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Murderer's Row

Two years ago, a deadlocked jury saved Thomas luther from the death penalty. But the legacy of his crimes continues.

"Sometimes it seems like I've been in a coma for four years," she says. "I lost that part of my life, even after the trial, and I can never get it back again."

But today she's finally moving on. She isn't as self-conscious about the scar that runs down her chest, made not by Luther but by the doctors who had to open her up to save her. And when she talks about Luther, it's with disdain, not fear. He's in prison, and she helped put him there.

"I still get afraid, especially at night," she says. "And I still don't trust people, especially men, like I used to. But I can feel myself getting stronger all the time."

Heather's friends used to describe her as the "Princess of the Ball." But Heather no longer feels she has to live up to that billing; that girl was shortsighted, self-absorbed. The woman Heather is today is wiser, more interested in things that last: love, friendship, family. "Now I'm the queen of the ball," she says, and laughs.

After Judge Christopher Munch ruled against introducing Luther's past, the prosecution worried that Cher Elder's case was lost before the trial even started. Usually in a death-penalty case, the prosecution is more confident of getting a conviction than it is of getting a death-penalty sentence. But this time, the prosecutors felt the opposite.

"We knew our case was weakened," prosecutor Dennis Hall says. "But if we got a first-degree conviction, with Luther's past then fair game, we believed the death penalty would have been a slam dunk."

When the jury deadlocked, though, and Munch asked the attorneys if he should give the jury the Lewis instructions, Hall agreed. In doing so, he went against the advice of his boss, Dave Thomas, who wanted to hold out for first-degree and the death penalty or go for a mistrial and try the case all over again.

Hall was worried that another trial might not result in a murder conviction at all, since the witnesses were of questionable character and reliability. Reluctantly, he told the judge to give the instructions.

After the trial, Hall said the fact that a single juror could overrule eleven others was a flaw in the system. But that doesn't mean the verdict was flawed, he says today. If that juror truly believed that Luther was only guilty of second-degree murder, then she was right to stick to her guns. What troubles Hall is that the juror refused to deliberate or give a reason for her position. And if she talked to her priest about the trial, that was a violation of the rules.

"Justice is in the process, not the result," Hall says. "If the process isn't followed, then the whole thing goes down the drain."

After the Luther case, his first death-penalty trial, Hall couldn't bring himself to take another murder case for nearly a year.

And to this day, he's blocked some aspects of the trial. For example, he can't remember what he planned to say to the jury if the trial went to the death-penalty phase. "I just remember thinking how strange it was to ask jurors to decide to put someone to death," he says.

Tom Luther once complained to Debrah Snider, a nurse who fell in love with him while he was in jail, that he always gets blamed for more than he's done.

But many law enforcement agencies wonder whether he's been blamed for enough.

Luther's trail leads through a number of jurisdictions where a police officer thinks he might have killed some young woman. In most instances, though, the trail is too cold to know the truth--unless there is a confession.

In Vermont, police officials can only speculate about a young woman from Stowe who disappeared two decades ago and was found dead in the woods; Luther was reported to have lived in the ski town at the time. And Luther's former friends in his hometown of Hardwick, Vermont, still worry about the blond hitchhiker he showed up with in the fall of 1993, after heading east from Colorado. When they asked about her a few days later, Luther said she'd left for West Virginia. The next day Luther himself left town.

In Pennsylvania, Corporal Les Freehling of the state patrol considers Luther his prime suspect in the attacks on two women. One, whose body was discovered in a remote wooded area near Newport on December 10, 1993--beaten, strangled, and raped--has still not been identified. She was a transient often seen hitchhiking near the construction site where Luther worked during that time, Freehling says; blood found on her sweater matches Luther's blood type.

Karen Denise Wells, a 21-year-old model, disappeared from Newport without a trace in April 1994. Her car was found five miles from where the other girl's body was discovered; Luther was still working in the area that spring.

An unhappy coincidence? Freehling notes that the coincidences stopped after Luther was arrested for rape in West Virginia in September 1994.

With Luther in prison, apparently for the rest of his life, there has been no urgency in pursuing the two cases, although Freehling keeps them open and at hand. The task of making a more thorough comparison of Luther's blood to the blood on the unidentified victim's sweater is still incomplete.

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