Raynella Leath: The Widow on Solway Road

Prosecutors say that two of Raynella Leath's husbands died suspiciously -- she says one was a suicide, the other was trampled by cattle. Is she unlucky or is she a black widow?

Produced by Josh Gaynor and Lisa Freed

"48 Hours" kicks off its 30th anniversary season with a rare look inside a controversial case: the State of Tennessee versus Raynella Leath. She's been called a black widow after two of her husbands died under unusual circumstances.

David Leath was found shot to death in the couple's bed. Raynella, a nurse, called 911 to report finding her husband shot dead. There was no evidence linking her to the weapon or the shooting.

"There was more than one shot," says District Attorney Steve Crump. "And while that's not unheard of – well, it didn't look like a suicide scene."

"Everything good about this woman was twisted," says Leath's defense attorney Josh Hedrick. "Everything good about this woman was turned around to be evil. There's not any real evidence to suggest a homicide."

Raynella Leath went on trial earlier this year for the third time. "48 Hours" and correspondent Erin Moriarty were there and gained rare access to attorneys on both sides, family members, jurors and even the judge in a case that ended in a way that no one saw coming. But that's not all. Moriarty also reveals key details jurors never heard.


Inside the county courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee, a real-life drama is taking place that rivals any Southern Gothic novel.

Judge Paul Summers: Let the record reflect that all the jurors are in the box and all parties are present. 

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick: I'm Josh Hedrick.  We haven't met before, have we?

Witness: No, we haven't.

Josh Hedrick: It's a pleasure.

Diane Fanning | Author: This is not a story that would happen in a sleepy … New England town. It's too Southern.

Maggie Dossett | Witness: He would bring her a rose once a week and they would go out to dinner.

Diane Fanning: There is the gentility.

Josh Hedrick [in court addressing Judge Summers]: With your permission, I'll remove my coat because I had some difficulty with it previously.

Diane Fanning:  And underneath that very respectable surface it seems like … everything's rotting to the core.

Prosecutor Steve Crump: [in court]: Unless you really know what's inside somebody's mind … You don't really know why they do what they do, do you?

Best-selling author Diane Fanning has written about this case and the players.

Diane Fanning: This is something that a fiction writer would write about.

Josh Hedrick [in court]: Give us your name please, ma'am. 

Raynella Leath:  Raynella Leath.

raynella-court-screen-grab.jpg

Raynella Leath

Raynella Leath, a 68-year-old grandmother, is at the center of this extraordinary tale.

Josh Hedrick [in court]: Have you decided whether or not you wish to testify at your trial?

Raynella Leath: I do not wish to testify.

Josh Hedrick:  Very well.

Diane Fanning: You've got an unbelievable character. … There were people she knew in college who said, "Well, she was great. She was a lotta fun, as long as you didn't cross her."

And for the past 14 years, the former nurse has been the prime suspect in the death of her second husband, David Leath.

It was Raynella's 911 call on the morning of March 13, 2003, that sent police rushing to the Leath home:

Raynella Leath to 911: Help me!  Help me! … My - My husband shot himself …

Audio and video recordings were made by police at the scene:

Det. Perry Moyers | Knox County Sheriff's Office [audio]: Hey, this is Detective Moyers with the Sheriff's Department.  We're out on a possible suicide.  Gunshot wound.

Det. Moyers [audio]:  No sign of a note or anything lying around shortcodeanywhere.

 The investigators start wondering about the death called in as a suicide:

Det. Moyers [audio]: The gun's laying next to his left hand which is curled underneath him. …We got three fired rounds.

Det. Moyers [audio]: What I have a problem with is, one, where the round's at, and the way he's laying. …  I'm not saying it stinks, I'm just saying it's strange.

Detectives wanted to establish where Raynella had been all morning and she agreed to talk -- the only time she's spoken on the record.

She remembers watching television with her husband David that morning before leaving his breakfast on the nightstand:

Raynella Leath [audio]: He kissed me goodbye and he said, "If I'm not here when you get back, I'll be at the Y." And I said, "OK."

