Getting Away with Murder

Part Three - Raynella Dorssett Leath
A series of three posts about accused killers who, in my opinion, have gotten away with murder. In each entry, I will explain any updates and then excerpt the Afterword, my personal reflections on the case, found at the end of each book.

After the questionable deaths of two husbands and the attempted murder of another man, Raynella Dossett Leath finally received a sentence of 51 years to life imprisonment for the murder of her second husband David Leath on January 25, 2010. However, Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner was busted on drug-related charges and that threw her conviction into question.

Last year, Judge Paul Summers granted her a new trial because Baumgartner was visibly high during the proceedings. Raynella was released in May 2016 to await the new court appearance. On May 10 of this year, Judge Summers listened as both sides presented their cases and delivered their closing arguments before startling the whole courtroom. He dismissed the jurors saying that not enough evidence was presented to warrant sending the case into deliberations. Raynella walked away a free woman.


The following the Afterword, excerpted from Her Deadly Web:

William J. Stuntz wrote in the Harvard Law Review: “American criminal justice is rife with inequity.”

I doubt that anyone would deny that reality. Many focus on race-based inequalities. Books written on this subject are filled with compelling and undeniable statistics showing discrimination against people of color.

Others focus on gender bias, where statistics tend to point in both directions.
Women responsible for 10 to 12 percent of all homicides, make up less than 2 percent of the residents on death row.

Historically, men have gotten off easy when the person they assaulted was an intimate partner. The abuse of women garnered short sentences. Women’s fears and injuries caused by domestic partners were not taken as seriously as other crimes.

Yet when it comes to the ultimate form of domestic violence, spousal murder, the penalty women pay is far less than that of men. A 2009 study found that in 35% of domestic homicides, a male is the victim; but that number is not reflected in the judicial outcomes. Of women accused of killing their husbands and facing trial by a judge or jury, 31 percent were acquitted. While men, charged with the same crime, received a not guilty verdict only 6 percent of the time. Sentencing demonstrated a similar bias. Men who killed their wives received an average incarceration term in excess of sixteen years but for women, it was only six years. A mere 15 percent of the convicted wives had to serve twenty years or more but 43 percent of husbands received that level of punishment.

Although the evidence of gender inequality is persuasive, I strongly believe that the worst inequity in the system is created by wealth, privilege and power. It contributes to racial and gender imbalance and creates inequality of its own. We see it every day on the national level with celebrities who come afoul of the law: Paris Hilton’s bust for cannabis possession, Charlie Sheen’s domestic violence charges and Robert Durst, never prosecuted for the disappearance and suspected homicide of his first wife and later acquitted of first degree murder of his neighbor because the jury believed his claim of self-defense, even though he admitted to dismembering the body in Galveston, Texas. We see the special treatment afforded to celebrities splashed on our televisions and filling up blogs on the internet. But unless it is in our town, we seldom notice how much that scenario is repeated on the local level. In town after town, those with influence, the big frogs in small ponds, get away with a lot—sometimes even murder.

The elite in any community who can afford the brightest and best legal talent face less possibility of conviction and, if convicted, a lesser sentence. Those who must rely on the services of a court-appointed attorney take a gamble—they might get competent, dedicated counsel or they might have the luck of Calvin Burdine in Texas. His lawyer fell asleep at least ten times during his trial and Calvin ended up on death row.

This image of Lady Justice standing on an auction block, ready to accommodate the highest bidder violates the American precept of fair play and makes a mockery of our vaunted “equality under the law.” It should never be tolerated.

Raynella received life imprisonment for the murder of her second husband, David Leath, but even prior to that, she’d walked away unscathed from situations that would have destroyed the lives of many of the rest of us. Over the years, she seemed to develop an attitude that the rules were made for others—that she was free to do as she wished.

She caused fear in her nursing students and neighbors. Members of both of her husband’s families said she could be very charming—unless she didn’t get her way. They warned each other not to cross her.
When her first husband county prosecutor Ed Dossett died, the first clear sign of preferential treatment in the justice system was demonstrated. The medical examiner bowed to her wishes and did not perform a full autopsy. He ignored the fact that the prime suspect in any homicide occurring at home is the spouse or significant other of the victim. After an incomplete procedure, he issued a full report calling the cause of death an accident, before seeing the toxicology results.
That testing revealed an exceedingly high amount of morphine in Ed Dossett’s system. The Medical Examiner passed the report on to the District Attorney General’s office. Those prosecutors did nothing. Even though many people in that office believed insurance fraud was involved in Ed’s death, they made no move to investigate or press any charges against the widow who raked in a stash of double indemnity cash from the life insurance company.

