American University official William (Bull) Evans-Smith was convicted yesterday of second-degree murder in the strangling of his wife of 43 years at their Loudoun County farm.
The Circuit Court jury that deliberated in the case for 4 1/2 days recommended that Evans-Smith, 65, be sentenced to five years in prison, the minimum under Virginia law. The retired Army colonel sat erect with his hands folded and showed no emotion as the jury announced its verdict at 4:35 p.m.
He did smile wanly as he left the Leesburg courthouse and walked to his lawyers' office with one of his three daughters. The daughter, Lesleigh Cook, who had testified for the prosecution, arrived moments before the verdict was announced and collapsed sobbing on her husband's shoulder as the jury revealed its findings.
"I think five years speaks for itself," said defense attorney Blair D. Howard outside the courthouse. He described the jury's decision as a "compromise verdict" and said, "It is our full intent to go forward with an appeal."
Judge Carleton Penn, who presided over the 10-day trial that brought scores of spectators to the Loudoun County Courthouse, did not set a date for sentencing. Under Virginia law he can decrease but not increase the jury's recommendation.
Evans-Smith, director of American University's Foreign Area Studies program, was allowed to remain free on a $100,000 property bond. If he is sentenced to five years' imprisonment, he would be eligible for parole after serving about 12 months, according to prosecutors.
Commonwealth's Attorney William Burch, who had argued that Evans-Smith strangled his wife Barbara with her pantyhose the morning of April 15 and then attempted to cover up the crime, said he was pleased with the jury's verdict.
"I'm satisfied that the jury found Col. Evans-Smith guilty," said Burch. "I hate to speculate, but it could well have been a compromise verdict."
The prosecutor had built what he acknowledged was a circumstantial case against the college official, saying that Evans-Smith was frustrated by the end of an 11-year affair with a coworker and other problems at work.
"We have the defendant with a year's pressure built up on him," Burch said. "And something snapped."
The strongest pieces of evidence that the state presented linking Evans-Smith to the killing were the defendant's blood that was found on the bathrobe his wife was wearing when she was strangled and scratches on his hands, which a witness testified were most likely caused by human fingernails.
The jury of eight men and four women was whisked out of the courthouse and away from reporters after the verdict. Several jurors, contacted last night, declined to say anything other than that the trial and the 30 hours of deliberations had been emotionally draining.
"We've been through three tough weeks . . . ," said juror Michael Blair of Leesburg. "I really feel not in the mood to discuss it."
Judge Penn called the jury back to the courtroom yesterday morning and urged it to reach a verdict. He had told the jury on Monday, when it began deliberating in the case, that it had three options: guilty of first- or second-degree murder or not guilty.
First-degree murder carries a sentence of 20 years to life; second-degree murder, a killing that is not considered willful, deliberate or premeditated, carries five to 20 years.
Before dismissing the jury, Penn said that in his 37 years as a lawyer and a judge he had never seen a jury "so patient and so serious."
Burch maintained that Evans-Smith strangled his 64-year-old wife in the kitchen of their Crooked Run Farm after a breakfast of peaches and toast, dragged her by the heels upstairs to her second-floor bedroom, and attempted to make it appear that she had been raped and robbed. A medical examiner testified that she had not been raped and that she had been killed with pantyhose that had been wrapped three times around her neck.
There were an overturned table and vase in the downstairs hallway of the couple's normally meticulous farmhouse, Burch said. The victim's bedroom was in disarray. Jewelry boxes lay overturned on her bed with their contents next to them, he said.
But Burch claimed that the downstairs table appeared to have been turned on its side and not knocked over in a struggle. There was nothing to indicate that flowers in the vase had fallen on the floor, and the items on the defendant's bed had been neatly placed -- not dumped -- on the bed, he said.
The prosecutor, who became more forceful as the trial progressed, painted a picture of the retired Army officer as a man cornered by year-long pressures from the break-up of an 11-year affair with Frederica Bunge, 59, a coworker at American who moved to California last year. She testified during the trial but was not present yesterday when the verdict was announced.
Evans-Smith, who was on the witness stand for 5 1/2 hours during two days, testified that his wife was alive on the morning of April 15 when he drove down the quarter-mile gravel driveway of his farm off state Rte. 725 near Hamilton to his office on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington.
Howard, one of three defense attorneys, hammered away at what he called a "totally inadequate investigation" by the Loudoun sheriff's department. Howard, frequently touching the frame of his glasses with his right hand when bearing down on prosecution witnesses, called the case "an investigation to convict" from the start.
Howard and attorney David Moyes noted that deputies did not take any fingerprints at the house, did not determine the boundaries of the 70-acre farm and did not know that there were people at the adjoining farm April 15 in the deputies' "rush to judgment" against Evans-Smith.
Evans-Smith testified that money and heirloom jewelry worth $8,000 to $10,000 were missing from his rustic farmhouse.
The jury, which was allowed to go home each night, had for review about 100 pieces of evidence -- ranging from the pantyhose that had been tied three times around the victim's neck to an aqua-green jewelry box found in a field at the farm -- and the testimony of about 90 witnesses.
The trial "was a big deal" in the words of one courtroom spectator. "This is almost a social event in Loudoun County," she said. Another regular, who also asked not to be identified, called it "our own Von Bulow trial."
Mimi Tandler of McLean took detailed notes every day -- as did the Evans-Smiths' daughters and others -- for the documentary that Tandler hopes to write. She snapped photos with her Instamatic camera of those on hand for the jury watch outside the brick courthouse, which was built in 1759.
Deputy Sheriff Henry Schlachter Jr., a bailiff, called the trial "a big, big one. The only thing we usually have here are the defendant's family, the witnesses and usually zero spectators," he said, curling his hand in a circle.
Schlachter estimated that there were 169 spectators at the peak of this trial.