It was close to 9:30 a.m., she says, when she headed to the hospital to visit her mother-in-law: 

Raynella Leath [audio]: And just call fourth floor. They can tell you…

Det. Moyers: OK.

Raynella Leath: … better than I can.

Det. Moyers: All right.

When she arrived home shortly after 11 a.m., she says she found her husband lying in a bloody bed with a gunshot to his head:

Raynella Leath:  I knew something was wrong when I looked at him.  I mean, I've worked in an emergency room before.  I know.

Det. Moyers: Where'd he keep his gun at?

Raynella Leath: I don't know where that gun is from. I've never seen that gun in my whole life.

The gun was believed to have belonged to David's parents.  David's sudden death left Raynella a grieving widow for the second time. 

Raynella and Ed Dossett on their wedding day

Raynella and Ed Dossett on their wedding day

Her first husband, Ed Dossett, had died 11 years earlier.  Raynella and Ed met at East Tennessee State University where she was on the rifle team and studying to be a nurse and he planned to go to law school.   

Erin Moriarty: What drew those two together?

Diane Fanning:  Raynella was such a confident woman. …She had presence. And I think that Ed was really drawn to that. 

They married and moved to Ed's 165-acre family farm in the tight-knit community of Solway, just outside Knoxville, where they raised cattle and three children: Maggie, Eddie Jr. and Katie.

Diane Fanning: Raynella was extremely protective of her children.

They became "the" power couple in town when Ed was elected Knox County district attorney general; Raynella was director of nursing at Parkwest Medical Center.

Their lives took a tragic turn when, at the age of 43, Ed was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Nine months later, he died -- not from his illness -- but in a freak farming accident.

Raynella and David Leath

Raynella and David Leath

But Raynella wasn't a widow for long. Six months later, she shocked friends and family when she remarried. David Leath was a local barber and Ed Dossett's best friend and neighbor.

Cindy Wilkerson:  She fixed his food and start his car in the morning.  …She just treated him like a king.

David's daughter, Cindy Wilkerson, and his cousin, Beth Roberts, say the whirlwind romance was all the talk in Solway.

Erin Moriarty: What do you think he saw in Raynella?

Beth Roberts | David Leath's cousin: She's charming. … I said to my mother I thought he'd hit the jackpot with this girl because she was so pretty and so interesting. …I just thought this is gonna be a great fit.

But Raynella's newfound happiness was short-lived. Less than two years after she remarried, her 11-year-old son was killed in a car crash.  

Cindy Wilkerson: She was very sad and very, very heartbroken.

Wilkerson says she began seeing changes in Raynella and her father's relationship.

Cindy Wilkerson: They didn't seem as happy as they were when they first got married.

Five years later, more heartbreak. David was hospitalized. He began seeing a neurologist for signs of dementia and depression.

In early 2003, Raynella says David's behavior became more erratic. Concerned, she began making notes in a private journal.

On January 19 she wrote: "Dave hateful today.  I cried and cried." 

Three days later, things hadn't improved: "Dave hateful, controlling.  His way or no way.  I cried."

Seven weeks after writing those words, David Leath was dead.

Erin Moriarty: What did you think had happened to your dad?

Cindy Wilkerson: That somebody had shot him, but … I knew that he didn't do it.

WEB OF SUSPICION 

Every haircut, every styling in the middle chair at a Knoxville barber shop, reminds Cindy Wilkerson of her father, David Leath. It's the same chair he used for 39 years.  

Erin Moriarty | "48 Hours" correspondent: Do you miss your dad?

Cindy Wilkerson: Every day.

David Leath at the barber shop

David Leath at work with a customer at the barber shop

Cindy Wilkerson: My dad was fun … loving, caring. … it is a joy to … use the same chair he did.

Wilkerson "inherited" the chair in 2000, when her father suddenly retired at the age of 54. What he kept secret were all those visits to the neurologist. If he was suicidal over dementia, Cindy never saw it.

