Murder by Death

What happens when you didn't mean it?

Not one of the detectives, however, had mentioned Auman's dip in the detailed reports compiled immediately after the crime. It was described only two days later, in amended reports.

"The new statements accuse Lisl of the kind of action that never would have been omitted from any kind of police report initially, had it been true," said defense attorney Angela Krus, who pointed out specific contradictions in the officers' testimony. She also reminded the jury that since shots had already been fired, police would have been hyper-vigilant in arresting Auman.

"What did you hear over and over and over again?" she asked. "Police safety, policeman's safety, policeman's safety...If she had bent down to put this weapon down or bent down to pick it up, she wouldn't be here right now. They would have shot her dead."

As for Auman's alleged sullenness, prosecutors told the jury it had cost VanderJagt his life. Had she told police where Jaehnig was, that he was armed and that there was no exit from the corridor he'd run down, VanderJagt would not have put himself in danger. While it's no crime to refrain from talking to police, this was a powerfully emotional argument.

But it wasn't true. Auman told the cops she didn't know where Jaehnig was (she had been on the ground being handcuffed when he ran, so this was probably true), but she also described his gun and told them he was wearing a black jacket. And according to at least one cop's account, VanderJagt knew the corridor was blind: "Officer VanderJagt says that there isn't any other way out of there. He said, do you want to go in or do you want me to go in? Sergeant Jones comes up. Officer VanderJagt apprises him of the same thing. That there's no way out."

In almost all respects, Auman's version of events differs from Twining's. She said she had gone to Buffalo Creek with no thoughts of revenge, but only to retrieve her belongings, many of which were in Cheever's room. She had picked a time when Cheever should have been at work, but she wanted someone with her in case he returned unexpectedly. Demetria Soriano, an old friend, had offered to help. It was Soriano's boyfriend, Dion Gerze, who enlisted Matthaeus Jaehnig and another skinhead, Steven Duprey. Though she had met Gerze once or twice, Auman didn't know the other two.

Cheever's room contained some objects whose ownership was murky -- an $800 snowboard Auman had bought a few days earlier for his birthday, a camcorder she'd purchased to replace his broken one, boxes containing both of their CDs. Gerze and Duprey did take two speakers that clearly weren't Auman's; Soriano says Auman was powerless to stop them. To compound the moral ambiguity of the situation, Cheever himself was an incorrigible conman and thief. He was arrested soon after the burglary in possession of four stolen purses and Lisl Auman's checkbook.

When Jaehnig spotted the police and took off at high speed on the icy, winding roads, sometimes crossing the median and crashing through red lights once he reached the city, Auman had been terrified, she said. She had tried twice to get out of the car. But Auman did little to help herself in the two rambling videotaped statements she gave police. She spun stories. She told lies. Later she said she'd been trying to obscure the skinheads' identities because she was terrified of them. She was also telling police what she thought they wanted to hear, hoping they'd let her go home. Instead, she provided abundant ammunition for the prosecution.

"Lisl's reaction to stressful situations is to not think," says defense attorney Angela Kruse. "It's as though her mind goes on bizarre autopilot. And when she doesn't know the answer to something, she starts guessing."

The jurors found Auman guilty of second-degree burglary, and of felony murder stemming from it. According to juror Linda Chin, they did not know that their verdict meant she would spend the rest of her life in prison.

The felony murder law can twist the legal system and result in very uneven sentences. It means that someone who served as a lookout for a burglary, for instance, could get life in prison, while a defendant who actually kicked a victim to death but is not charged with felony murder gets fewer than thirty years. The threat of a felony murder prosecution is also a powerful tool in getting lawbreakers to testify against their companions: You're all equally guilty under the law. You can all go to prison for life. But take a plea, testify, and you'll get two years' probation while your friend goes down for good.

Ritter says his office does not offer pleas to the defendants they consider most culpable. "We try and measure culpability and do what we can to achieve sentencing commensurate with their crime," he says.

"The really troubling cases," says Mimi Wesson, "are those where the felony murder rule is coupled with the rules of accomplice liability, which can make even a minor participant in a crime equally guilty to the most major participants and can produce a case like Lisl Auman's."

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