ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The capital murder case against an escaped Arizona convict accused in the slayings of a retired Oklahoma couple leaves “a mountain of doubt,” the defense argued in closing arguments Wednesday.
“There’s only one truth here, and that’s we don’t know beyond a reasonable doubt what happened in that time period,” attorney Michael Burt told a federal jury as he wrapped up a monthlong trial during which he called no witnesses.
Prosecutors fired back late Wednesday during their rebuttal, saying the evidence pointed to no one other than defendant John McCluskey, who key witnesses say was covered in blood following the shooting deaths of Gary and Linda Haas, of Tecumseh, Okla. The Haases’ remains were found incinerated among the wreckage of their burned-out travel trailer on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.
Prosecutor Greg Fouratt called the crime “stunningly disgusting.” He showed photographs of the Haases standing in front of their truck and trailer, and of a shirtless, tattooed McCluskey on the night of his arrest, his legs apart and his hands behind his back. On the ground near him was a John Deere baseball cap that had belonged to Gary Haas.
“I just have to ask you,” Fouratt told the jurors, “who wears a dead man’s hat? Is this some kind of trophy? Is this some kind of keepsake, a memento?”
Some of the victims’ family members wept as Fouratt asked jurors to find McCluskey guilty on all counts. Jurors will begin their deliberations Thursday morning.
McCluskey is accused of carjacking, murder and other charges in the August 2010 deaths of the Haases following an escape from an Arizona prison. If convicted, he faces a possible death sentence.
Burt spent nearly three hours reading portions of the trial’s transcripts, trying to poke holes in the prosecution’s case by highlighting inconsistencies in the testimony of two key witnesses: McCluskey’s cousin and girlfriend, Casslyn Welch, and his former prison bunkmate, Tracy Province. Both, who testified under plea agreements with prosecutors, said McCluskey was the triggerman.
“Who else would they point the finger at?” Burt asked. “John McCluskey is the perfect person to point the finger at.”
Burt said Welch and Province were drug users motivated to testify in return for lesser sentences. The two pleaded guilty last year and face life sentences.
Burt also raised questions about where the Haases were shot and whose gun was used. He told jurors forensic evidence, which linked to the crime a .40-caliber handgun found in McCluskey’s belongings at the time of his arrest, provided no proof of who actually pulled the trigger.
But prosecutors pointed to fingerprints and DNA on the murder weapon and inside the Haases’ stolen pickup truck. They also said Welch and Province have never wavered in their stories about McCluskey being the triggerman.
Fouratt accused McCluskey of killing the couple in cold blood because he wanted no witnesses.
“He’s not an indiscriminate killer,” Fouratt said. “He chooses only to kill people who are a threat to him, just people who are in the way.”
The Haases were killed three days after Welch said she helped McCluskey, Province and another inmate escape from a privately run, medium security prison near Kingman, Ariz. One of the inmates was caught a day later in Colorado. The search for Welch, McCluskey and Province sparked a nationwide manhunt.
According to testimony, the trio targeted the Haases for their truck and trailer after having fled through three states in a cramped car without air conditioning. Welch testified the plan was never to kill anyone, just to “get off the grid” and go into hiding.
Prosecutors contend that McCluskey intended to harm the Haases from the moment he and his alleged accomplices spotted the retired couple at a rest stop near the New Mexico-Texas state line.
According to testimony, the Haases were forced at gunpoint to drive west along Interstate 40. They were ordered off the highway and onto a two-lane road, where McCluskey is accused of taking them into the camper and shooting them despite assurances they would not be harmed. The Haases’ truck, cash and guns were stolen and their camper was set on fire after being dumped in a remote spot.