Erin Moriarty: When Raynella said, "Your dad committed suicide," did you initially think, "Well -- well, maybe he did, but it's just hard to believe?"

Cindy Wilkerson: No, I never did think that. …'cause my dad was scared to death of guns … I knew that he couldn't have done that.

And Wilkerson questioned why her right-handed father would have used his left hand to shoot himself above his left eye.

Cindy Wilkerson: He was totally blind out of that eye.

As her doubts soared, so did her suspicions about her stepmother's role. And she wasn't alone.

Within 24 hours, Dr. Darinka Mileusnic, the Knox County medical examiner, discounted Raynella's claim of suicide, and ruled David Leath's death a homicide. Raynella became the focus of attention.

It was clear to David's family what should happen next.

Beth Roberts | David Leath's cousin: Investigation. Indictment. Trial.

Erin Moriarty: But it doesn't.

Beth Roberts: [chuckles] No. Not even close.

Ed and Raynella Dossett

Ed and Raynella Dossett

Knoxville News Sentinel

Remember, Raynella was the widow of a district attorney general. Crime writer and "48 Hours" consultant Diane Fanning says that was the problem.

Diane Fanning: Almost everybody working in that office either worked with Ed, knew Ed, or knew Raynella. … there was a conflict of interest.

Finding an outside prosecutor to take the Leath case dragged on, making things more difficult. No one could figure out the motive.

Diane Fanning: -- murder doesn't always make sense.

Diane Fanning: Cindy was becoming more and more frustrated … She wanted … something to be done about her father's murder.

With the criminal case stalled, in March 2006, Cindy Wilkerson filed a civil suit against Raynella to stop her from inheriting David's estate. Prosecutors took notice.

Raynella Leath 2006 mug shot

In 2006, Raynella Leath was charged with the murder of her second husband, David.

Knox County Sheriff's Office

Three-and-a-half years after David Leath's death, Raynella was charged with his murder.  That's when old suspicions surfaced about the death of her first husband.

Ed Dossett had been found in a field in July 1992, surrounded by his cattle.  He had apparently been trampled to death. 

Erin Moriarty: Did anyone wonder about how Ed Dossett died?

Beth Roberts: [Laughs] Yes. … The reports were -- an agricultural accident -- but … some folks in the community -- had a problem with that scenario.  …Ed grew up on a farm. …And for him to have been trampled by his own cattle, that just -- that just didn't make sense.

What's more, folks wondered how Ed, weak with cancer and heavily medicated, even managed to get all the way from his house to the cattle.

Diane Fanning: He died in a way that almost sounded like something you hear on a soap opera. 

Diane Fanning says there had been a theory going around Solway that Dossett's death was actually about insurance; Raynella and the kids would get a bigger payout if it was an accident, instead of cancer.

Erin Moriarty: It might have even been Ed Dossett's idea himself, couldn't it have been?

Diane Fanning: It could have been Ed Dossett's idea, and that's what stopped some of the other people from wanting to pursue it. Because if Ed knew he was about to die, but he wanted his family to be more secure financially, he might have said, "Take me out there. Let the cows tromp on me."

Almost a year after Raynella was charged with David Leath's murder, the same medical examiner who ruled that death a homicide reviewed Ed Dossett's file.  Dr. Milusenic determined he wasn't killed by cattle … it was a morphine overdose.    

It was a huge story -- the widow of a district attorney general was now charged with murdering two husbands.

Diane Fanning: Raynella was now being described as a black widow.

Erin Moriarty: Even though she had never gone to trial on any death.

Diane Fanning: No … it was just suspicions were gathering around her.

Which is why Diane Fanning called her book, "Her Deadly Web."

Erin Moriarty: Is it possible that Raynella Leath is just a very unlucky woman?

Diane Fanning: Yeah, but coincidence make me itchy. 

Prosecutors decided to try her for David Leath's murder first.  In 2009, six years after his death, Raynella finally went on trial.  But it turns out that was only the beginning. The jury deadlocked:  11-to-one to convict.  The judge was forced to declare a mistrial.