Raynella’s next clash with the law also garnered special treatment for the prosecutor’s widow. When her daughter Maggie drove off in the truck with her brother in the passenger’s seat, Raynella should have been with her, since her daughter possessed only a learner’s permit which required the presence of a licensed adult in any vehicle Maggie operated. People arriving at the scene said she was not at the intersection at the time of the wreck; but Raynella told the officers that she was there, sitting in the middle seat. No one investigated or questioned what she said. Despite other witnesses on the scene, they took Raynella’s word. After all, she was the prosecutor’s widow, a woman of great influence in local Republican Party politics and a millionaire since receiving the life insurance payment after the death of her first husband.

Showing even more preferential treatment, the local prosecutor encouraged the state troopers bringing charges against her daughter and encouraged them to file charges against the other driver for driving without a license. When they indicted Raynella’s daughter despite the prosecutor’s wishes, he dismissed the case against Maggie when it came to court.

Then there was the Steve Walker incident. Fortunately, law enforcement did not take her at her word this time. They believed the victim and charged her with attempted murder. But, then, no one pulled up to her doorstep, handcuffed her, tossed her in the back seat of the squad car and made her perp-walk into the jail. She was allowed the privilege of turning herself into the authorities with her attorney by her side.

Throughout the proceedings, she was treated like a delicate flower of the south. Poor Raynella. She lost her husband and then her only son died in an automobile accident. Both incidents are worthy of empathy. After her losses, she did cut a sympathetic figure—but not enough that we ought to lose sight of the fact that if she’d had just one more bullet in her revolver, Steve Walker would now be dead—shot in cold blood.

Nonetheless, the attempted murder charge was dropped. She was put on probation and given community service and diversion. In a few short years, her whole slate was wiped clean as if she’d never premeditated murder or terrorized and chased down another human being.

Was it any surprise that Raynella expected everyone to believe her when she claimed David’s death was a suicide? The system had done everything it could to convince her she was untouchable. She was Raynella Dossett Leath, the twice-widowed, one-time prosecutor’s wife. She was intelligent. She was educated. And with the accumulated assets gained in land and life insurance, she was a wealthy woman. How could they not believe her?

For years, it appeared as if she would never be brought to account for the death of David Leath. It took six long years to for Raynella to come to trial the first time. Along the way, the prosecutors tried again and again to exhume the body of her first husband. Every time the court denied the request. Why was the chief suspect in a man’s possible murder even allowed to express an opinion to the court? It seemed a perverse twisting of justice.

If it weren’t for the serendipitous fact made of two brands of ammunition in Raynella’s revolver, she may have gotten away with David’s murder as well.

We can’t always depend on these quirks of fate to seal a wrong-doer’s fate. Unless we work in a prosecutor’s office or in law enforcement, we can’t directly impact the erosion of justice caused by the influence of power, money and privilege.

However, we can speak up when we see it happening in our backyard. We can make it clear that we do not find favoritism an accepted practice. We can raise our voices with public statements of outrage and we can make our feelings know at the ballot box when we vote for elected officials like the district attorney and the sheriff.

We can also watch for the red flags in relationships formed by our friends and family. If we see someone involved with a person who is learning the lesson that privilege means there are not consequences for bad behavior, we can issue warnings to others, encouraging them to back away. If we see this situation in one of our own relationships, we need to create distance to secure our personal safety.

Raynella Dossett Leath still could face trial for premeditated murder of her first husband, Ed Dossett. The evidence seems to indicate that she was, in some manner, was involved in his death. But how?

Was it a mercy killing? Did the stress of watching Ed suffer and linger in pain, make her crack and take his life? Or could it possibly be an assisted suicide? In either of those cases, many who have cared for a loved one in their final torturous days of life could understand her motivation. Even if they did not condone her actions, they could empathize with them. If it was assisted suicide, Raynella could admit to that crime, waive the statute of limitations, and not serve any additional time.

However, if Raynella Dossett Leath is guilty of pre-mediated murder, whether stemming from impatience, loathing, greed or other self-serving motive, she should receive the full penalty of the law. If the charge is true, a sentence consecutive to the one she is now serving would be the only way to honor and validate the life of William Edward Dossett.

In this case, as always, my fervent wish is that Lady Justice will assume her classic image with blindfold secured, exposing the truth and do the right thing for everyone harmed by an act of violence—without any regard to the bank account, gender, skin color or social standing of either the perpetrator or the victim. For that is the only true definition of justice.

Diane Fanning, author of HER DEADLY WEB