Reasonable Doubt: The Murder Trial

Brian Takes The Stand

At the trial, Altman argued that Eftenoff forced his wife to swallow cocaine to cover up injuries he had given her during a domestic argument. His key witness was toxicologist Dr. Randall Baselt, who said his calculations show Judi had taken as much as a gram of cocaine an hour or two before her death - too much cocaine he says, and taken too quickly, for Judi to have taken it on her own.

But his calculations are disputed by other expert witnesses. Even a witness from the county's own medical examiner's office says the amount of cocaine may have been smaller.

Altman believes the injuries Judi suffered will convince the jury she was murdered, so he turns to the one eyewitness he believes can say how she got them: Brian and Judi's daughter, Rikki Eftenoff. But her memories were contradictory, and at the trial she had no clear memory of what happened on the night her mother died.

It doesn't help the prosecution when friends and neighbors who knew Judi during her marriage admit they saw her use cocaine. One woman says she might have done cocaine as often as once a week with Judi.

With evidence like that, and with the confusing and conflicting medical testimony, Brian is beginning to feel confident. "They do not have a case. They will never have a case," he said.

Phoenix reporter Paul Rubin followed the case since the beginning. "You had this guy who oozed arrogance and he also thinks he's a little better in every aspect of life than you or I or anybody."

Brian is upset because he feels the case has focused not on Judi's death but on his character. ""All they did is make me look like a big evil intimidating man. Shouldn't I get the benefit of the doubt? It's the state's burden of proof to show that I killed Judi. Not to come up with some theory that he shoved cocaine down her throat!"

Against the advice of his defense attorney, Brian took the stand. Eftenoff begins with an unusual and rather strange demonstration of how his wife looked when he found her. It makes everyone in the courtroom uncomfortable. Then he tells the jury that his wife used cocaine: "She just couldn't put it down. It's like a Lay's potato chip. It's hard to put down. When you start, it's hard to stop."

But then, he contradicts himself, and actually tells the jury that Judi may have been murdered. "If it was anything like a one-time dose, of like a gram or more then there's obviously foul play."

Taking the stand has given Brian a chance to tell his story. But Altman questions that story. Brian contradicts earlier testimony that he had hit his wife. He also denies calling his wife a "coke whore."

After a five-week trial, the jury took 36 hours to come to a verdict: guilty. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison: 22 years for murder, 28 years for illegally transporting cocaine by mail to Judi's parents. (He sent a small amount of cocaine in a box of her belongings. He says he was framed.)

Rubin doesn't believe the evidence against Eftenoff was very convincing. "Just because Brian is weird doesn't mean he's a killer. Usually, it's a whodunit. It's a murder mystery. Well this one was, maybe it's a whodunit, but it was a was there a dunnit?" Rubin believes Eftenoff's ego helped do him in.

The county's own doctors and toxicologist couldn't agree on whether she was murdered or not. They're not the only ones who raise serious questions about the case against Brian.

48 Hours brought together four well-known forensic experts and asked them to study the medical testimony and evidence from the trial: Dr. Lee Hearn, the chief toxicologist for Miami - Dade County, Florida; Dr. Edward Briglia, who was chief toxicologist for Suffolk County, New York. Dr. Charles Wetli, Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner; and Dr. Don Ray, now retired, who spent more than 24 years as chief medical examiner in Seattle. Among them, they have studied hundreds of deaths from cocaine.

None of them agrees with the prosecution scenario, that Judi was first knocked unconscious and then murdered when her husband stuffed cocaine down her throat. "I would say it's virtually impossible given the evidence I've looked at," says Briglia. Not one of them believes Judi was even murdered.

Says Hearn: "I think she was a cocaine user. I think she was bingeing on cocaine the night of her death. And that she developed a cerebral bleed because cocaine raises your blood pressure, it happens fairly often - and that was the cause of her death."

48 Hours spoke with more than a dozen medical experts and was unable to find a single one who agreed with the prosecution's star medical witness, Dr. Baselt, who testified that Judi died shortly after ingesting a large dose of cocaine. The problem, say these doctors, is that Baselt based his opinion on blood test results that are unreliable when taken after death. "The notion of this single acute oral overdose is simply not consistent with the facts," says Briglia.

Undisputed evidence shows that most of the cocaine in Judi's body had already broken down into by-products called metabolites – very little remained in her stomach.

What about the prosecution's witness' argument that there was so much cocaine in her body that she simply couldn't have done that on her own? "I would characterize that as absurd." says Hearn.

What about the injuries found on Judi's body that the prosecution argues is proof she was beaten and forced to take the cocaine?

"These are not indications of anybody who's sustained any type of beating at all. These to me, are very non-specific. It might be indicative of some type of struggle or a fight, but certainly not a beating," says Wetli.

They all agree that it is just as likely that the injuries occurred naturally as part of an accidental overdose.

If these medical experts are so convinced Judi was not murdered, isn't that "reasonable doubt" that her husband killed her?

Says Wetli: "There's no evidence that she was forced to swallow cocaine. And consequently there is an innocent man in prison."

"I think it's very possible that there is an innocent man in jail," says Briglia.

"Innocent of murder certainly," says Hearn.

January 2003 Update

Since this investigation aired last spring Brian Eftenoff took his case to the Arizona Court of Appeals. He argued that because the toxicology report could be interpreted in different ways there is insufficient evidence to prove murder. He also said he didn't get a fair trial because he was tried on both charges together. Another argument: his seven-year old daughter was not a competent witness. The appeal was denied; his conviction stands. Eftenoff plans another appeal to the state Supreme Court.

This is far from the only case where questions have been raised about toxicology results. In fact the national association of medical examiners is currently drafting new guidelines on what kind of tests to do and precisely when. The changes could be in place as early as next month.

Dr. Baselt refused repeated requests for an interview about his reports.

Go Back To Part 1.