Isiah Fowler was found guilty June 27 of killing his sister Leila in 2013. Visiting Judge Susan Harlan handed down the verdict in the afternoon.
Fowler’s father, Barney Fowler, stood with his back against the courtroom door as Harlan relayed the verdict with a look of resignation and sadness on his face.
The third day of Isiah Fowler’s retrial began early on June 27, with additional testimony from Fowler’s stepmother Crystal offered in the hope of proving that her stepson was innocent of killing his sister. It ended by midafternoon with the Fowler family’s worst fear, a second verdict that Isiah was guilty of second-degree murder with a knife.
Most of the testimony that defense attorney Mark Reichel obtained from Crystal Fowler focused upon a kitchen knife that the prosecution had identified as the murder weapon. Crystal was asked about the condition of that knife when she last saw it before the crime and similar knives that were in the kitchen at that time. Her initial testimony was based primarily upon photos, but it soon became clear that it was better to see the real knives. Therefore, two boxes of kitchen knives that had been taken from the Fowler house as evidence in 2013 were retrieved from the files and brought to court.
The prosecution’s identification of the knife as the murder weapon was based on three characteristics. First, that the blade of the knife was bent and the point was bent even more sharply, which prosecution experts claimed was consistent with the knife hitting cartilage in Leila’s chest during a particularly strong thrust.
Defense testimony and argument addressed that contention with Crystal’s testimony that family members often used kitchen knives like this one to pry things apart, and with defense argument that if a knife like this with no guard between handle and blade had been used as a murder weapon, particularly when it struck bone or cartilage, it would have slid in the assailant’s grip and cut his or her hand on the blade. It was undisputed that Isiah had no cuts on his hands when he was carefully examined on the day of the crime.
The second important characteristic of the knife as the murder weapon is that it was the right length and blade thickness to inflict the wounds found on Leila’s body. But as the 20 or 30 knives taken from the Fowler residence and preserved as evidence demonstrated, most knives found in a home kitchen would satisfy that same criterion.
The third and most important characteristic of the knife in question is that although no blood was found on the blade, minute traces of Leila’s blood were found under the handle. The defense did not offer any evidence contrary to that finding at the retrial, but did argue from the record of the prior trial that there was no way to know when that blood got under the handle, and that there was blood of other unidentified people under the handle as well.
Barney Fowler was called on the last day of the retrial to give testimony about the width and height of the bunk bed where it was undisputed that Leila was first attacked and stabbed while she stood on the top bunk against the wall in a corner of the room. Barney testified that at 5-feet, 10-inches, it would have been hard for Isiah to reach that corner, and that 12-year-old Isiah was shorter than Barney at the time. Barney also testified that he occasionally lifted Leila to the top bunk, but that was hard for him to do when standing on the floor. This point was argued by the defense as grounds for concluding that the assailant would have had to have been much taller and stronger than Isiah to stab Leila multiple times while she stood on the top bunk against the wall. The assailant would then have had to lift her off of the bed and carry her to the corner where she bled to death, which, according to the defense, is the most probable scenario that crime scene investigators arrived at based upon blood patterns on the walls and other surfaces of the room.
Assistant District Attorney Dana Pfeil began the prosecution’s rebuttal by calling Michael Whitney, district attorney investigator, to the stand. He was questioned in detail about the photographs of the Fowlers’ previous residence he took a week before the retrial. That testimony and photos were offered to counter Barney Fowler’s testimony on June 22 about what someone could or could not see from the bathroom where Isiah said that he was when Leila was being assaulted in the bedroom. Whitney testified that while in the bathroom, he could not possibly have a clear view of top of the bunk bed in the corner of Leila bedroom. Isiah Fowler had told 911 operators and detectives that he had looked out of the hallway bathroom door and had seen an alleged intruder hitting Leila.
Before closing arguments began, Reichel told the court that counsel had agreed upon a stipulation concerning a hair that was found on Leila’s body at the time of the crime that contained DNA of an unknown male who was unrelated to the Fowler family. The stipulation was that the Department of Justice had uploaded that DNA profile into its database, along with the unidentified fingerprints that were also found in a doorway of the Fowler home during the crime scene investigation. Prosecution and defense agreed that both had been checked within the past 30 days with no matches found, and that both would remain in that database for periodic checks.
As closing statements began, Crystal and Barney left the courtroom.
District Attorney Barbara Yook said Leila’s death was a “family tragedy” and that “no one wants to believe a minor” could have caused the death. She said that all of the evidence proved one thing: Leila Fowler “was killed by her big brother, who was supposed to protect her.”
Some of the evidence presented indicated that when the crime scene was tested with luminol, a substance that reacts with the iron in blood to create a luminescent effect, there was evidence of blood residue at many places in the house, but there was no trail of blood leading out to the sliding glass door, which is what Isiah Fowler claimed the alleged intruder used when he ran from the house.
One of the main points of Yook’s closing statement was that there was plenty of time for Isiah to kill Leila and clean himself and the knife without leaving other visible blood elsewhere in the house during the 30 minutes that were unaccounted for between a phone call he made to his parents at 11:27 a.m. April 27, 2013, and another call at 12:06 p.m. to alert them that an intruder was in the home.
In the second call, Barney testified that Isiah had told him that Leila had a headache and asked what to do. Barney instructed him to give her a Motrin. In autopsy tests later, no Motrin was discovered in Leila’s system.
Yook also dealt with the alleged intruder by citing testimony in the first trial from a number of neighbors who were home at the time and said they had not seen any suspicious people in the neighborhood during the period just after noon.
During his closing statement, Reichel painted a picture of a normal 12-year-old boy who “believed in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus until very recently before the crime occurred.” He also reminded the judge that there was no evidence about anything other than a close and loving relationship between Leila and Isiah.
Much of Reichel’s argument focused on the knife identified by the prosecution as the murder weapon. He provided his own re-enactment by using a kitchen knife and a roll of paper towels to demonstrate how readily a knife like that would slip through anyone’s hand when it hit another’s body, suggesting it would cut or bruise the attacker’s hands. But Isiah’s hands had no signs of injury or bruising after the crime.
Throughout the entire trial, Isiah sat at counsel’s table between Reichel and his investigator, John Kennedy, facing forward, usually with his hands crossed on his lap, only looking to the side occasionally to speak with his lawyer, to look at papers on the table or images projected on the screen to the right of where he sat. His left foot danced up and down rapidly throughout most of the first two days of the retrial, while his upper body seldom moved at all. On the final day, his upper body relaxed somewhat, and his feet were still for long periods, but occasionally revealed his reactions to some of the testimony and exhibits.
After defense and prosecution rested, Harlan surprised many in the courtroom with an almost immediate verdict. After confirming she had read all four of the trial binders submitted to the court from the original trial, including evidence, testimony and transcripts, she said, “The court finds that the allegation is true. Allegation No. 1, second-degree murder. Allegation No. 2, with a knife.”
The Fowler family sat silent. Isiah Fowler remained as he had been positioned for the majority of the trial, motionless, facing forward, chin slightly bent downward.
The next court date is a dispositional hearing, when Fowler will be sentenced. That hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. July 24.