By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO April 11, 2003 A minute before noon on Tuesday, the jury closed the lid on the two-week Garbage Can Murder trial against Hal Karen when they found the former Special Forces soldier and paratrooper guilty of killing his wife and dumping her garbage can-encased body over an embankment more than three years ago.
Karen gulped once as he heard the murder verdict and bowed his head over clenched fists as he listened to the jury forewoman say guilty to all charges, including murder in the second degree.
At the verdict, the stone-faced killer winced and then stared straight ahead until shackled hand and foot by deputies from the Sullivan County Sheriffs Department.
Karens defense attorney, Henri Shawn, visibly reacted to the guilty verdicts, as he reached over to touch his clients shoulder in support of a lost but hard-fought case.
At Shawns request, the jury was polled. The courtroom was dead silent as each of the 12 jurors repined yes, thus affirming their belief that the prosecution had proved its case against Karen beyond reasonable doubt.
Karen was found guilty on all four charges handed down in the grand jury indictment: murder in the second degree, offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree, perjury in the second degree and making a punishable false written statement.
A person is guilty of murder in the second degree (a class A-1 felony) when with the intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person.
Karen, 43, faces a minimum sentence of 15 years to life or a maximum of 25 to life in state prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced by Sullivan County Court Judge Frank LaBuda on May 15.
A Troubled History
On June 27, 1999, Karen told State Police investigators his wife had ripped him off of about $500 and left their Bloomingburg home for parts unknown.
After a couple riding an ATV in the woods above Wurtsboro discovered her bones scattered around an overturned garbage can on March 25, 2002, authorities kicked their investigation into high gear as they zeroed in on Hal Karen as a prime suspect.
About three months later, DNA analysis confirmed the remains were those of Tammy Lynn Karen.
On August 6, 2002, Karen switched his story when he told investigators he found his wife dead of a cocaine overdose in their former residence and, panicking at the thought of losing their son, he stuffed her into a garbage can before dumping it over a steep embankment. Karen later moved to Swan Lake.
The Moment of Truth
After summations by both sides on Monday, Judge LaBuda charged the jury.
During the lengthy summations, the defense sought to discredit the victim to bolster their contention that Hal Karen was an abused spouse and hammered on the drug-dumping theory, while the prosecution grilled the prior testimony of a doctor and kept replaying a telltale overhead projection in front of the jurybox.
A husband does not stuff his wife in a garbage can, double-bag her, cinch her up tightly, take her to an isolated location in a heavily wooded area . . . and throw her over a steep cliff unless he murdered her, read the statement authored by the local DA, Steve Lungen.
The jury of five women and seven men deliberated throughout the afternoon, before being sequestered for the evening at a local hotel.
Deliberations resumed at 9 a.m. Tuesday. At 10:05, the jury sent out a note to Judge LaBuda requesting a reiteration of the NYS Penal Law regarding the definition of and elements pertaining to a charge of murder in the second degree.
Then it was back to the jury room. About an hour and a half later, word spread like wildfire throughout the courthouse: the verdict was in.
During his pre-dismissal remarks to the jury of 12 and four alternates, Judge LaBuda thanked them for participating in the judicial process, thus ensuring the freedoms our sons and daughters are now overseas fighting for.
You are performing your duty as American citizens, he added. While not bearing arms, you are fighting for justice.
Headed to TV
According to Carolyn Purcell, field producer of the Court TV team that documented the Karen trial for broadcast at a later date, approximately 35 hours of video footage will be edited down to two eight-hour days of air time, split evenly between actual coverage and interviews and expert commentary.
Court TV is considered a major player in providing coverage of the American criminal justice system, as it reaches an audience of 80 million homes.
Asked about his decision to allow Court TV into his courtroom to film the Karen trial, Judge LaBuda replied, It was very good coverage, very efficient and professional. It didnt interfere with the proceedings in any way, [and] it respected the privacy of the jurors, because they were never photographed.
I believe it is important that the public have a right to know and be able to see what goes on in a court of law, he added.
A Successful Conclusion
After the verdict, Lungen held an impromptu press conference during which Toni and Marty Valentine, NYSP senior investigator Thomas R. Scileppi and the local DA fielded questions from the media.
Everything was on the line here, said Lungen. A persons freedom is the most important right of all Americans.
The defendants life, his freedom, was on the line for a great amount of time, he added.
Lungen said it was a tough case, and although as a lawyer and prosecutor he never doubted Karens guilt, the murder case was based on circumstantial evidence.
Combined with disparaging evidence presented about the victim and the passage of time, this case could have gone either way, he said. Your heart is really pounding because you know that anything could happen.
We worked this case for over three years . . . [and] from a law enforcement perspective, justice was done and the verdict was appropriate to the evidence, said Lungen.
Lungen credited Tammy Lynn Karens sister Toni Valentine of Tampa, Florida with keeping up pressure on authorities to think of the case as more than a missing persons report.
She reminded us that Tammy was not just a statistic, he said.
Valentine talked to her sister on the phone, apparently only a few hours before she was murdered.
Valentine never bought the idea that Tammy had just walked off, and she kept telling authorities she felt something had gone tragically wrong.
On March 25, 2002, she was proved right when a couple found the badly decomposed body of her sister in the woods.
I prayed a lot, recalled Valentine. I told my sister, Send me a sign. I know youre out there, and she did.
The guilty verdict was vindication of her faith and served to close another chapter in our lives.
Its sad for everybody, said Valentine. Its sad for the Karen family [because] theyve been suffering as well, and its sad for my sisters son Hunter. . . . The only thing I want is for Hunter to be cared for in a loving family.
Scileppi is a senior investigator with the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI). He headed up the NYSP investigation of the disappearance-turned-murder of Tammy Lynn Karen.
The average person has no idea how much work went into this case, he said. Once we found Tammy, we had teams of investigators working this case for up to three weeks straight everybody from Major Crimes to uniformed troopers. No stones were left unturned.
It is very satisfying from a police standpoint to bring this case to a successful conclusion, said Scileppi.