John Hill Trial: 1971

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John Hill Trial: 1971

Defendant: John Robert Hill
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Donald Fullenweider and Richard Haynes
Chief Prosecutors: Erwin Ernst and l.D. McMaster
Judge: Frederick Hooey
Place: Houston, Texas
Dates of Trial: February 15-26, 1971
Verdict: Mistrial

SIGNIFICANCE: Sensational trials are not uncommon in Texas, but the extraordinary sequence of events that followed the death of Joan Hill made this a case without equal.

On Tuesday, March 18, 1969, Joan Hill, a 38-year-old Houston, Texas, socialite, became violently ill for no readily apparent reason. Her husband, Dr. John Hill, at first indifferent, later drove her at a leisurely pace several miles to a hospital in which he had a financial interest, passing many other medical facilities on the way. When checked by admitting physicians, Joan's blood pressure was dangerously low, 60/40. Attempts to stabilize her failed and the next morning she died. The cause of death was uncertain. Some thought pancreatitis; others opted for hepatitis.

Joan's father, Ash Robinson, a crusty and extremely wealthy oilman, remained convinced that his daughter had been murdered. Neither was he reticent about naming the culprit: John Hill. When, just three months after Joan's death, Hill married long-time lover Ann Kurth, Robinson threw thousands of dollars into a crusade to persuade the authorities that his son-in-law was a killer. Noted pathologist Dr. Milton Helpern, hired to conduct a second autopsy, cautiously volunteered his opinion that Joan Hill might have been poisoned.

Under Robinson's relentless badgering, prosecutors scoured legal textbooks, searching for a way to indict Hill. They came up with the extremely rare charge of "murder by omission," in effect, killing someone by deliberate neglect. Assistance came in the unexpected form of Ann Kurth. Hill had ditched her after just nine months of marriage. What Kurth told the district attorney bolstered their decision to indict Hill.

Jury selection began on February 15, 1971. Because of the defendant's undeniably handsome appearance, Assistant District Attorney I.D. McMaster aimed for a predominantly male, middle-class panel, one he thought likely to frown on a wealthy philandering physician. His opponent, chief defense counsel Richard Haynes, quite naturally did his best to sit jurors that he thought would favor his client. In this first battle McMaster emerged a clear victor, securing a jury made up of eleven men and one woman. Haynes wasn't that perturbed. In a long and eventful career he'd overcome bigger obstacles, earning a statewide reputation second to none for tenacity and legal acumen. Not for nothing had he acquired the nickname "Racehorse." It promised to be a memorable contest.

Motive: Failed Divorce

Although not required to do so, prosecutors are generally happiest if they can demonstrate to the jury that the accused had a clear motive for committing the crime. McMaster did just this.

We expect to prove that problems arose in the course of this marriage which resulted in the filing of a divorce petition on December 3, 1968, by the defendant Dr. John Hill. An answer to said petition for divorce was filed by Joan Hill, making the divorce a contested matter which could have resulted in a court trial. Realizing that he had insufficient grounds for divorce and in fear of the adverse publicity in regard to his extramarital activities which might result from a court trial, Dr. John Hill dismissed his divorce case and agreed to a so-called reconciliation with Joan Hill. Having failed to terminate the marriage legally, the defendant began to formulate a plan to rid himself of an unwanted wife.

After detailing Joan Hill's sudden and violent illness, McMaster went on:

The state expects to show that the defendant, realizing his wife's condition, intentionally and with malice aforethought failed to properly treat Joan Hill and failed to provide timely hospitalization for her in order that she would die.

Haynes listened to all of this, expressionless. He knew that the case, as presented by McMaster was wafer-thin and that, ultimately, everything would hinge on the word of Ann Kurth. But first came Vann Maxwell, a neighbor of the Hills. She testified that, on the weekend before her illness, Joan was planning to reinstitute divorce proceedings against her husband: "The final thing she said about it was would I go with her?"

"How did she appear to you?" Haynes asked casually on cross-examination.

"She seemed in good health," answered Maxwell.

Haynes sat down, pleased. Now it would be up to the prosecution to explain how a healthy, physically fit woman had become a hopelessly sick patient in less than 48 hours.

Effie Brown had worked as a maid for the Hills only a matter of weeks but was well aware of their marital difficulties. "Did anyone tell you that Mrs. Hill was ill that she was sick on Monday?" asked McMaster.

The 69-year-old woman nodded. "I can't recall now who told me but someone did tell that she was ill and not to go into the room."

McMaster turned knowingly to the jury, letting the point sink in of a sick, helpless woman being left deliberately alone. Without actually mentioning John Hill, the inference was clear. But in this statement Haynes saw a chance. His encyclopedic memory recalled something from a deposition that Effie Brown had made, just weeks after Joan Hill's death.

Haynes was courteous as he began cross-examination of the witness. "You went up to her room, didn't you?" he asked. "And you saw Mrs. Hill sitting in the chair, didn't you, ma'am?"

"No," Brown stated positively. At which point Haynes produced the deposition, made two years earlier, and read out a question posed at that time, "On that Monday did you go up and see her? And your answer, 'I went up there one time she's sitting in a big chair'."

