Dale Bruner: The evidence against
Ryan Summerlin July 28, 2012
The prosecution: The defendant did nothing
In the four days between Stephanie Roller Bruner’s disappearance in November of 2010 and the discovery of her body, it seemed everyone who knew Stephanie Roller Bruner, and even some people who didn’t, were out looking for her.
Everyone, that is, except her husband, Dale Bruner.
That was the message prosecutors brought to a jury of 12 in closing arguments Friday afternoon at the end of the nearly two-week trial of Dale Bruner for the brutal murder of his wife.
Deputy DA Kristine Word started her closing argument the same way she opened the trial: quoting Roller Bruner’s own words, uttered during a court hearing for a restraining order against her husband weeks before she died.
“‘He wants to control me,'” Word quoted. “‘He’s threatened my life, his hands on my throat, screaming in my face, ‘I’ll kill you if you leave.” These are the words of a victim of domestic violence. These are the words of Stephanie Roller.”
Word went on to describe for the jury the events of the days before Roller Bruner’s body was found naked in the Blue River, and the defendant’s lack of activity during that time.
The morning after Bruner claims his wife went out for a walk in a snowstorm, he called her cellphone three times, Word noted, and then never tried to contact her again.
He then reported Roller Bruner missing to the police and went out and ran errands, Word said. The following day, with the police investigation in full swing, friends and family coming into town and, as Roller Bruner’s loved ones were searching, Bruner did some work on is computer and cancelled his Match.com account, Word reminded the jury.
Prosecutors confronted defense attorney Robert Bernhardt’s theories in the case and his accusation that the prosecutors hadn’t a “scintilla” of direct evidence in the case.
The defense claimed, “the only thing that could convict his client is direct evidence,” District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said. “Unfortunately, the law disagrees with Mr. Bernhardt.”
The law, prosecutors said, makes no distinction between circumstantial and direct evidence.
And in any event, Word said, the prosecution did have direct evidence, to add to their “mountain” of circumstantial evidence against Bruner.
There was the implausibility of the story Dale Bruner gave investigators – that his wife went out for a walk in a snowstorm at approximately 10 p.m. with her cellphone and laptop, but without her purse.
There was the autopsy, which showed Roller Bruner died of a combination of blunt force trauma, strangulation, hypothermia and drowning.
The strangulation itself was also direct evidence, Word argued, as the testimony of Bruner’s ex-girlfriends and the statements of Roller Bruner herself indicate it’s something he had done before in heated arguments.
“Strangulation in this case is direct evidence,” Word said. “It is rare, it is the defendant’s MO, and it is what he does when he is losing power and control.”
Roller Bruner’s statements in court and an email to the man she was having an affair with written the night she disappeared, are also direct evidence in the case, Word told the jury.
Roller Bruner never finished or sent the email, but it was auto-saved at 11 p.m. – half an hour to an hour after Bruner claims she went on a walk, never to return.
Hurlbert also gave rebuttal closing arguments, following Bernhardt’s closing.
He reiterated the testimony of an investigator that suspects were eliminated if they were found not to have motive, ability or opportunity. The two top suspects in the case – Roller Bruner’s boyfriend Ron Holthaus and his wife Cindy Bragg Holthaus – didn’t have any of the three, Hurlbert told the jury.
Bruner, they said, had all of them.
“We know who done it. He’s sitting right there,” Word said to the jury, pointing to Bruner in the defendant’s chair. “Find him guilty.”
Seven days of testimony from the prosecution painted a picture of what might have happened to Stephanie Roller Bruner when she disappeared in November 2010.
But it didn’t prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, defense attorney Robert Bernhardt told the jury in his closing statements Friday afternoon.
“Was that the way it happened?” Bernhardt asked the jury when deputy district attorney Kristine Word finished her closing statements. “You believe that?”
He reminded the jury their job was not to solve the case, but to decide whether the evidence presented in court was enough to prove Bruner’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
He then reminded the jury to consider not only the evidence they did hear, but the evidence not presented in court – such as a social services report opened to investigate Bruner for child abuse. The report was later closed.
There were also no police reports documenting two incidents alleged by Bruner’s former girlfriends in court about previous strangling incidents. Bernhardt suggested the two women – who each testified Bruner put his hands around their necks during heated arguments when they were dating him – might have been attracted to the witness stand by the media blitz surrounding the case.
“Where is the evidence?” Bernhardt asked the jury. “Where is the evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that my client put his hands around anybody’s throat?”
Bernhardt also noted that many of the prosecution witnesses had been Roller Bruner’s friends, and claimed she confided in them about her husband’s violence and her own fear because she wanted to protect her own reputation when she finally left her marriage.
“Stephanie Roller was getting ready to leave her husband,” Bernhardt told the jury in his closing statements. “These people were people that she didn’t want to think bad things about her.”
In closings, Bernhardt followed the course of his defense throughout the trial – zeroing in on the time lapse between Roller Bruner’s disappearance and the police search of her house and the lack of direct evidence which, he said, resulted from shoddy police work.
The district attorney did not present any physical or DNA evidence in the case.
“They want you to convict this man because of work they didn’t do,” Bernhardt told the jury.
Following that line of reasoning, Bernhardt sought to create doubt in the juror’s minds, saying the prosecution had presented no more evidence to prove Bruner’s guilt than they had to prove the innocence of other suspects in the case who had been eliminated – including Roller Bruner’s boyfriend and his wife.
He concluded by giving jurors a charge to carry justice.
“You don’t have to like this man,” Bernhardt told the jury. “You don’t have to like your verdict. But we do has ask you as members of this community, as this most important cog in the wheels of justice … to look at the reasonable doubt strewn throughout this case … and to look at see if this is justice.”