Beth Roberts | David Leath's cousin: It was here in Knox County … it wasn't shocking to me.

A year later, Raynella was back in court for trial No. 2.  The case was the same, but this time jurors were unanimous. Raynella was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Cindy Wilkerson: I felt like justice had been served. And I was happy.

So were prosecutors.  With Raynella behind bars, they dropped the murder charges for the death of her first husband, Ed Dossett, never expecting what came next. 

Beth Roberts: I would describe her as lucky. Very lucky.

After she served six years, Raynella's conviction was tossed out. The reason?  The trial judge had been seriously impaired with a drug addiction and was kicked off the bench.  

Erin Moriarty: What was your reaction, when you heard that the verdict had been overturned?

Cindy Wilkerson: I was devastated. …Couldn't believe it.

Fourteen years after the death of David Leath, it's now trial No. 3 and prosecutor Steve Crump's turn to try Raynella Leath.

Erin Moriarty: Is there a way to describe this case?

Steve Crump:  Snakebit.  Because what can go wrong will go wrong.

TRIAL NO. 3

It's May 2017 and everyone is ready. The trial, one of the last of Senior Judge Paul Summers' career, is set to begin.

First to present is District Attorney General Steve Crump in what all sides hope will be the last trial in this case.

Prosecutor Steve Crump [in court]: The person who delivered that fatal blow [points at Raynella Leath] was the defendant, Raynella Leath.

He argues Raynella's murderous plan unraveled the moment she fired that first shot … and missed.

Prosecutor Steve Crump [in court]: … once she missed, it changed the whole dynamic. …She ended his life with that second shot. And then in an attempt to cover up … she fired that third shot to get gunshot residue on him.                     

Erin Moriarty: You're describing a pretty cold-blooded killer.                 

Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yes. That's what I think she is.

Prosecutor Steve Crump to witness Don Carman: Let me show you what's been marked previously as exhibit 36 and ask … if you can identity that.

For the prosecution, the gun -- a Colt .38 police special revolver -- reveals some of the most important clues. 

Don Carman is a former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent.

Don Carman [on witness stand] It's a very old, simple firearm, however very effective.

leath-revolver-cylinder.jpg

A picture of the cylinder was taken at the scene. The three fired rounds on the right side have small indentations, or hammer strikes, in the center of the casing. The unfired rounds do not.

Knox County Sheriff's Office

A picture of the cylinder was taken at the scene. The three fired rounds have small indentations, or hammer strikes, in the center of the casing. The unfired rounds do not.

Don Carman [in court, demonstrating how the gun works]: For each particular shot it goes to the next chamber.

Senior Judge Summers [in court]: As you look at it right now, it's going clockwise.

Don Carman: Yes, your honor.

Senior Judge Summers: Thank you.

Prosecutors say that clockwise rotation of the cylinder tells the order of the shots

Don Carman [on witness stand]: The first cartridge fired would be this one [uses a pointer to show on the lower right casing], the second would be this one [pointing to the center right cartridge], and the third would be this one [points to top of cylinder].

The first two cartridges are from silver Remington bullets. Fragments of those were found in the wall and David Leath's head. But the third is different; it's a gold Winchester, found shot through the mattress.

If that gold bullet was fired last, as the prosecution believes, that means it came after David Leath was already shot in the head, severing his brain stem.

Prosecutor Steve Crump: Was David Leath in any way capable of any sort of voluntary movement after that bullet transected his brain?

Dr. Darinka Mileusnic | Knox County Medical Examiner: None whatsoever.

Next, prosecutors turn to the blood spatter.

Round drops of blood on the wall behind the headboard tell investigators that David's head had to be raised nearly a foot above the mattress when the bullet was fired.

Prosecutor Steve Crump to Moriarty:  The only way that all of this works together is that if Raynella Leath is standing at the side of the bed and she misses with that first shot. And we know that the first shot was the one that went into the headboard … he raises up … The second shot occurs and he falls straight back down to where he was found.

