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48 Hours Mystery: Point Blank

Point Blank 42:54

The story was originally broadcast on May 17, 2008. It was updated on March 21, 2009.

On Oct. 15, 2003, police were called to the Brownsville, Texas, home of Scott and Traci Rhode. Inside, in the couple's bed, lay Scott with a gunshot wound to the head.

That morning, Traci says she rose early, went for a walk, took a shower, and then heard a moaning sound. It was then, she says, that she discovered her husband was wounded. Scott was still alive, but later died at the hospital.

Traci maintains Scott shot himself, but authorities charge she is a cold-blooded killer with a motive for murder.

Life, as Traci knew it, ended that October day. As Scott lay dying, Traci's ordeal was only just beginning. "I was shocked when they asked me to go to the police station. I had already told them all that I knew that had happened. I mean, I wasn't there, I didn't see it, I didn't hear it. I only know what I found," Traci tells correspondent Harold Dow.

"I moved the pillow back and I saw all the blood and his eye was all swollen and I touched his face and said 'Scott, can you hear me,'" Traci told police in a taped interview.

"So, I kept asking the police officers, 'Please let me go be with my husband. He's dying.' 'Can I please tell my children? My children don't know what happened,'" Traci remembers. "'Just a few more minutes and we'll let you go.'"

By mid-afternoon, it was clear Scott was brain dead and would not recover.

And something else was clear too: "These people think that I harmed the man I had loved for 20 years of my life, that I spent my life with… it's not even a possibility," she says.

Traci says she can barely remember a time without Scott. They met in their early teens and became high school sweethearts in Ft. Madison, Iowa.

The couple married in 1990, only a few years after Traci graduated high school. Scott put himself through college and became an engineer; Traci would go on to become a nurse, specializing in birth and delivery care.

The couple had three sons, Shane, Nicholas and Dalton.

The Rhodes seemed to be the picture-perfect family, with Scott being the picture-perfect dad. But Traci says there was another side to Scott which was slowly destroying their marriage: she says he was very jealous and often accused her of having affairs.

"He was obsessed. She was almost like a possession," notes Raina Kant, who along with her husband Kyle, has been close friends of the Rhodes for years. "She would always tell me that Scott was saying she was cheating and having an affair with the different doctors that she worked with."

Kant says there was no way Traci had an affair with any of these doctors.

But there was no convincing Scott, says Traci. She remembers one awful night when she had to stay a few hours late at work to help deliver a baby. "I get home, my husband's not there. My kids aren't there. As I'm calling the emergency room thinking the worst, I hear the garage door open and I go running out to the garage. 'What happened? What happened? Is everybody OK?' And he's screaming at me, 'You tramp. You whore. Where the hell have you been?' And he said he went looking for me so he could show our children what a tramp they had for a mother. And I lived like that for years."

Traci says she stayed in the marriage because she loved Scott. "As bad as our bad times were there were still good times. He was the father of my children. He was my husband. To me, it was worth working out," she says.

But according to Traci, Scott didn't make things any easier. She says Scott was so afraid of losing her to another man he moved the family five times in 13 years. There would be stops in Maryville, Tenn., Kennett, Mo., and Batesville, Ark. They finally ended up in Brownsville, Texas in 2003.

It was in Brownsville, far away from friends and family, that Traci really did meet somebody. His name was Shawn Michaels, a co-worker.

One afternoon they arranged to meet in a parking lot to talk. "We just stood there talking and then he gave me a hug to leave and he kissed me. I was shocked, but yet it was good to have somebody pay attention to me," she remembers.

And then, one week later, Scott confronted Traci in their bathroom, once again accusing her of cheating. In the heat of the moment Traci blurted out her feelings for Shawn.

"And I said for the first time in my life, there is somebody. And it's not about sex. Somebody is paying attention to me," she says. "He was very upset, and he just looked right through me and said 'You have no idea what you've just done.'"

But police didn't buy any of Traci's story. The truth, they say, is that she committed cold blooded murder.

Within hours of responding to the Rhode home, Brownsville Detective Sam Lucio's investigation changed course, as the focus shifted from attempted suicide to a possible homicide.

Lucio says there were all the ingredients of a classic murder plot: a love interest, jealousy, and a pretty, young wife who was behaving suspiciously.

"She's a nurse, but she gave no first aid to her husband whatsoever and the reason she says she didn't give any first aid was because she was in shock," Lucio says.

Despite the shock, Lucio says she had the presence of mind to call work and say she wouldn't be coming in. "Who would be thinking about 'I need to call work so they can get a replacement for me at work today because my husband got shot'?" Lucio asks.

Even more troubling to Lucio was that Traci had washed her hands in front of a police officer. What was she washing off? Gun shot residue?

