Richard Lyon Trial: 1991-92
Richard Lyon Trial: 1991-92
Defendant: Richard Allen Abood Lyon
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Dan C. Guthrie
Chief Prosecutor: Jerri Simms
Judge: John C. Creuzot
Place: Dallas, Texas
Date of Trial: December 2, 1991-January 19, 1992
Sentence: Life in prison and $10,000 fine
SIGNIFICANCE: This murder case had all the elements of a good "whodunit": old money, a marriage gone sour, and arsenic poisoning. The accused husband, a suave Harvard graduate, took the stand in his own defense, almost convincing the jury of his innocence. Then the prosecution brought in a last-minute surprise witness with startling information that sealed Lyon's fate.
An autopsy revealed that when Nancy Dillard Lyon died, she had nearly 100 times the normal amount of arsenic in her body. In other words, the 37-year-old wife, mother, and wealthy Harvard graduate had been poisoned to death. All signs eventually pointed to her adulterous husband, Richard, as her murderer. But was he capable of such a thing?
The first real clue that he was came soon after Richard took Nancy to the emergency room of Dallas's Presbyterian Hospital. For weeks, Nancy had complained of nausea and headaches. Friends noticed her behavior had become increasingly erratic.
Doctor's Suspicions Prompt Investigation
While treating Nancy, a third-year resident, Dr. Ali Begheri, became suspicious about the cause of her symptoms. Begheri testified in Lyon's murder trial that soon after Nancy's admission to Presbyterian, he waited until Lyon left his wife's bedside in the intensive care unit. He lifted Nancy's oxygen mask so she could speak. She whispered how she had become violently ill after drinking foul-tasting wine from a bottle left anonymously on her front porch during her separation from Richard.
Begheri also said that Nancy told him of at least two other means by which she suspected her 34-year-old husband had poisoned her. Richard had given her a horrible-tasting soda with a powdery substance floating in it at a movie. Earlier, he had urged her to take strange pills, which he told her were "vitamins." She told Begheri she feared her husband. Nancy died on January 14, 1991, a few days after Richard had rushed her to the emergency room.
Although the hospital initially reported Nancy had died of natural causes, Begheri's suspicions launched a criminal investigation. When an autopsy revealed that arsenic poisoning had caused her death, Richard Lyon was charged with murder that June.
Lawyer Promises Perry Mason Defense
Before the jury was even seated, Lyon's attorney, Dan Guthrie, publicly characterized Nancy's death as "an honest-to-goodness Perry Mason-style whodunit." The statement hinted at Guthrie's defense to establish reasonable doubt. In the trial, Guthrie attacked local police for ignoring other possible suspects with motives much stronger than Lyon's. Among them: Nancy's older brother, who had sexually abused her in childhood; the Lyons' nanny, who disliked Nancy Lyon; and Nancy's former boss, who had been involved in a litigious, work-related scandal and may have wanted to keep Nancy quiet.
In the courtroom, the defense presented several other theories about Nancy's death. Couldn't this depressed incest victim have committed suicide, then framed her unfaithful husband in a final act of spite? Couldn't overworked emergency room doctors have administered drugs that caused fatal side effects? Wasn't it even possible that Mrs. Lyon had accidentally poisoned herself?
After all, there were plenty of toxic chemicals around the couple's fashionable Park Cities home. Lyon claimed Nancy was working with him to eradicate pesky fire ants mounds from their yard. The project, said Lyon, a professional landscaper, involved mail-ordering a series of chemicals to concoct a homemade ant-killing poison. In fact, Nancy herself had signed the receipt when arsenic trioxide and other chemicals were delivered to their home.
The prosecution whittled away at Lyon's defense with a series of condemning witnesses and a mountain of incriminating documents. Family nanny Lynn Pease-Woods testified that although she and Nancy Lyon had personal difficulties when she was hired in 1987, she eventually loved working for the Lyons. She visited the children after Nancy had quit her real estate job in 1990 to be home with daughters Anna, 3, and Allison, 5.
The nanny also testified that Richard over time had given his wife large "vitimins" from a bottle. The nanny turned the capsules over to detectives after Nancy's death. A toxicologist later testified that two of the pills in the bottle contained barium carbonate, a substance used in rat poison. Pease-Woods said that there were no major ant hills at the Lyon house.
The lead police investigator testified he found store-bought fire ant killer in the Lyons' garage. More damaging, the investigator said that when he questioned Lyon, he initially denied he had ordered any toxic chemicals. Pressed further, Lyon modified his statement.
