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Katherine Dendel

Other Homicide Exonerations Where No Crime Occurred
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On April 2, 2002, 51-year-old Katherine Dendel called 911 because her live-in partner of nearly 30 years, 57-year-old Paul Burley, was dead in their Jackson, Michigan home. On May 15, Dendel was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Dendel went to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court in January 2003. The prosecution contended that Dendel killed Burley by injecting him with insulin so that she could receive a $25,000 life insurance payout.

A medical examiner who conducted an autopsy concluded that Burley had been comatose for 12 hours before he died—contradicting Dendel’s statement to emergency personnel that Burley had been awake at 4 a.m.

Paramedic Bobby Ackley, Jr., testified that Dendel was hysterical when he arrived. He said that she eventually said that she wanted Burley’s body cremated, and that she did not want an autopsy or for Burley’s family to be contacted.

Toxicologist Michael Evans testified that Burley had no glucose in his system, a condition consistent with receiving an insulin injection. A neurologist who had previously treated Burley testified that Burley did not take any medications that would have caused a glucose level of zero. Evans also testified that Burley’s physical condition had deteriorated so much it would have been either extremely difficult or impossible for him to have injected himself with a syringe.

Pauline Toves, Burley’s sister, testified that Dendel had not wanted to put Burley in a nursing home because the nursing home—not Dendel—would receive medical benefit payments that Burley was receiving. An outreach worker testified that she had offered services for Burley, but Dendel failed to follow up to get the services. Another witness testified that a few weeks before Burley’s death, Dendel said she felt “like giving him a shot of insulin.”

Dendel denied injecting Burley with insulin and testified that she had vowed to take care of him.

Dendel testified that Burley suffered from hepatitis, herpes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, throat cancer, HIV, neuropathy, epilepsy, impaired vision, and dementia. Dendel was herself a diabetic and gave herself insulin injections twice daily. She testified that she had become overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking care of Burley. She said that as he became increasingly uncooperative, she received no help from his family members and he was too young and not ill enough to qualify for residential care.

In fact, she said that the day before Burley died, a visiting nurse had quit because Burley was so uncooperative. That night, Dendel called police, saying that Burley was running around their apartment with a knife, although when police arrived, he was sitting calmly.

Dendel testified that Burley’s condition was normal the next day. However, when she checked on him a few hours after lunch, he was dead.

On February 5, 2003, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Chad Schmucker acquitted Dendel of first-degree murder, but convicted her of second-degree murder. He sentenced her to 7½ to 15 years in prison.

Subsequently, Judge Schmucker held an evidentiary hearing on a defense motion asserting that Dendel’s trial defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call an expert witness to rebut the prosecution’s evidence.

At the hearing, Dendel’s lawyer, Valerie Newman, from the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office, presented testimony from a forensic pathologist. The pathologist testified that although it could not be ruled out, the prosecution’s evidence did not significantly support a finding that Burley’s death resulted from an insulin overdose, and that a multiple drug overdose was also a possible cause of death.

In September 2005, Judge Schmucker denied the motion for a new trial, but in July 2006, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and ordered a new trial.

In 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed that ruling and remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals, which, in 2010, upheld Dendel’s conviction.

In 2012, the same year she was released from prison on parole, Dendel filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition again asserted that her trial lawyer—who had since become a judge—had failed to provide an adequate legal defense by not calling an expert witness at the trial.

A federal district court judge denied the petition, finding that Dendel’s trial lawyer had acted reasonably and had pursued—at Dendel’s urging—a defense based on the theory that Burley committed suicide. Such a theory was consistent with the prosecution’s evidence that he died of an insulin overdose.

However, in May 2016, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted the writ and vacated Dendel’s conviction. “There is a reasonable probability that had Dendel’s trial counsel mounted the available expert evidence that Burley’s death could have been caused by a combination of drugs as her appellate counsel did,” the court concluded, “it would have, at a minimum, raised doubt about Dendel’s guilt and undermined the confidence in her conviction or sentence.” The court ordered a new trial.

On January 24, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/13/2017
State:Michigan
County:Jackson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2002
Convicted:2003
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:7 1/2 to 15 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:51
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No