Prosecutor Steve Crump [in court]:  You cannot lay in this bed and face that direction and get that blood spatter on the wall. Blood doesn't turn corners.

But the defense insists that the same evidence points to David Leath as the shooter:

Defense Attorney Josh Hedrick:multiple shot suicides are not impossible. They happen.

Raynella's team consists of Knoxville criminal attorney Josh Hedrick, along with Rebecca LeGrand, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer with a background in science.  

Defense attorney Rebecca LeGrand to Moriarty: She was taking care of a sick husband who she loved. And for that to get twisted into what it did, is-- is upsetting. …she's got hope that the justice system isn't so broken that it won't eventually realize the truth which is that she's an innocent woman.

With no clear motive presented by the State, the defense starts with those three shots:

Defense Attorney Josh Hedrick:  Each and every one of these shots, could have been accomplished by David Leath himself.

And then raises doubts to Don Carman about the order of those three shots:

Defense Attorney Josh Hedrick: You don't know for certain whether the gun was opened or the cartridges manipulated prior to that photo being taken?

Don Carman: I do not.

Defense Attorney Josh Hedrick:  And as a result … you're unable to say with any degree of scientific certainty … what order the shots were fired in.

Don Carman: That's correct, because in my discipline that would be not testable.

But even if the prosecution's order of shots is correct, Kentucky State Medical Examiner and defense consultant Dr. Greg Davis says David Leath still could have been the shooter.

Dr. Greg Davis | Forensic Pathologist/Defense consultant: I'll give it to you, it's unusual. But to say because of that it has to be a homicide, I just can't go that far … There is a phenomenon called cadaveric spasm where a person can actually -- their hands can squeeze immediately upon death.

Erin Moriarty: What would you have ruled this?

Dr. Greg Davis: I would have ruled this undetermined.

Which is what he believes Dr. Mileusnic should have done in this case. Remember, within 24 hours of David Leath's death, Dr. Mileusnic called it a homicide.  She had not yet seen records from his neurologist or received a complete medical history.

Defense Attorney Josh Hedrick to Moriarty:  … didn't have toxicology. Didn't have -- ballistics. Didn't have medical records. …it went from, "Can we figure out what happened," to "Can we prove this was a homicide?"

In a previous trial, Dr. Mileusnic testified that medications found in David's system would have rendered him "incapacitated." In other words, unable to kill himself. But in trial No. three, Dr. Mileusnic did not repeat that claim.

Defense attorney Rebecca LeGrand to Moriarty: I'm glad that she reassessed and didn't try to make the same claims about toxicology at the third trial. But -- it's six years too late for my client.

Dr. Mileusnic declined "48 Hours"' request for an interview.  But in Raynella's third trial, she stands firm that David Leath's death was a homicide.

Dr. Darinka Mileusnic [in court]: I was very confident and 14 years later I'm even more so confident, yes.

Erin Moriarty: Dr. Davis, can you say unequivocally that she didn't kill her husband?

Dr. Greg Davis: No, I cannot.

Erin Moriarty: But there's not enough evidence to say she did.

Dr. Greg Davis: Right … As a forensic pathologist, at least on the evidence that I have been privy to, there's no way on earth I think she's guilty.

But there is information Dr. Davis was not privy to.

Beth Roberts | David Leath's cousin: If anybody has any doubts as to whether David was murdered by Raynella, maybe they need to talk to Steve Walker.

Steve Walker: I see a killer 'cause she tried to kill me.

UNTOLD STORIES

In a final and dramatic attempt to convince a jury of suicide, the defense brings the blood-stained bed to the courtroom still preserved.

Two wooden dowels indicate the trajectory of bullets that went into the mattress and David Leath's headboard. 

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick [in court]: If the record could reflect I'm pointing to the hole in the middle of the headboard.

Defense forensic expert Celia Hartnett shows jurors how David Leath could have fired all three shots.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick climbs onto the bed with the Colt .38 revolver in hand to demonstrate.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick [in court]: If I were to lie in bed, and I were to aim at my head and pull the trigger and miss high and create this [touches the dowel poking out from the hole in the headboard.]