"I just could smell blood," Traci explains. "I'm a nurse. I'm sensitive to the smell of blood and I just had my hands up there and I just walked over to the kitchen sink and I just ran hot water over my hands and I just stood there crying."

It was not only Traci's behavior that aroused the suspicions of Lucio and his partner, Detective Thomas Clipper. It was also what they learned that day about the final weeks and hours of Scott Rhode's life, including the marital problems.

These problems led detectives to the other man, Shawn Michaels, the unit secretary at the hospital where Traci worked. It was the very same hospital where Scott died from the gunshot.

The detectives also learned that Scott had hired divorce attorney Nat Perez. Just one day before the shooting, Scott took Traci to Perez's office, and blindsided her with a plan.

"'I said 'Scott will have custody of the children but you would have liberal visitation.' She just basically yelled out 'What!' and looked at Scott and said, 'You never told me that. You never told me that I wasn't going to have the boys,'" Perez recalls.
And if she chose to fight, they made it clear they would use Shawn against her.

"I said that didn't matter to me. I would do whatever to fight for my children. I didn't feel like I should sign away my children. I love my children. I was a good mother," Traci says.

"And she told Scott, 'We need to go home and we need to talk about this some more.' And she got up. And she pretty much just stormed out of the office," Perez says.

Back home, emotionally drained, they stopped fighting and started talking, says Traci. "I told him I wanted joint custody of our kids. I wasn't doing anything wrong. I didn't deserve to lose my children."

Traci says both agreed they didn't want to put their kids through an ugly custody battle. But later that night, Scott's mood changed again. Traci says he suddenly flew into a rage in the laundry room over her affair.

"He went and got a ball bat. And he wanted to know where Shawn lived because he was gonna go bash his head in and he's screaming at me, 'Tell me where he lives.' 'I don't know. I've never been to his home. I don't know,'" Traci says. "That's when he got physical with me. Grabbed me by the throat. Put his fist up to me. Told me he was just gonna knock the s***out of me. And I said, 'If that makes you feel better, just do it. I'm not having an affair.'"

"And I went into the bedroom and I started packing a suitcase, I was just going to go stay in a hotel. But he started crying. And he begged me not to go," Traci says. "And then he said, 'Come lay down here with me.' And I laid my head on his chest. It wasn't anger anymore… it was just a loving couple just trying to work out our problems."

The next morning, Scott was found with the gunshot wound to the head.

Traci's friend Raina Kant believes that after all the years of accusations Scott found himself facing the real possibility there was someone else. And she believes that was more than he could bear. "He loved her enough to move her from state to state to state thinking she was cheating in every state to get her to the furthest point he could so that he had her all to himself in Brownsville, Texas. I could see him easily at that point saying, 'You know what, I can't handle this anymore. Enough is enough,'" she says.

But Detective Lucio says Scott was no broken man. He was going to take custody of his kids and move on, leaving Traci with a double motive for murder.

Believing Traci committed the crime was one thing, proving it another. The detectives spent the next two years hunting for physical evidence linking Traci to the crime.

Investigators kept digging, until finally, there was a break. A Texas Ranger noticed a piece of evidence that had been staring him in the face all along.

On Aug. 11, 2005, on what would have been her 15th wedding anniversary, Traci was arrested for Scott's murder.

Reeling after her indictment for murder, Traci turned to the only place in Brownsville she felt welcome: the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. "Most of us felt in the gut that there was some injustice going on here," says Jim Odabashian, who is not only Traci's pastor, but also is a lawyer and a former assistant district attorney.

Odabashian believes Traci has told the truth about that morning when she got out of the shower and discovered her dying husband, blood, and the gun.

That gun and where it was found would become one of the most disputed issues in this case. "The gun was in between his hand somewhere on the bed," Traci says.

Prosecutor Chuck Mattingly spent two years gathering evidence for his indictment against Traci. He says Traci is a "cold blooded" killer who orchestrated the final moments of her husband's life, down to the feathered pillow she placed over his head.

"I believe the pillow was used in an attempt to muffle the sound. I also believe she used the pillow to prevent any back spatter from coming back and getting on her hands or weapon. And thirdly, she used that pillow to disassociate herself from her husband before she killed him," he says.

Police recreated their theory of the shooting and brought in Texas Ranger J. D. Robertson to help prove their case. Robertson, a forensic bloodstain expert, poured over police photos taken at the scene. "I took one look at that gun and I knew in my mind this was not a suicide," he says.

The gun was removed from Scott by Sgt. Pablo Flores, one of the first officers on the scene. When he removed it, Flores says the gun was lying in Scott's hands. "The handle of the gun was resting on his left hand and the barrel on his right," he says.

He also said there was no blood on Scott's hands and the gun did not come into contact with any blood on the bed.

