Jury in 1975 murder trial finishes first day of deliberations
DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - The fate of a man charged with killing his wife in Door County is now in the hands of the jury. It will be at least Friday before we know the decision of the 12 jurors in this high-profile case.
Richard Pierce, now 86, is accused of killing his wife, Carol Jean, in 1975 and disposing of her body. She hasn’t been seen since September 5, 1975. Richard Pierce was the last person to see her when they lived in Sturgeon Bay. He moved to Michigan shortly after her disappearance.
Pierce is charged with 1st Degree Murder and Disinterment of Dead. Pierce has maintained his innocence.
The trial we’ve been covering extensively for the last two weeks went to the jury at 12:55 P.M. Closing arguments took up much of the morning.
In their closing argument, the prosecution told the jury that they know Carol Jean is dead and denied the theory that she took off and started a new life without telling anyone. Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode said there’s no record of Carol Jean existing anywhere in nearly 47 years. Communication ended abruptly 17,000 days ago.
“We all leave a digital footprint. You can’t hide, especially in a post-9/11 world,” Grode said.
Prosecutors allege Pierce concealed them on his property in Michigan. Grode reminded the jury of testimony from handlers of human remains dogs. During a search of Pierce’s Michigan home in 2018, a dog indicated six different times for human remains, particularly in one area that appeared to investigators as having been excavated.
“She indicated, I would submit, to a large source of human remains,” Grode said.
Despite a search warrant and eventual deconstruction of Pierce’s home, no human remains were recovered. Grode argued, “There’s no dispute. Carol Jean Pierce’s body has never been found, but that fact alone should not result in the defendant not being convicted of this crime.”
Grode discussed letters Carol Jean sent to her mother prove she had no plan of leaving. The letters indicate Carol Jean was making plans to move to Michigan with Richard and was excited about it.
“It’s beyond a reasonable doubt, at this point. I saw that given everything we’ve already discussed at this point. We know Carol Jean’s dead. We know there was violence in the Pierce home. She disappeared suddenly. She left all kinds of personal things that can’t explain why she wouldn’t take them,” Grode says.
The prosecution said Grode would benefit from his wife’s death, getting her property, including a home and truck, and could move on with a new girlfriend.
“The defendant was the last person to see her alive, and he gave multiple stories about what happened to her,” the assistant D.A. said.
Defense attorney Kate Zuidmulder argued that without a body, they cannot convict her client.
“You cannot find my client guilty of these crimes,” Zuidmulder said. “There literally is no body. And there literally is no proof of human remains.”
The defense said Pierce is not responsible, pointing to Carol Jean’s two failed marriages, including one where she cut off contact with her young son.
“Carol Jean, under whatever circumstances, decided this life wasn’t for her and she moved on and started anew. She’d done it many times before,” Zuidmulder argued.
The attorney told the jury that stories are bound to change over the course of four decades.
“Attorney Grode made extensive argument about my client perhaps changing stories, but what we heard was many, many of these witnesses have changed their stories over the years. But you really can’t blame them. It’s been 43 years,” Zuidmulder told the jury.
“It comes again with the fairness factor. If the state waits 43 years to charge somebody with a crime, the loss of all that evidence prejudices the defendant. That’s not fair.”
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Testimony wrapped up Wednesday after a week of the prosecution calling witnesses to the stand. The defense declined to call any witnesses. Pierce did not take the stand.
CLICK HERE to watch Action 2 News coverage of the trial and view reports on testimony.
Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jay Yerges took the stand two times during the trial. He testified Wednesday about monitoring Pierce’s phone conversations.
Assistant District Attorney Nick Grode: “During the phone calls that you monitored, did Mister Pierce ever deny that Carol Jean Pierce was deceased?”
Grode: “Did he ever deny killing her that you can recall listening to?”
Grode: “Did he ever ask anybody to go out and look for her to try to find her?”
On Sept. 21, 2018, the Wisconsin Cold Case Review Team looked at the case and concluded there was enough to show Richard Pierce was set to gain from Carol Jean’s disappearance.
Investigators from Sturgeon Bay and Michigan spent weeks searching Richard Pierce’s property in Michigan, looking for possible evidence related to Carol Jean’s disappearance. Her remains were not located.
A criminal complaint states Richard Pierce had “gained numerous things based on Carol Jean’s disappearance, which included a pension unencumbered by a wife; most of the important belongings of their marriage; land and a home in Michigan; a new girlfriend weeks after Carol Jean’s disappearance, as well as the benefit of Carol Jean’s silence.”
Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jay Yerges took the stand last Wednesday. He testified about searches of records that show no trace of Carol Jean.
“In checking all of those records, Carol Jean Pierce does not exist in society,” Yerges said. “Carol Jean Pierce does not exist in society. She’s dead. She’s gone. She does not exist.”
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