Celia Hartnett: Yes.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick: …and then, frustrated that I've missed sat up and pulled the trigger… it would enter my head here [touches center of his forehead].

Celia Hartnett: Yes.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick's court demonstration in the bed where David Leath was found dead

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick: And then if I fell and my hand squeezed again, it would be consistent with this direction [lying of the bed, Hedrick rolls his body to the right, holding the gun, pointing it into the mattress].

Celia Hartnett: Not just with the direction but also with the distance.

Rebecca LeGrand: We're not saying we know exactly what happened. We're just saying we know there are multiple ways that all of this makes sense that don't have anything to do with a homicide. … there was only one person who -- who wanted to harm David. And at that point, it was David. …he was acting, with his physicians, suicidal.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick [in court, sitting on the edge of the bed]: He's becoming useless.  And a proud man doesn't want to be useless.

thewidow-podcast.jpg

To hear more about the case, download Erin Moriarty's six-part podcast at Radio.com

But for the prosecution, the most incriminating evidence isn't at the crime scene. It's at the barber shop where Raynella Leath called Cindy Wilkerson on the morning of the shooting.

Raynella had already left David at home.  She made the call from Parkwest Medical Center where she was visiting David's mother. 

Cindy Wilkerson: She asked me if I had seen my dad and he went to work out on an empty stomach.

Erin Moriarty: Was that normal?

Cindy Wilkerson: Never called me at work

Prosecutor Steve Crump [in court]: That was the first indication on March 13th, 2003 that anything was unusual about David Leath.

The prosecution says the call was part of Raynella's elaborate alibi, to prove she wasn't at home with David.  But they say she miscalculated.

Remember, Raynella told police she put breakfast by the bed and left the house around 9:30 a.m.  She made the call to Cindy Wilkerson just 20 minutes later.

Prosecutor Steve Crump to Moriarty: There would have been no reason to say, "Have you seen him?" There would've been no reason to ask if he'd worked out and there certainly would've been no reason to say, "He didn't eat his breakfast," because there's no way she could've known that unless she had been there and unless the only reason she knew he hadn't eaten breakfast was because he was dead.

Prosecutor Steve Crump [in court]: Have you seen your father today?

That's the question the prosecution wants burned into jurors' minds as both sides make their final case:

Prosecutor Steve Crump [in court]: It's the only explanation. Raynella Leath is guilty of the first-degree premeditated homicide of David Leath.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick: We can't say that the facts exclude the theory that David Leath shot himself as I demonstrated for you …  be as diligent as you have been since we started and to return a verdict of not guilty of the murder of David Leath.

As all eyes turn to the jury, there are things about Raynella Leath they'll never hear. They don't know about Ed Dossett and they don't know about Steve Walker.

Steve Walker:  I'm a crouton on a real big salad here.  And this is a big salad in this town.

Steve Walker's ex-wife was Ed Dossett's secretary.  Their relationship, as it turns out, was more than just professional. 

In 1995, three years after Ed's death, Walker found out during divorce proceedings that the son he raised was actually Ed Dossett's biological child. It came as a terrible shock to Steve and Raynella.

Erin Moriarty: I mean, in some ways, you felt that you were on her side.

Steve Walker: Raynella's, yes. I thought we was on the same team. Yeah.

He could not have been more wrong. According to a police report filed by Raynella, on the morning of May 26 of that year, she found Walker "acting psychotic" near Ed's grave on the farm:

Raynella Leath [audio recording]: The son of a bitch…trying to p*** on my husband's grave.

She told police she began "firing" warning shots "into the ground" to chase him away …and that Walker "took the weapon…and fled on foot."

But when Walker filed his own report, he told a very different story.

He says, that same morning, Raynella picked him up at the auto shop where he works and drove him to the farm to talk about the affair.

Steve Walker: 'Til I seen the gun, we was as friendly as me and you right now.

When they got to Raynella's barn, Walker says she suddenly pulled out a revolver.  In a police interview, Walker told investigators Raynella said "I'll kill you, you son of a bitch … then I'll raise… the son."