"The gun was not touching the bedding, the mattress, the sheet, the mattress cover, the comforter. The gun never came into contact with anything that had blood on it," Mattingly explains.

And yet there was blood around the handle and a thick glob of it in the mechanism of the gun. Robertson wanted to know how it got there.

"There was no blood in his hands. But yet there's massive congealed coagulated blood in the hammer and action. We have to find that source," Robertson says.

That source jumped out at him while studying an enlarged crime scene photo of the blood-stained carpet next to the bed. Robertson's theory is that the gun was lying in the pool of blood next to the bed.

Using the blood-stained carpet swatch taken as evidence, he demonstrates where he believes both the holster and gun fit into the blood pattern on the floor.

To Robertson, the perfect fit made perfect sense in the prosecution's scenario of what happened the morning of Oct. 15. "Traci Rhode put the gun to his head with a pillow covering it. She discharges it. When she did, she dropped the gun, and it landed on the floor," he says.

But waiting for her husband to die, Robertson says, Traci realized she'd made a big mistake. "After some time passed she realized that the gun's on the floor and if this is gonna be a suicide, it's gotta be in his hand."

Traci, says the prosecution, then picked up the weapon and put it into the hands of her dying husband.

But Traci says this was a suicide that the prosecution made look like murder. She says she never touched the gun.

Tracy says the gun, as far as she knew, was never on the floor. "The gun was somewhere on the bed," she says.

Traci's story is the same today as it was in 2003, when she first talked to the police.

She says the gun was laying on the bed, and contrary to what the prosecution says, was in direct contact with the blood-soaked sheets. "I know when I lifted the pillow the gun was somewhere up between his hands. And that's where all the blood was. And the gun was laying in that blood," she says.

Forensic criminalist Richard Ernest agrees. He too studied the evidence for the defense and believes the gun was lying in the blood on the bed. "That area of him around his head, his arms, his hands, was all bathed in a big pool of blood and that is where the gun was taken from," he says.

Scott's hands were washed at the hospital; there are no photos of him at the scene. "There's a tremendous amount of blood here, you'll note also that there is not only blood, but feathers," Ernest says.

And Ernest believes the feathers and the blood on the gun came directly from the bed. "Obviously that gun was lying in that blood for some period of time and to say that there's no other way that blood could be in the mechanism of this gun, than for it to be down on the floor for a while before it was placed in his hand, is a ridiculous proposition to my way of thinking," he says.

Ernesto Gamez would defend Traci in her upcoming trial. "If the prosecution says she touched the gun and there was blood on the gun, then why weren't her finger prints on the gun?" he asks.

Investigators did find a palm print on the handle of the weapon, but it was never identified as belonging to either Scott, Sgt. Flores or Traci.

"From the day one that I first met this woman this woman has been very consistent," says Robert Garza, a former Texas judge who was co-counsel for Traci. "I believe her, by God, she's telling the truth."

Four years after Scott's death, Traci went on trial.

Brownsville, Texas, was a town divided. To those convinced of her guilt, Traci Rhode's crime was murder, but her sin was infidelity. Her relationship with Shawn Michaels was at the center of the prosecution's case.

Asked how she thinks the prosecution portrayed her in court, Traci says, "Oh they portrayed me to be a vindictive, cold-blooded murderer, cheating wife and that's not true. I'm not this tramp they've made me out to be. I'm not a whore. I'm not."

The prosecution called Shawn to the stand, but no audio recording was allowed during the trial. He acknowledged a mutual attraction, but clearly stated they did not have sex. That didn't stop Mattingly from branding Traci an unfaithful wife.

Asked if she killed her husband so she could be with Shawn, Traci tells Dow, "No, sir. For one thing, I did not kill my husband. But Shawn Michaels wasn't even a factor in my marriage. It wasn't this big affair they've made it out to be."

But that changed after Scott died, and it did not play well at trial. Lucio says a week to 10 days after Scott's death, Shawn and Traci checked into a motel.

"We didn't meet at the Red Roof Inn to have sex like they have said. That's not what happened," she insists. "We were supposed to be there to talk. Unfortunately, things went further than that."

She admits that it doesn't make her look good. "But I wasn't thinking about looking good. I was in a place 24 hours from home, from any family. Shawn was the closest person I knew. And I hung on to him with everything in me to get me through."

Their relationship lasted on and off for two-and-a-half years. That helped the state hammer home motive and make its case for murder over suicide. They claimed Scott was too devoted a dad to kill himself.

But Traci says the detectives and prosecutors didn't really know her husband.

"I was not surprised that Scott committed suicide. I was not surprised at all," says Raina's husband, Kyle Rant.

The couple knew Scott and Traci for years before they moved to Brownsville; Kyle was Scott's boss.

The Rants say Scott was a deeply troubled man. At work, he believed people were plotting behind his back to get him fired, says Kyle.

