BEFORE SCOTT PETERSON
By Don B. Laws
Before Scott Peterson’s name became splashed across news headlines around the world for the alleged murder of his wife Laci and unborn son Conner, there was another Scott caught up in the justice system. If one takes the time to study the circumstances that lead them to this questionable fame, they would find many similarities.
During the summer of 1989, Scott Hornoff was a Warick, Rhode Island, police detective, the job he had dreamed about since a young age. He was 26 year old, blond, green-eyed and handsome. The license plate on his car was even emblazed “INOCNT”. He was married to Rhonda and they had a small child. He had cheated on Rhonda with some one-night stands that often comes the way of a handsome police officer.
It was Friday evening during late July of 1989, and Scott was enjoying a beer as he stood on the deck of the Coast Guard House Restaurant. He was approached by 29 year old Vickie Cushman. He knew the attractive slender woman who worked at a sporting equipment store where the police dive team replenished their oxygen tanks. After some small talk she asked if he cheated on his wife. Scott lied, and said no, to which Vickie asked him if he would like to.
There followed two or three sexual encounters but Scott quickly grew wary and felt Vickie might be too needy. He had gone to her apartment and told her he wanted to end the relationship. It wasn’t the news she wanted to hear, but she accepted it.
A few days later, August 10, Scott planned to attend a party thrown by a police buddy for several police officers and their families. Like many of them, he started drinking early and felt little pain as the party went into the late night. Later there would be some dispute over exactly what time he arrived home that evening.
When Vickie did not show up for work the next day, August 11, her boss went to check her second floor apartment located next to the store. What he found was her lifeless, bloodied body sprawled on the floor. She had been beaten to death. Nearby was a fire extinguisher, that police figured was the murder weapon, a broken antique jewelry box, and pair of rubber kitchen gloves turned inside out with a small blood stain. It appeared someone had entered the apartment by climbing a piece of conduit, getting onto the porch roof which gave them access to an apartment window.
The small apartment, now a crime scene, became flooded with Warick police officers. No one seemed to really be in charge and it would be the beginning of a bungled police investigation.
Found in the apartment was a white sealed envelope with the name “Scott Hornoff” written on the outside. Police recognized the name because it was one of their own. When opened the envelope revealed a letter written to Scott from Vickie explaining she understood his decision to end the relationship but she would really like for him to reconsider.
When he reported to work the evening shift that day Scott did not know his supervisor had the note from Vickie, nor even that Vickie had been murdered. He learned of her demise quickly. His supervisor looked for evidence of Vickie’s scratch marks on his arms. There were none. He was questioned by his supervisor and at that time Scott made his first mistake that could cost him his life. He lied. When asked if he had ever been intimate with Vickie his first thought was of Rhonda and their child, and he quickly answered “No”. He was asked to take a polygraph examination and he said he would. As a part of the pre-exam he admitted to the examiner that he had lied a couple of hours earlier to his supervisor. He then passed the polygraph exam.
His fellow detectives immediately focused in on Scott as the only suspect. He had lied, they reasoned, about his affair with Vickie. There were also questions about exactly what time he had returned home that evening. After all everyone had been drinking and having a party and no one was keeping exact track of the time. Police felt he could have killed Vickie while on the way home after leaving the party. They knew they had identified the killer but just needed a way to prove it.
With no way to collar their only suspect, the case went cold and Scott continued to work for the Warwick Police Department and prepared to enter law school. He and Rhonda gave birth to their second child. It was possible the murder of Vickie Cushman was going to go unsolved like a majority of murders each year in the United States.
Somewhere about 1992, fingers started being pointed by newspapers and citizens that the Warwick Police Department was protecting one of their own who might be a murderer. A decision had been made to turn the cold case over to the Rhode Island State Police. They didn’t have any more evidence than the local police department and the bungled crime scene was long gone. They did have something. It appeared Scott Hornoff was lying. He first lied when confronted by his supervisor the day of the murder. He had also been having an affair with the victim and had also cheated on his wife with other women. Even without any solid evidence they felt they could take their circumstantial case to a Grand Jury and seek an Indictment against Scott but the Term expired before a decision was made.
Being unsuccessful with the first Grand Jury, investigators and prosecutors would try again with a different Grand Jury. It was held in a sort of festive atmosphere at a National Guard Armory in December 1994. He admitted to the jurors that he had cheated on his wife and had lied about it but that he had not killed Vickie. A juror asked Scott that if he had lied about having an affair, how were they suppose to believe him when he said he had not killed Vickie. An Indictment was returned.
