Man Killer

Did Patty Prewitt pump two bullets into her husband's head? It is a mystery that has lingered for twenty years.

Kansas City pathologist James Bridgens (who is now deceased) told the jury that Bill was shot twice at close range -- once in the temple and once in the back of the head -- making it "highly improbable" that the room was completely dark, as Patty described it. He also concluded that the shooter stood on Patty's side of the bed and would have been forced to lean over Patty as she slept.

The shot to the temple, Bridgens explained, would have rendered Bill unconscious but he could have continued breathing in a "rattly" manner -- the same word used by Patty to describe Bill's breathing.

The shot to the base of the skull, Bridgens testified, would have caused almost instant death. Prosecutor Williams argued that Patty would have been unable to describe Bill's "rattly" breathing because he would have been dead after the attacker left the room.

Top: Bill and Patty Prewitt with their five children in 
1979. Six years later Patty was convicted of murdering 
Bill in his bed while the kids slept nearby. She is 
serving a life sentence at the state women’s prison in 
Top: Bill and Patty Prewitt with their five children in 1979. Six years later Patty was convicted of murdering Bill in his bed while the kids slept nearby. She is serving a life sentence at the state women’s prison in Vandalia.
Jennifer Silverberg

"By breathing, by clinging to his life, Bill Prewitt convicts that woman," Williams told the jury.

Juror Joy Cooper says she held out hope that Patty was innocent until hearing the pathologist's testimony. "It was very damaging," Cooper says today.

Though Patty's defense team did not call its own expert pathologist, the testimony of Bridgens has been questioned in other murder cases. In Cass County in 1988, three pathologists testified that a bullet that killed a woman was fired into her mouth, while Bridgens maintained she was shot by someone standing behind her. A medical examiner in Dade County, Florida, wrote that "Bridgens lacks credibility" in a 1985 murder case in which charges against the defendant were eventually dropped.

"I had stated that my husband was making gurgling noises," Patty wrote in an April 1993 letter to former Governor Mel Carnahan, asking for clemency. "Bridgens knew that so he testified that my husband would not have made any noises at all."

When deliberations began on Friday, April 19, 1985, seven jurors favored convicting Patty Prewitt while five maintained she was not guilty. "We all talked about what a bad job her attorney did," juror Joy Cooper recalls.

When the jury sent a message to the judge asking to declare a hung jury, he told them, "Try harder."

At twenty minutes till five o' clock, after deliberating for six hours, the jury foreman announced the guilty verdict. Patty's daughters recall that Bill Prewitt's family stood up and clapped.

Patty dropped her face into her hands and sobbed. Her kids started screaming. Many of the jurors also began weeping as her children's cries echoed in the halls outside the courtroom.

Before the trial began, Patty was offered and refused a plea bargain that would have made her eligible for parole after five years. "I said, 'I'm not leaving my kids for five years,'" Patty remembers.

Instead, the jury sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

Last month prosecutor Tom Williams spoke of the twenty-year-old crime and the trial he still remembers well. "In all my years of prosecution, I've never felt more secure in a conviction than I feel in this one," he says. "She was guilty as hell."

Still, juror Ronald Beaman, who now lives in Leavenworth, Kansas, says he felt the prosecutor went too far in trying to "portray her as a bad woman because of the affairs rather than just presenting the evidence of the actual crime."

Jennifer Merrigan, a law student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says Patty was convicted on the "slut theory." After Governor Bob Holden's office denied Patty's petition for clemency last October, Merrigan and staff attorneys at the Midwestern Innocence Project began investigating her case.

"A lot of times, especially when women are tried for violent crimes, the prosecutor puts on evidence of their loose moral fiber," Merrigan explains. "The jury convicts them basically for being a slut."

Juanita Stephens read about the guilty verdict in the Holden newspaper a week after the trial. The woman, who lived a mile from the Prewitts, contacted Patty to ask why she hadn't been called to testify.

That was the first time Patty or her lawyers ever heard about the strange car that Stephens said was parked a half-mile from the Prewitt home a few hours before the murder. Stephens said she made a special trip to tell Sheriff Norman about the white car, which she said was parked with its lights off atop a hill on a part of the road where the Prewitt house would be visible.

Stephens saw a man sitting inside the car at 12:15 a.m. as she returned home from town. She said the car later turned into her driveway, then backed out and headed in the direction of the Prewitt home.

At a hearing for a new trial, the sheriff (who is now deceased) testified that he didn't recall the conversation. He also said the Prewitt home would not have been visible from the road because of trees and hills. But the murder was in February when the trees were bare.

"Establishing that out on this country road, at the time of the crime, there was a strange car stopped nearby is extremely significant," says defense attorney Cardarella. "Had they revealed that information, there is no way on God's green earth that woman would have been convicted. And they knew that."

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