Much like his paranoia about his wife, says Raina. "I'm not an expert in psychology. But he was definitely manic depressive or bipolar. There was something else there that just wasn't right. Something was wrong," she says.

But Scott wasn't the one on trial; Traci was. To prove her guilt, Mattingly turned to something he called "the most damning piece of evidence."

The prosecution showed the holster and the gun fitting neatly into the blood stain on the piece of carpet. "The defendant wanted everyone to believe her husband had committed suicide. If the gun was on the floor, how did that gun then get back into his hands while he was lying in bed?" Mattingly asks.

The prosecution told the jury that Traci shot her husband and, startled, dropped the gun on the floor. She later picked it back up and put it in Scott's hands to make it look like he pulled the trigger.

That's not what happened, says Traci. She says she got up, walked about two miles, came back, and showered before finding Scott. And she never heard a gunshot. "I don't even know if I was in the house when he shot himself. I don't know. I don't know when he shot himself," she says.

Defense Attorney Ernesto Gamez argued that the prosecution was only interested in their own version of events and one outcome.

Gamez says the evidence was tainted in the hours after the shooting. Remember, before it was a crime scene, it was an emergency medical scene with paramedics working frantically to save Scott's life. "Objects were moved, pillows were moved, the pistol was moved -- the scene was extremely compromised," Gamez says.

The first photographs weren't even taken until almost two hours after Scott was removed from the scene. One photograph shows the blood pool at 8:11 a.m.; the holster appears to be flush with the bed and a red pillow is lying in the blood itself. At 2:14 p.m., the holster was away from the bed and the pillow was pushed back, no longer touching the blood. And that, says Gamez, casts serious doubts on the prosecution's perfect fit.

"They were manipulating and distorting, displacing evidence to fit their belief that a murder occurred," Gamez argues.

After more than three weeks of testimony, nine women and three men filed into the jury room to deliberate Traci's fate. But no one was prepared for the jaw-dropping decision the jurors would make.

As she waited for the verdict, Traci was haunted by one regret: on the advice of her lawyers, she did not take the stand. "As bad as it is, I want the truth out there. I want people to know I did not kill my husband. I did not," she maintains.

After nearly two days of heated deliberations, the courtroom fell silent as the judge uttered the jury's decree: guilty.

It was a somber moment for all, says Mattingly. "There was no jubilation. I mean, this is not a happy occasion. It's a tragedy," he says. "Three little young men, they've lost their father and we've just proven it was their mother that killed their father."

Traci was shackled and locked in a holding cell, awaiting her sentence. But Defense Attorney Ernesto Gamez assured her that all was not lost.

In Texas, the defense has the option of letting the jurors decide the punishment as well as the verdict. Gamez opted for a jury sentence. So it was back to the courtroom for the second phase of testimony.

This time Traci took the stand. Asked what she told jurors, Traci says, "That I did not kill my husband and that I did not agree with their verdict."

The two oldest boys also testified -- boys who loved their father and adored their mother. "I said that she didn't do this," Shane says. "She needs to be with us. We need her and she needs us."

And with that, the jury was sent back to deliberate Traci's sentence. The prosecution asked for 60 years. The jurors struggled. Two days later they made their stunning decision, letting her walk away with 10 years probation.

Traci got zero prison time.

At first, Traci didn't comprehend what was happening. "My attorney was shaking me, telling me, 'This is good.' And then I hear everybody - all my family and church friends."

"It was like getting punched in the gut and having the wind knocked out of you. It was an awful feeling," says Mattingly.

But the jury's decision was legal and it was binding. The state's case against Traci was over.

48 Hours went looking for jurors to explain how they came to their decision. Only two jurors, Xavier Lopez and Sara Vallejo, agreed to talk.

They say the one thing that persuaded them was the testimony of Scott and Traci's children.

After three days in jail, Traci was released. She was fined $10,000. Probation means she cannot leave the county and has an 8 p.m. curfew.

Traci's livelihood is also on the line. After her conviction she was fired from her nursing job, but 48 Hours was there when she got the news that she could return for the time being.

Now, Traci is facing the most agonizing decision of her life: whether or not to appeal. If she wins, she would clear her name. If she loses, she could spend the rest of her life in prison.

"I'm praying to God to give me the wisdom to know what to do 'cause I have no clue," she says. "People think that I got off easy. How is 10 years probation and everything that brings with it, how is that getting off easy when you're innocent? I'm innocent."

But until she can prove that, Traci will walk through life known as the cold-hearted woman who shot and killed her husband in his sleep.

Traci Rhode began filing an appeal, but she dropped it because of the cost and the risk of a prison sentence.

Her nursing license was revoked, and she lost her job.
Produced by Liza Finley

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