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Appellate court upholds ‘no body’ murder conviction

A Maryland appeals court on Monday upheld the second-degree murder conviction of Dennis J. Tetso, whose victim — his wife, Tracey Gardner-Tetso — went missing seven years ago while en route to a Motley Crue concert and whose body was never found.

In its 3-0 decision, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals rejected Tetso’s argument that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of murder in the absence of the corpus delicti, a dead body.

“[W]orldwide communication and travel today are so facile that a jury may properly take into account the unlikelihood that an absent person, in view of his health, habits, disposition and personal relationships would voluntarily flee, ‘go underground,’ and remain out of touch with family and friends,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court.

“The unlikelihood of such a voluntary disappearance is circumstantial evidence entitled to weight equal to that of bloodstains and concealment of evidence,” Watts added.

Gardner-Tetso’s “complete disappearance from the face of the earth, lack of contact with friends and family, non-use of credit cards or bank accounts, and the inability, after numerous searches and nationwide media coverage to locate her, is evidence substantiating the first element of corpus delicti — i.e., that Tracey is dead,” the appellate court concluded.

The “no-body” murder case is believed to be one of only a handful of such trials ever to be held in Maryland and one of the first in Baltimore County.

Gardner-Tetso never arrived at the concert on March 6, 2005. Her abandoned Trans Am was later found in a Days Inn parking lot in Anne Arundel County.

Even without a body, the police arrested and charged Tetso with her murder in 2009. Testimony at his 2010 trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court suggested Tetso suspected his wife of cheating on him.

A jury found him guilty in October 2010, and Judge Patrick Cavanaugh sentenced him to 30 years in prison with all but 18 years suspended.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who prosecuted Tetso, praised the appeals court for upholding the conviction even in the absence of a body.

“Because Tracey was so close to her family and friends, it became obvious to the jury” that she was the victim of foul play when they had not heard from her, Shellenberger said. “There was one person who had the motive and opportunity to do away with her.”

The Court of Special Appeals said Tetso’s trial counsel had not preserved the sufficiency of evidence argument for appeal. In any event, the court added, a body is not necessary to prove murder, so long as sufficient circumstantial evidence exists to establish an unlawful killing occurred.

Watts said the sufficient circumstantial evidence in Tetso’s case included his inconsistent statements to police of his activities on the day of Gardner-Tetso’s disappearance; a surveillance videotape at the Days Inn showing an image of someone using the Trans Am’s keyless remote to lock the car; and Tetso being found in possession of the remote 11 days after his wife’s disappearance.

Tetso’s appellate counsel, former Maryland Public Defender Nancy S. Forster, did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment on the decision late Monday afternoon.

In its 82-page opinion, the Court of Special Appeals also rejected Tetso’s arguments that a juror was unconstitutionally paneled after she stated that a criminal defendant must prove his innocence; that the trial judge had improperly limited defense counsel’s questioning of witnesses; that the judge improperly instructed the jury on circumstantial evidence; and that the prosecutor had incorrectly stated the law on circumstantial evidence in his closing argument.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Dennis J. Tetso v. Maryland, CSA No. 2219, Sept. Term 2010. Reported. Opinion by Watts, J. Argued April 11, 2012. Filed June 4, 2012.

Issue:

Can a person be convicted of murder if the victim’s body has not been found?

Holding:

Yes; circumstantial evidence of foul play is “entitled to weight equal to that of bloodstains” in the unlikelihood of a voluntary disappearance.

Counsel:

Nancy S. Forster for appellant; Cathleen Brockmeyer for appellee.

RecordFax # 12-0604-02 (84 pages).