Effie Brown shook her head. "Somebody must have put that there. I didn't say nothing."

Haynes paused. At a stroke he had managed to impugn the witness' memory, not implying perjury, just the hazy recollection of an elderly woman caught up in a situation far removed from any other in her experience. He also scored heavily with his last question to Brown. "I suppose you wouldn't hesitate in going back to work for Dr. Hill today?"

"I wouldn't mind going back if he needed me I like him."

On balance this prosecution witness' testimony had been a marginal plus for the defense. Slowly they were managing to chip away at McMaster's depiction of John Hill as a cold and calculating schemer.

Outburst Leads to Mistrial

If Haynes had been discomfited by some of what Effie Brown had to say, then he wanted nothing at all to do with the testimony of Ann Kurth. Indeed, he believed that under Texas law she should not even be allowed to take the stand against her former husband. But his strident and lengthy objections on this point were overridden by Judge Frederick Hooey after the prosecutors had unearthed yet another obscure precedent, this time a case in which a wife had been permitted to testify against her husband. Judge Hooey let it be known, however, that he was uneasy with his own ruling, and had agreed only to Kurth taking the witness stand on condition that he might stop her testimony at any time.

McMaster first led Kurth through her relationship with Hill, then he asked if she had seen anything "unusual" at Hill's apartment during the week of Joan Hill's illness. She told of entering the bathroom and finding three petri dishesthe kind used in laboratorieswith "something red in them." Hill had come in and angrily shooed her from the room, saying that it was "just an experiment." The next day she also spotted some unusual pastries in the refrigerator. Hill, again annoyed, told her not to eat them.

But the main thrust of Kurth's testimony was given over to a vivid account of an incident in which, she said, Hill had attempted to kill her. It came just one month into their marriage. They were out driving when, Kurth claimed, Hill deliberately smashed her side of the car into a bridge.

"What happened next?" asked McMaster.

"He pulled a syringe from his pocket and tried to get it into me." Kurth said that she managed to knock the syringe from Hill's hand, but that he then produced another hypodermic needle.

"And what did he do with that one, if anything?" queried MeMaster.

Kurth, who several times had to be admonished by the judge for her overly theatrical presentation, crescendoed, "He tried to get that syringe into me!"

Here the prosecutor speculated. "Was he attempting to treat you? Or harm you? Do you know?"

"Yes, I knew." Kurth hesitated, as if unsure what to say next, then blurted out, "Because he told me how he had killed Joan with a needle."

Haynes leapt to his feet, demanding a mistrial on grounds that the defense had not been given an opportunity to prepare themselves against a direct accusation of murder. (This was the first that Haynes had heard of any syringes). Judge Hooey, plainly worried by this turn of events, at first denied the request but did order a recess. During the adjournment, however, Hooey had second thoughts. The tenuous legal precedent by which Kurth had been allowed to testify, and then her foolhardy outburst, convinced him that if he allowed the trial to continue there were clear and palpable grounds for appeal. Accordingly, 11 days into the hearing, he granted the mistrial.

Interestingly enough, the jurors, when polled afterward, indicated that they were inclined to believe John Hill innocent. Ann Kurth's story hadn't impressed them at all.

Retrial Unnecessary

The retrial was set and adjourned another three times until finally being put on the docket for November 1972. But before this could happen, on September 24, 1972, John Hill, by now married for a third time, was gunned down at his mansion in the exclusive Houston suburb of River Oaks, in what had all the hallmarks of a contract killing. After several months of investigation, police arrested three people in connection with the case.

Bobby Vandiver and girlfriend Marcia McKittrick admitted complicity, but claimed that they had been hired by a notorious Houston brothel madam, Lilla Paulus. When Vandiver was shot by police in an unrelated incident, McKittrick, promised a 10-year sentence, agreed to testify against Paulus. Additional testimony was provided by Paulus' own daughter. She told the court of overhearing her mother say, "Ash Robinson is looking for somebody to kill John Hill." Eventually Paulus was convicted and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in 1975.

This extraordinary case reached its conclusion in 1977 when Hill's surviving wife, Connie, and son, Robert, brought a civil suit against Ash Robinson alleging that he had caused John Hill's wrongful death. On this occasion Lilla Paulus' daughter declined to testify, leaving Marcia McKittrick as the main witness against Robinson. A polygraph examination indicated that she was being truthful in saying that Robinson had caused the death of John Hill. A similar test suggested that Robinson was being truthful when he said he hadn't. Given this welter of confusion, the jury acquitted Robinson of collusion in the death of his son-in-law, and the suit was quashed.

Three trials failed to establish Dr. John Hill's guilt or innocence but did provide one of the most remarkable legal sagas of the 20th century. Had a jury been given the opportunity to hear all of the available evidence against Hill, including his sudden and ominous predilection for plying his wife with unaccustomed pastries in the weeks before her death, in all likelihood he would have been convicted of murder. Whether that verdict would have survived the Texas Court of Appeals is something we shall never know.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Kurth, Ann. Prescription: Murder. New York: New American, 1976.

Thompson, Thomas. Blood And Money. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1976.

Wilson, Kirk. Unsolved. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1989.

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John Hill Trial: 1971

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