Judge declares mistrial in 1974 farmhouse slaying

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Associated Press

Posted on January 30, 2014 at 7:04 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 30 at 7:06 PM

OTTUMWA, Iowa (AP) — A judge declared a mistrial Thursday in the case of a man charged with first-degree murder in the 1974 slaying of a 17-year-old girl at an Iowa farmhouse.

After trying for a week, jurors said they could not reach a verdict in the case of 67-year-old Robert "Gene" Pilcher and that any more deliberation would be pointless. Judge Richard Meadows agreed.

Prosecutors accuse Pilcher of beating and fatally shooting Mary Jayne Jones, an outgoing drive-in restaurant waitress, at his cousin's farmhouse. Authorities arrested him 38 years after the slaying, when tests linked his DNA to semen stains on a blanket that was under Jones' body.

Pilcher denied any role in Jones' death. He said the semen came from a previous sexual encounter with another woman, and prosecutors offered little other direct evidence linking him to the death.

Prosecutors said Thursday they would retry Pilcher, who's been jailed since his arrest in November 2012. After granting the mistrial, Meadows scheduled the second trial for March 25.

Jones' sister, Judith Cabanillas, said the family remains convinced that Pilcher was guilty of a "brutal and senseless murder."

"It is our hope that the county along with the Attorney General's Office will continue to pursue this matter and one day obtain justice for my sister, Mary Jayne Jones," she said in a written statement.

Meadows granted the mistrial after the 12-member jury at the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa indicated for the second time this week that they were deadlocked. He had ordered deliberations to continue after learning of the split Tuesday, but that effort proved fruitless.

"We appreciate the jury's time and effort in what must have been a very difficult decision to make," said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's Office.

Pilcher had been the main suspect in Jones' death from the beginning because of powerful circumstantial evidence.

Pilcher had access to the farmhouse while his cousin was out of town. Four days before Jones was killed, Pilcher was accused of luring another woman to the home, handcuffing her and forcing her to perform oral sex on him.

But investigators did not have direct evidence of his involvement and he was not charged until 2012, after an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation cold case unit re-examined the evidence using tools not available in 1974.

Forensic testing linked Pilcher's DNA — by then in a database of known felons for an earlier theft conviction — to three semen stains left on a blanket where Jones' naked body was found. One was near her crotch.

In addition to the DNA evidence, a former girlfriend testified that Pilcher once bragged about having "offed someone" decades earlier in the Ottumwa area. A brother-in-law testified that Pilcher contacted him in 2012 after learning the case had been reopened, gave him instructions for sending him money if he went to prison, and made a statement about not being proud of his past.

Prosecutors said Pilcher was attracted to Jones and had asked her out when he was a customer at the drive-in restaurant where she worked.

But Pilcher's lawyers argued that the DNA evidence didn't prove that he killed Jones, noting that it could have been left there during prior sexual encounters he had in the room. Even the prosecution conceded two of the stains likely were unrelated to Jones.

The defense also argued that prosecutors failed to identify another source of male semen on the blanket, did not offer any witnesses putting Pilcher and Jones together outside of the restaurant and did not prove that he had handled the weapon used to kill her.

Defense attorney Kenneth Duker said jurors did not reveal details of their deadlock, and he had no idea of what happened.

"They spent a lot of time at it," he said. "They are to be commended for the hard work."

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