Steve Walker : She had a towel around her hand. …and she comes up with it and -- and starts shooting.

But the former marksman missed. Walker started running, but tripped and fell.

Steve Walker: I'm just laying there defenseless. … she said, "I used to be a better shot. But I can hit you from here." … she aimed that gun and I closed my eyes, she pulled the trigger, I -- I knew I was gone.

But the gun was out of bullets.

Steve Walker: There's no doubt in my mind. If she hadn't run out of bullets, I'd be dead.

raynella-1995-mug.jpg

In 1995, Raynella Leath was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Steve Walker

The police believed Steve Walker's story and Raynella was arrested and charged with attempted murder.  But she took a deal and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault.  After six years, her record was cleared. 

Erin Moriarty: Why would she plead guilty?

Defense attorney Rebecca LeGrand: It's the same thing I woulda told her, is this is a plea that will get expunged. There is no jail time. …Take this deal and walk away.

Raynella Leath did walk away. 

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick; [in court, his hands on Raynella's shoulders]: I thank you for your time and attention and Ms. Leath thanks you for your time and attention.

Twenty-two years later, Raynella's hoping to walk away again.

Senior Judge Paul Summers [in court]: As jurors, you are the ones that will decide the case.

But as the jurors are ready to have their voices heard, something happens that no one sees coming.

Michael Persicano | Juror: if you can picture, like, a cartoon, you know, of someone's jaw hitting the floor.

THE JUDGE, THE JURY, THE VERDICT

Michael Persicano | Juror: I really really tried to pay attention and took notes.  I was looking forward to deliberating.

With her daughter by her side, Raynella Leath arrives at court for the final time.

Senior Judge Paul Summers: Let the record reflect that all parties are present in the courtroom including the defendant.

Before the jurors can decide her fate, there's just one more piece of business.

It's a defense motion called a Rule 29; a routine request made in nearly every trial to throw out the case for lack of evidence.

In most cases, the judge simply denies the motion and gives the jurors the case.

Senior Judge Paul Summers: Only two words are required: either motion granted, or motion denied.

But then, like so many times in the story of Raynella Leath, something completely unexpected happens.

Senior Judge Paul Summers: In short, the state has failed to meet their burden … The defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal is granted.

Senior Judge Paul Summers: The defendant Raynella Leath is not guilty.  The case against Raynella Leath is dismissed. 

Rayella Leath in court

Not guilty: Raynella Leath reacts after hearing the judge's vedict

Not guilty. The judge, on his own, acquits Raynella Leath of murder.  After 14 years of suspicion, six years behind bars, and three hard fought trials -- just like that, it's all over.  

As the defense celebrates …

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick: …she's free.  She's done.  The end.

David Leath's daughter, Cindy Wilkerson sits stunned; the prosecution does, too.

Prosecutor Steve Crump to Moriarty:  I don't understand it.  I don't have an explanation.

And under Tennessee law, there's no appeal either because the judge made his extremely rare decision before the jury began deliberations.  

These jurors -- initially shocked—become angry.

Jesse Capps | Juror: We were just used.  I mean, they just used us as set pieces pretty much.

Michael Persicano: If Judge Summers was so convinced that he was right about the evidence why not let us deliberate it?

Erin Moriarty: And how do you explain that?

Michael Persicano: I can't. Only Judge Summers can.

So we asked Judge Summers, now retired, to make his case to "48 Hours" and he agreed.

Senior Judge Paul Summers: Strictly based on the evidence that I heard on both sides, but particularly the State's side … if I'd have been the district attorney general, I would not have brought the case to trial.

Erin Moriarty: Did you choose to do this to end this case, to finally end this case?

Senior Judge Paul Summers: Yes.

Erin Moriarty: You did?

Senior Judge Paul Summers:  I did when I realized … the evidence was legally insufficient I decided to end this case by doing my job and granting the motion for judgment of acquittal.