In June 1996, Scott was convicted by a jury and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in the Rhode Island State Prison. The case was based on circumstantial evidence, innuendoes and speculation. There where no fingerprints, no blood evidence, no DNA matches, no witnesses and no solid evidence. In closing arguments the Prosecutor compared circumstantial evidence to making spaghetti sauce.
At his sentencing Scott addressed Vickie’s father: "Mr. Cushman, to you and your family, I offer my belated condolences. No parent should have to bear the pain of burying one of his children, and I pray that I am never faced with that task. I would rather endure 100 years of false accusations than to bury one of my sons. Mr. Cushman, I did not kill your daughter, though I doubt it took very much persuasion from the state police to convince you that I did. I know I would be eager to believe it, also, so there could be a closure and the healing process could begin. I also know that if you look long enough or hard enough at something or someone, you can convince yourself of most anything.
"Am I guilty of something? Yes, I am: I broke my sacred wedding vows. And for that, I will never forgive myself. Though, somehow, my wife has."
His appeal for a new trial was turned down in 1999 by the same judge who conducted the first trial. Scott seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in prison and those on the outside could feel comfort in knowing the killer of Vickie Cushman would never walk the streets of Warwick, Rhode Island again.
Todd Barry did still walk the streets. In the 14 years since Vickie had been murdered Todd Barry had gotten on with his life. In November, 2002, he was now 46 years old, married with a family and a construction business. Scott Hornoff had been setting in a prison cell for six and one-half years with hope of ever again being free mostly gone. Todd had followed the trial and conviction of Scott. He had even called a local newspaper at the time suggesting they really look into the conviction of Scott. Todd could not stand it any longer, he knew he had to do the right thing and confess that it was he, not Scott Hornoff, who had murdered Vickie. The next day he and his attorney were sitting in front of police investigators.
Todd Barry should not have been hard to find. If only the police had not focused on Scott early on in the investigation. Todd had been Vickie’s boyfriend before Scott but during the course of the investigation he had never been contacted by police. They could have easily found him because his name, address and phone number where on a card in Vickie’s personal Roladex. Todd told them the fire extinguisher, thought to be the murder weapon all these years, was not. It was the antique jewelry box that police had paid little attention to at the crime scene. After he had strangled her, he beat her with the jewelry box.
Todd admitted going into the apartment from the porch roof during the early morning of August 11, 1986. He had been drinking and didn’t really know why he was drawn to her that night. She was first startled when he appeared in her apartment but then they started discussing their relationship. She told Todd about Scott and that letter she had written to him laid nearby. They started to argue and Todd said something snapped and he attacked her and didn’t stop until she was dead. After 14 years he could no longer live with the secret that he carried around inside himself. Following a guilty plea, Todd is now serving a life sentence.
Fourteen years following Vickie’s brutal murder, at the end of November, 2002, Scott Hornoff left prison, a free man the first time in six and one-half years. His life was in shambles, Rhonda and their children have moved on with their lives, he was bankrupt and so was his family who had stood beside him and attempted to pay the massive attorney fees eaten up by the injustice that had been perpetrated against him fueled by the tax dollars of the State of Rhode Island. But he was happy, just happy to taste and smell the joys of freedom after all those years and be known as an innocent man. He still has that old license plate.
Today Scott Hornoff works frequently with the (Cardozo) Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic, to help free others wrongfully convicted of crimes. Since it was started in 1992 it has been responsible for the release of over 140 wrongfully convicted citizens from prison, many from death row.
Wrongful convictions usually result in cases based on circumstantial evidence, mistaken eyewitness identifications or prosecutorial misconduct. Jurors are asked to place humans in prison for long periods or to take their lives. Jurors must understand the presumption of innocence is very important, and that decisions simply must be made on solid evidence presented in the courtroom, not from television shows, radio call-in shows or newspapers. The burden of finding true justice must not be taken lightly.
(This is a compilation from articles written by Gerald M. Carbone and Cathleen F. Crowley that appeared in a series of the Providence Journal newspaper and articles appearing on www.truthinjustice.org. The author, Don B. Laws, is an advocate for those falsely accused or convicted of serious crimes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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