During a murder trial that began last week, prosecutors in Clay County repeatedly described a defendant — who claims innocence, saying she found her husband with gunshot wounds when she returned from the store — as exhibiting “odd” behavior when she spoke to first responders.
But experts questioned the validity of the prosecution’s argument.
Experts with a background in law and psychology interviewed by The Star questioned the objectivity and depth of the prosecution’s statements characterizing Viola Bowman’s behavior as odd, citing common trauma responses.
Bowman, 60, is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Her husband Albert “Rusty” Bowman was shot and killed in the couple’s Kansas City home on Nov. 7, 2012. She was arrested in January 2015 and has been awaiting trial in jail since then.
In opening statements last Tuesday, prosecuting attorney Spencer Curtis said Bowman’s “behavior was so odd.”
Prosecutors often use this kind of tactic, said Sean O’Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who has helped free innocent people from prison.
“We see a lot of cases in which a person is exonerated from a conviction that rests heavily on ‘odd’ or ‘inappropriate’ demeanor evidence,” he said.
Around 10 p.m. the night of the alleged murder, Bowman was at Walmart buying items to make caramel apples. When she arrived home at 10:36 p.m., she called 911 claiming she had found Rusty covered in blood in his recliner and that someone had broken in, Curtis said.
Jurors listened to the frantic 911 call Bowman made in which she tells the dispatcher that “there’s blood everywhere” and for first responders to hurry. The dispatcher asks if he is breathing, and Bowman says she can’t find a pulse. The dispatcher helps Bowman start chest compressions until help arrives.
Kansas City Fire Department firefighters arrived on the scene, including now retired Capt. Lisa Malloy.
“It was just a weird call,” she testified, also describing it as “strange.”
Malloy said a woman at the scene, Bowman, began talking about things that weren’t related to the patient, saying she had been at Walmart and that she thought there had been a break-in. Malloy said Bowman’s reaction was not like other reactions she had seen in her many years of responding to emergencies.
Curtis told jurors items like a laptop, car keys and a wallet had not been taken from the house.
“If this was a burglary ... it’s odd,” he said.
Defense attorney Horton Lance told jurors that when Bowman arrived home, she encountered the most “traumatic, terrifying event of her lifetime.”
Elizabeth Vermilyea, a consultant specializing in traumatic stress, said odd is a subjective assessment.
”The problem with immediate and delayed reactions to trauma is that there’s no formula,” she said.
“People really have varied responses.”
Immediate reactions can range from numb to disoriented or hysterical.
In the wake of trauma and grief, people can display emotional detachment, become argumentative, avoidant, irritable, hostile, or show denial. They may experience feelings of helplessness, disorientation or anxiety, among other emotional, physical and cognitive reactions.
Prosecutors also said Bowman gave inconsistent statements to investigators.
Nearly two years after the homicide, police took Bowman in for questioning. They let her go.
Vermilyea said memory degrades over time, and traumatic memory can both degrade and become separated in terms of awareness.
“The emotional response of the event can become encoded and stored separately from the narrative content of the event and this is very, very common,” she said.
Bowman has spent more than six-and-a-half years in jail awaiting trial. Her case came to The Star’s attention during an investigation into Missouri’s public defender system. Her case was delayed as her public defender handled hundreds of cases and requested dozens of continuances on Bowman’s case.
Last year, Bowman rejected a plea deal that would have sent her home with time served, saying that she did not kill her husband.
She is expected to take the stand and testify this week.