It took just 2 1/2 days of testimony and more than 12 hours of jury deliberation for Michael Griffin to be convicted of murdering Indiana University English professor Don Belton.
More than 100 letters were sent to potential jurors the week before the trial began, warning them not to gather any information on the case. But when jury selection began, it was clear that the 15 months which had elapsed since Don Belton was found dead in his home had been more than long enough for many people to form an opinion. 31 jurors of the first 55 jurors called were asked individual questions by defense lawyer David Collins and prosecutor Darcie Winkle, with many saying they’d seen newspaper coverage of the crime shortly after it happened. One man, who said he’d seen an article about what he called a “sexual encounter” between Belton and Michael Griffin, said “To me, you’re guilty”. Another woman said she knew Griffin killed Belton from reading a blog and pronounced herself “very much against homophobia.” But here, the prosecution and the defense joined forces. Winkle asked more than one potential juror whether they thought press accounts could be inaccurate, while Collins asked one juror “Would you want to be convicted on what was written about you in the paper?” Jury selection took just one of the two days for which it was scheduled, with five men and seven women comprising the deciding panel.
From Tuesday through Thursday, 12 witnesses took the stand, with all but one of them – Michael Griffin himself – called by the state. Belton’s English department colleague Debra Dean was to house-sit for Belton as he spent the holiday break in Hawaii. When she couldn’t catch up with Belton to get a key to his home, she went to the house on Bloomington’s near west side and found her colleague laying in a pool of his own blood. It was her 911 call which alerted police to begin an investigation. The call, played for the jury, concludes with Dean near hysterics, saying “I lost Don.”
Bloomington Police Detective Mardy Deckard, who’d interviewed Griffin after he was apprehended, assisted the prosecution with its case and took the stand to describe how Griffin had been apprehended by a SWAT team at his home and later refused to answer some questions about the case. Defense lawyer David Collins pressed Deckard about the severe nature by which Griffin’s home was entered and the former soldier pushed to the ground and his hands zip-tied. Deckard described the moves as standard procedure, especially when entering a home where an accused killer could have weapons.
Those weapons were entered into evidence in a flurry by prosecutor Darcie Winkle. She described finding at least nine knives and one handgun belonging to Griffin, including a double-edged blade later identified as the murder weapon. Winkle later called it an “arsenal” of knives.
The longest a prosecution witness stayed on the stand was the more than 60 minutes of questioning endured by Griffin’s girlfriend Jessa Greiwe, who described the accused as “the man I love.” Greiwe explained that on Christmas of 2009, she passed out from drinking too much, only to wake up in bed with Belton performing sex acts on her boyfriend. Prosecutor Winkle asked Greiwe more than once of Griffin seemed to be struggling as Belton was intimate with him. Greiwe indicated it didn’t seem so.
It was during a short break in Greiwe’s testimony that Griffin himself, clothed all week in a white collared shirt, navy blue tie and a gray suit two inches too short in the arms, first showed any emotion, crying as he attempted to calm his girlfriend’s increasing frustration. Greiwe’s testimony concluded with her describing how Griffin came home from the fatal altercation with Belton and admited to her he’d killed the professor – an admission Griffin’s sister Rita also described her brother making to her. Greiwe then went to her parents’ house in Batesville, where her father insisted on calling police. Later that night, Griffin was taken into custody.
When Griffin himself took the stand, he was there for about 90 minutes, telling his lawyers how he’d gone to Belton’s house to discuss the alleged sexual assault, how he’d pulled a knife from his belt to keep the professor at a distance and how, once Belton grabbed the blade of the knife, the two began grappling. Asked to recall inflicting the 22 knife wounds which eventually took Belton’s life, Griffin said “I remember that we started fighting…and I remember that he stopped fighting.”
Defense attorney David Collins helped Griffin chronicle how he still carries shrapnel in his right leg, is deaf in one ear and has nightmares because of his time fighting with the Marines in Iraq – clearly alluding to possible post-traumatic stress disorder, but not saying so directly. Griffin described how he and a friend bought matching knives before their 1999 deployment to the Middle East – the same knife eventually used to kill Don Belton. Collins also asked Griffin to describe his knife training, which was extensive. That training figured into Darcie Winkle’s closing argument, as she wondered how someone trained to wield a knife against Iraqi insurgents couldn’t keep control of an unarmed English professor.
Three of Griffin’s colleagues took the stand after the defense rested to act as character witnesses for Don Belton, describing him as patient, nonviolent and a practicing Buddhist.
“The Don that I knew would not simply leap into something where he felt he was endangering himself or somebody else,” said IU English professor Alyce Miller, whose office was three doors down from Belton’s. She testified that she’d also met Griffin and Greiwe before the trial, making her one of the few people connected with the trial who knew all three.
“You know, I’m not saying Don was a perfect human being – none of us are – but none of this adds up, none of it makes sense to me,” she said.
None of it added up, Darcie Winkle asserted in her closing argument, because of what she called Griffin’s “convenient lack of detail” regarding the stabbing – autopsy photos of which were shown more than once during the trial. Defense lawyers said prosecutors wanted the jury to believe fully in some parts of Griffin’s testimony but focus on how he wasn’t specific elsewhere. David Collins also sought to show Griffin was suffering from what lawyers call “sudden heat” – an incapacitating mental condition which robs its victim of the ability to perform “cool reflection.” Collins attempted to show Belton pushing Griffin and grabbing his knife instigated “sudden heat.” Winkle said Griffin took more than a day to consider his reaction before confronting Belton.
The jury was left with a decision – convict Griffin of voluntary manslaughter or of murder. The former can net a convict just ten years in prison with good behavior. The latter, in this case, could mean life behind bars. The jury left the courtroom around 10:45 Thursday morning and didn’t return a verdict for more than 12 hours, eventually finding Griffin guilty of murder. Belton’s friend Mara Miller, whose house he was to visit in Hawaii if he hadn’t been killed, flew from Honolulu for the trial and says she was nervous while waiting for the jury.
“The first couple hours, I thought ‘OK, they’re being thorough,’ then I got very, very nervous and I thought ‘Is it possible that they think this was justifiable in any way shape or form?’ And then I began to get really scared,” she said.
After the jury pronounced its verdict, Griffin’s sister Rita left the courtroom crying, yelling to her brother that she loved him. Despite the murder conviction, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Miller – who’d smiled frequently throughout the trial – was decidedly more dour, calling the case a tragedy for both sides. Miller says he’s preparing witnesses to testify in Griffin’s May 17 sentencing hearing.
“Well, I imagine that we’ll have witnesses who were friends of Don and colleagues of Mr. Belton’s from the University and that’ll be the evidence,” Miller said.
The case is now in the hands of judge Teresa Harper. Defense lawyers could not be reached for comment about whether they intend to file an appeal.