that were damp, smelled of mildew and appearing to be stained with blood.
The clothing was seized and a report was written saying that Newell was a suspect in the murders. The report said that Newell was jealous over Talton’s sexual activity.
The clothing was turned over to the New Mexico State police crime laboratory, but never tested. It was later sent to the Albuquerque police crime lab, but again no tests were performed. The clothing was later destroyed.
The concealed evidence also included the fact that Randy Newell was really Samuel Newell, but was using a false name because he had prior burglary convictions in Kansas and he was a fugitive on another charge—information that could have been used to impeach his testimony. Moreover, the prosecution did not disclose the fact that Newell owned a shotgun.
The court noted that during a post-conviction hearing, the witness who had originally testified that Smith said “he had been burned and the people had been punished,” recanted, saying that Smith had only said he had been burned.
In November 1995, Smith went on trial for a third time. The prosecution called Harvey Bylsma, who had originally been indicted with Smith in 1977, but the charges were dismissed.
Bylsma testified that he was with Smith when Smith shot-gunned the women to death in the corral. Bylsma admitted that he had reached an agreement to obtain probation on gun charges that were pending against him in exchange for testifying against Smith.
The defense called two experts in forensic pathology who testified that the women were dead no earlier than the evening of August 10.
On December 14, 1995, the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal and a mistrial was declared. On April 21, 1996, the charges were dismissed and Smith was released. Smith later filed a federal civil rights suit seeking damages, but the lawsuit was dismissed after a federal judge ruled it was filed too late.
– Maurice Possley