A Marriage on the Rocks
Prosecutors portrayed Richard Lyon as an undependable, unfaithful, and unscrupulous husband who wanted a financially advantageous way out of his marriage. He killed his wife to be with his lover, with whom he took a long vacation only five weeks after Nancy's death. They presented a paper trail of canceled checks, long-distance telephone records, and invoices for chemical purchases linking Richard to the arsenic that could have been used to kill his wife.
Nancy Lyon's divorce attorney, Mary L. Henrich, testified that Nancy had told her that she thought Richard was systematically poisoning her. She told of the foul-tasting soda he bought for her at the movie. She also described how Nancy became violently ill on the bathroom floor after drinking a nightcap her husband had mixed for her. She said Nancy told her that Richard didn't seem to care that she was ill that night.
Defense attorney Guthrie had Henrich read aloud a poignant letter Nancy had written to Richard on September 12, only months before her death. In the letter, Nancy agonized about her husband's adulterous wanderings, disappearances for days on end, and extravagant spending. She wanted to end their marriage.
"Not only are you free to go, but I need to demand that you go before even more damage is done to the children and to me," the letter stated. The couple separated. Nancy filed for divorce in September 1990.
The defense cited the letter as proof that Nancy was willing to let Richard go. Did he need to kill her in order to be with his lover? No. Guthrie also noted that Lyon had agreed to all of Nancy Lyon's demands during their legal separation. Lyon had offered a fair plan to divide their assets.
Nancy withdrew the divorce petition on January 2, just weeks before her death. Lyon remained beneficiary and executor of Nancy's estate, although he had waived any interest in her property before her death. During the trial, however, it was unclear if Richard realized that Nancy had removed him as beneficiary of a $500,000 life insurance policy and substituted her children. The prosecution claimed he did not; the defense said he was aware of the situation.
Among papers the prosecution subpoenaed from Nancy Lyon's insurance company were three pages of notes penned by the Dallas therapist who treated Nancy from January 1990 to January 1991. Dr. Joanna Jacobus wrote that Richard told his wife he felt trapped by her family money. He said his in-laws considered him inadequate. The Lyons' personal life was in turmoil, punctuated by Richard's affairs, the therapist said. In June 1990, Richard cleaned out their bank account. He failed to pay bills.
In a further attempt to suggest that others might be responsible for Nancy's death, the defense called one of Nancy's former coworkers at Trammel Crow Co. to the stand. Kathleen E. Cunningham testified that Nancy had feared and disliked her ex-boss, David S. Bagwell, whom the company sued in 1987. Cunningham said that before Bagwell settled out of court with Trammel Crow, she and Nancy had received anonymous letters threatening "the wrath of God" if they testified against Bagwell in the lawsuit.
Bagwell took the stand and denied any knowledge of the letter. Nancy's father, William Dillard, Jr., then testified that Bagwell was "a great friend of Nancy's" and visited her in the hospital before she died.
A string of witnesses chronicled how they had signed for a host of chemicals addressed to Richard. The defense countered that Richard could not be directly linked to the purchases. Nancy's sister Susan Hendrickson described how Nancy questioned a canceled check to the Houston-area chemical supplier. Susan called the firm because she thought Nancy's behavioral changes might stem from exposure to the chemicals. She dropped the matter until Nancy mysteriously died.
Handwriting Expert Cinches Guilty Verdict
In a dramatic moment, Lyon himself took the stand. He passionately denied killing his wife, declaring himself a moral, intelligent man who enjoyed life and would not throw everything away by committing murder. Jurors interviewed after the trial said that Lyon had convinced them of his innocence.
But the trial took a turn when a surprise witness took the stand with startling information.
Earlier, the defense had produced a receipt that Lyon said he found in his wife's belongings. The receipt from a Dallas chemical company purported to show that Nancy had signed for a delivery of arsenic trioxide and other chemicals. A defense handwriting expert had testified that the signature was Nancy's.
Near the trial's end, the prosecution brought in its own handwriting expert. The expert testified that Richard himself had penned his wife's signature on the documents, which the Dallas chemical company owner had already described as bogus on the stand. The expert also testified that Richard had forged his wife's name on several other evidential papers.
The jury took three hours to find Lyon guilty of his wife's murder. Judge John C. Creuzot gave him the maximum sentence noting that in his view, Lyon tried "various and sundry chemicals to kill Nancy. The first two didn't work, and you finally finished her off with arsenic, a tried-and-true method of producing death." Then for months, Creuzot added, Lyon coldly watched his wife of nine years die. Lyon had requested that the judge sentence him, not the jury.
In March 1992, Judge Creuzot denied Lyon's bid for a retrial.
—B. J. Welborn
Suggestions for Further Reading
City Confidential. Dallas: Arsenic and Old Money. A&E Home Video.
Slover, Pete. "Lyon Gets Life Term in Slaying." The Dallas Morning Ners (January 18, 1992): 33A.