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Second-Degree Burn (Part II)

Cher Elder's family knew all about Thomas Luther. The jury didn't.

After Byron Powers's slip, the court wasn't going to chance Debrah Snider making the same mistake when the prosecution called her to the stand.

Debrah had met Luther in 1990 when she was a nurse working at the state hospital in Pueblo and he was a prison inmate. She'd worked to get him released early from prison even after she realized he was serving time for the brutal 1982 rape of a Summit County woman.

Luther got out early in 1993 and went to live near Debrah and her family. A few months later he told Debrah that Cher Elder had been killed and that he had buried the body. Because he'd been seen with Cher in Central City, he said, he would be a suspect in her disappearance.

Now the prosecution needed Debrah to pull the puzzle pieces together. But although Debrah had testified against Luther the year before at his West Virginia rape trial, she was a risk. Emotionally fragile, she would be testifying against a man she still professed to love, and she was angry that the judge's ruling prevented her from telling the whole truth.

A series of mishaps marked the start of the Friday she was to testify. Debrah had been left at her motel without transport, and when she finally got to the courthouse, the security guards gave her such a hassle that she blew up and had to be escorted from the building. Informed of the altercation, Munch asked the lawyers if they wanted to have Debrah come in without the jury pres-ent so that she could be reminded not to mention Luther's past.

Defense attorney Cleaver nodded. "We happen to believe this next witness is... bizarre," she told the judge. "And she's been told that we intend to portray her as a 'vindictive bitch.'"

Munch sent for Debrah, who marched up to the bench and tore into him. "If I'm not respectedEwell, I don't mind going to jail," she told the stunned judge.

Perplexed, Munch looked at the lawyers. "I've never had a witness to whom I was just going to explain the rules tell me I was going to have to put her in jail for contempt," he said.

As Debrah remembers it, "I was just saying to the judge, 'Look, you son of a bitch, you're forcing me to lie, but I don't have to like it. If you won't see that my rights are respected, you can toss me in jail now because I'm going to tell the truth.'"

Instead, Munch gave Debrah the weekend to cool down, a move that may well have saved the prosecution's case.

That, and a gamble by Richardson.
The detective knew the trial could hang on Debrah holding together in front of the jury. If she acted unstable, it would make her that much less credible.

"I talked to her Friday evening," he remembers. "I said, 'We've worked together for three years and all along you've told me you wanted to do the right thing. Now, I'm tired. If you want Thomas Luther to walk away a free man--and honestly, you're going to have to reach down into your heart and make the decision yourself--then don't show up in court on Monday.'

"It was a huge gamble," he says. "It gave her an out. Without her, I didn't expect we'd win the case...but I wasn't sure she was going to show up until I saw her Monday morning."

Debrah says there was no doubt she would be there. "I owed it to everybody," she says. "This wasn't about Tom and me. This was about the Elder family. This was about Richardson...he cared so much about that family, about right and wrong."

Debrah Snider walked into the courtroom Monday morning wearing a Western-style dress with fringes and a large silver buckle, a white feather tied into her long gray-brown hair. She'd bought the dress to wear for Luther when he was still in prison; her husband had told her it looked like a bathrobe, but Luther had liked it.

"I wore it because I wanted him to know that I still cared for him and supported him," she says now, "but like I once told him, I wouldn't lie for him."

Debrah remained calm through her testimony. In his closing statement, Enwall called her the prosecution's only credible witness.

Richardson took Debrah out to dinner the night before she returned to West Virginia. "I feel sorry for Debrah," he says. "Thomas Luther manipulated her for all those yearsEshe lost all those years of her life. Imagine dealing with that kind of stress for three years. Now here she was about to testify against the man she loved, a man she considered her common-law husbandE what she said might send him to death row.

"She'd made up her mind to do the right thing, and then she was told that she couldn't tell the truth about Thomas Luther."

When he was assigned to Cher Elder's case, Detective Scott Richardson thought it would be routine. In most cases, so-called missing persons were back home by the time police officers started their investigations.

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