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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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If it were true, Rosenberg pointed out, that Morello's arm had been extended behind the passenger's seat, then it would not have been in one of the two positions Wetli described. And if, as Scocco had indicated, Morello's arm wasn't on the armrest, then it only could have been hit by the shell casing if it had been stretched out ahead of him, which would have placed his right hand on or near the gearshift. The doctor's experiment proved that. Finally, without explicitly saying so, Rosenberg implied that if Morello's hand had been near the gearshift, he might have been poised to put the van in "drive" and proceed forward toward Russell.
After the hearing, Scocco was in tears. He hadn't really given much thought to his answer about the position of Morello's arm; he didn't think it was that big a deal. "They put so much pressure on you," he said in the courthouse hallway. "They only want to hear what they want to hear."
At least twice while announcing his ruling, Judge Perry commended Dr. Wetli and emphasized the importance of his testimony. He said he found Wetli's experiment to be "of great help" and called it the "most objective evidence" presented at the inquest. But in an interview after the hearing, Wetli repeatedly stressed to New Times that the results of his experiment were only preliminary and that more testing was needed before it should be considered conclusive. Wetli, who is not a ballistics or firearms expert, said he had never attempted this experiment before and was trying out things as he went along.
Wetli also revealed that that he was never called to the crime scene, a fact that was not presented at the inquest. "They were going to call me to the scene," he said, "which would be routine, but as things got busy they just forgot." Perhaps more important, Wetli never even saw the van upon which he based his test. "I never did get to see the inside of the van," he admitted, "which was something I really wanted to do."
Perhaps if Wetli had had time to refine his experiment, and if qualified ballistics experts had verified the results, it might have proven that Morello's right hand was indeed on or near the gearshift. But shouldn't that have occurred before Wetli was allowed to testify, especially in light of the significance Judge Perry attached to the experiment? Yes, Wetli acknowledged - if the Morello hearing had been a real trial. This, however, was only an inquest. "I was able to provide the amount of evidence the court needed for the purpose of the inquest," he said. "Now, for the purposes of a criminal trial, your standards have to be a lot higher."
Pressed about the impression his experiment had made upon Judge Perry, Wetli countered by saying there was other important testimony at the inquest: "You also had another witness that heard three different transmission modes."
Wetli was referring to one of the truly strange moments of the inquest. In an apparent effort to support the argument that Andrew Morello was driving the van forward toward Laura Russell, prosecutor Rosenberg called the Russells' next-door neighbor to testify. (Laura Russell herself declined to testify at the inquest.) Larry Trach said he heard three distinct engine noises he described as "revving" sounds. Rosenberg asked if the revving noise could be the sound of gears changing, such as when a car goes from forward to reverse. Trach agreed.
Through a series of labored questions, the prosecutor tried to establish that Trach, from inside his house, had heard Morello change gears. "Your opinion," the prosecutor said, "is that the first sound and the third sound are the same, but different from the second." (The prosecutor seemed to be leading Trach to conclude that the first engine noise was the sound of the van backing up to the Jeep, the second was Morello changing gears in an attempt to run down Russell, and the third was the van being placed in reverse again and retreating.) Trach pondered Rosenberg's question and then nodded in agreement. "But if it was going forward or backward, I could not tell you," Trach added. Later, after Judge Perry joined the questioning in an effort to clarify what Trach may have heard, Trach became flustered. "The whole thing," he said, "happened in five seconds."
Rosenberg's presentation of events would have required Judge Perry to believe that Trach was able to distinguish three separate engine noises after being awakened from a sound sleep at 3:30 in the morning, amid a great deal of commotion: Thor was barking, the Jeep's car alarm was blaring, the Russells were yelling, "Stop! Police!" During these moments, Trach, who said he was startled by the gunshot, was also racing around his house looking for his keys so he could open the front door. Furthermore, Trach's wife, Irene, didn't mention during her testimony hearing any engine noises. And Terrence Trach, the couple's 33-year-old son, who was also home, testified he heard only two engine noises.
Closer scrutiny of Larry Trach's testimony exposed a more substantial problem. Prior to the inquest, both Larry and Irene Trach told New Times their household was awakened by the sound of the Jeep's alarm. During questioning by investigators three days after the shooting, Larry Trach was asked that very question: What woke him up? "The car alarm went off on the street," he said.