Judge Summers believed that there was enough evidence for the jury to decide a homicide may have occurred, but he was convinced the prosecution didn't meet its burden to prove that Raynella Leath had the time or opportunity to commit it.

moriarty-summers.jpg

"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty and Senior Judge Paul Summers discuss the case and his extremely rare ruling

CBS News

Senior Judge Paul Summers: There was no gunshot residue found on her clothes or around her.  She had an alibi that the State could not prove the time of death.  There – the evidence was clearly insufficient to show that she was the perpetrator of the crime.  And finally the -- the -- there was no evidence to show that she was even the last person ever to see David Leath alive.

Erin Moriarty: If you were so sure that there wasn't enough evidence for the jury to convict or beyond a reasonable doubt, wouldn't the jury have come to the same conclusion?

Senior Judge Paul Summers: I was simply doing my job, not trying to pass the buck to the jury.

Judges sometimes make these extraordinary decisions when they fear the jurors might be swayed by emotions and not evidence, and that may have been a factor in this case. While we will never know for sure what the whole jury would have done, we have a clue.

Erin Moriarty: If you had gotten to vote how would you have voted?

Michael Persicano: Guilty

Jesse Capps: Guilty

William McMichael | Juror: Guilty.

Erin Moriarty: Do you feel Raynella Leath got away with murder?

William McMichael: I absolutely feel she got away with murder.

leath-jurors.jpg

L-R, jurors Michael Persicano, Jesse Capps, and William McMichael,

CBS News

For Michael Persicano, Jesse Capps, and William McMichael, it was the gun that pointed to Raynella as the killer.

Michael Persicano: There's no way David Leath fired that third shot.  

Erin Moriarty: …you don't believe the defense witness who said, "well you can have spasms after death that pulled the trigger the third time?"

Michael Persicano: That's fantasy.

Erin Moriarty: What most convinced you, Jesse, that this wasn't just a murder but that Raynella Leath was the one who killed her husband?

Jesse Capps: When Joshua -- Joshua Hedrick was sitting on that bed and he was twirling that cylinder on that gun, "a burden to my family." It was just so corny.

Defense attorney Josh Hedrick [in court]: …a proud man doesn't want to be a burden.

Jesse Capps:  It was fake.  He was trying so hard. …after that, I was like, all right. …they're trying so hard it's just so obvious now.

It wasn't just these three.  They say, shortly after the judge's decision, a majority of the jurors gathered near the courthouse and came to the same conclusion

Erin Moriarty: …admittedly, they did not deliberate, but … they would've found her guilty? Does that make it worse?

Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yeah, in some ways … but in another sense, it tells me I did the right thing … and more importantly our work as trial attorneys was spot on.

For David Leath's family, it's little consolation.

Beth Roberts | David Leath's cousin: He stole that verdict from the family, from the prosecution, from the jury.  It was a theft.

Some in this town will always call her a black widow, but for Raynella Leath, none of that matters.

Because as she leaves courtroom number two, she walks away a free woman. 

Reporter: How you doing Raynella?

Katie | Raynella's daughter: You guys weren't worried about her before so don't worry about her now.


Reporter: You have anything to say?

Katie: Please leave my mom alone.

Erin Moriarty: Did it cross your mind you might be letting a killer go free?

Senior Judge Paul Summers: You know, there's a difference between being not guilty and being innocent … If the State does not prove its case, they are found not guilty. It doesn't say that they're innocent.

Erin Moriarty: So you're not saying that Raynella Leath is innocent. You're saying not guilty?

Senior Judge Paul Summers: …there are two entities of which I'm aware that know the answer to that question. One is the good Lord above, and the other one is the defendant, Raynella Leath.

Prosecutors intend to file a petition to exhume the body of Raynella's first husband, Ed Dossett, to gather more evidence. They will decide whether to refile charges against her for his death.

Raynella has moved back to the farm outside Knoxville on Solway Road.

"48 HOURS" PODCAST: THE WIDOW

Want to hear more? Download correspondent Erin Moriarty's six-part podcast on the case.

.


  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"