On November 18, 1990, 41-year-old John Tomaino and his 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son left their Wheatfield, New York, home to go to church, leaving Tomaino’s wife behind. Tomaino and his 36-year-old wife, Linda, were two weeks away from finalizing a contentious divorce—Linda Tomaino had had multiple affairs and months earlier, she had moved into a basement bedroom.
That evening, all three returned and Tomaino sent his daughter, Nina, to the basement to check on his wife because she had not come to teach Sunday school at the church that day. When Nina found the door locked and no one answered, Tomaino went down and broke in to find Linda lying on the bed in a pool of blood with a gunshot wound to the right rear of her head. A .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol was in her lap.
Police and medical personnel arrived and the death was assessed as a suicide. One officer picked up the gun and ejected the clip and a live round from the chamber. An expended shell casing was found in the folds of the sheets, under the victim’s leg.
Two days later, however, during the autopsy, the medical examiner determined that Linda was shot from a distance of about 18 inches, making it virtually impossible for her to have shot herself.
Tomaino told police that after he and the children got in the car on that Sunday, he realized that he had forgotten the church donation envelopes, so he went back inside and retrieved them before all three left.
A grand jury was empanelled, but in 1991, declined to return an indictment.
In April 1993, relatives of Linda Tomaino implored investigators to reopen the investigation. As a result, a second grand jury was empaneled to hear evidence in the case and in July 1995, John Tomaino was indicted for the murder of his wife. Authorities said they believed that when Tomaino went back into the house that Sunday to get donation envelopes, he went to the basement, shot his wife and arranged her body to make it appear to be a suicide.
In September 1996, Tomaino went on trial before a jury in Niagara County Supreme Court.
The chief investigator for the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department testified that he considered Tomaino a suspect from the beginning because he was deluged by telephone calls from friends and relatives of the victim saying she would never have committed suicide because she was a Catholic and a nurse. He said that he believed Tomaino had shot his wife and arranged the body to make it appear to be a suicide, but had not accounted for the shell casing. If the death was a suicide, the shell casing would not have been found under the victim’s body, the investigator testified.
Witnesses testified for the prosecution that Tomaino was angry with his wife because of her affairs and that he had followed his wife’s friends, called his wife names and eavesdropped on her telephone calls.
A forensic scientist testified that the body had been moved between the time the victim was shot and the time she was discovered. The analyst said that Linda had been shot while lying on her stomach and she was found on her back, based on the amount of blood he found in the bed and on the wall.
A forensic analyst called by the defense disagreed and said that the prosecution’s experts had failed to adequately search for gunshot residue, which would have shown the gun was fired at close range—not the 18 inches estimated by the medical examiner.
On September 27, 1996, Tomaino was convicted by the jury of second degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In March 1998, the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division vacated the conviction and dismissed the indictment. The court ruled that the prosecution had improperly influenced the second grand jury by informing grand jurors that they were convened because the first grand jury had been improperly instructed, leaving the impression “they were empaneled to right a perceived wrong.”
Moreover, the court held that numerous witnesses were allowed to present inflammatory testimony that had no relation to the victim’s death, including testimony about Tomaino’s actions after his wife’s death. In addition, a firearms examiner was allowed to tell the grand jury that he “personally” would not commit suicide by shooting himself in the back of the head with a .45. The court also ruled that a blood spatter expert “improperly opined” to the grand jury that that because the victim was a nurse, it was more likely she would commit suicide by overdosing on medication than by shooting herself.
Tomaino was released from prison in April 1998. But prosecutors empaneled a third grand jury and Tomaino was re-indicted for murder in July 1998.
He went on trial a second time in October 1999 with a new lawyer, Paul Cambria, defending him. During cross-examination of an emergency medical technician who responded to the scene immediately after the victim was found, Cambria forced the technician to admit that he knelt on the bed and the victim’s body moved—providing an explanation for why the shell casing was found under her body. In addition, Cambria bolstered the defense claim that the body and the bed had been moved by introducing photographs of the crime scene which showed the casters on the bed in different positions before the body was removed from the scene.
The prosecution’s blood expert admitted that he was wrong about his finding that the amount and location of blood were evidence that she had not committed suicide.
The prosecution’s case investigator also admitted on cross-examination that the scene had been contaminated by responding police and emergency personnel. The investigator said that the gun, telephone, and answering machine had been handled without gloves, the body had been moved, and that the mattress, box spring and bags of bloodstained bedding were not removed directly from the crime scene, but instead sat for days in the garage days where cleaners hired by the family had stored them.
Cambria called a blood expert for the defense who testified that in his opinion, the blood on the bedding was consistent with a suicide.
Cambria also called Tomaino’s daughter, who had not testified at the first trial, to the witness stand. Nina Tomaino said she accompanied her father back into the house when he retrieved the donation envelopes. She said he did not go into the basement and there was no sound of a gunshot.
On November 19, 1999, the jury acquitted Tomaino.
– Maurice Possley