A customary priest’s funeral mass for the Rev. Gerald Robinson, 76, convicted killer of Catholic nun, Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, was scheduled for June 11, 2014, in Toledo, Ohio, according to the Associated Press. Robinson died on July 4th in a prison hospice in Columbus where he had been since suffering a heart attack in late May. Relatives had sought a compassionate release order to return Robinson to Toledo to die, but that request was rejected by a federal judge the day before his death. Robinson had been serving a 15 years to life sentence for Pahl’s murder.
This is a landmark case from several perspectives. For the Catholic Church, this is the only documented case of a priest killing a nun and only the second homicide conviction of a priest in the United States. Also, because Robinson professed his innocence until his death and never ceased appealing the conviction, the Church never stripped him of his ordained priest status. For that reason, according to the Rev. Charles Ritter, administrator of the Diocese of Toledo, a diocesan priest’s funeral mass was due Robinson.
Of particular interest to us at CASTCorp International is the significant role one of our Partners, forensic animator Christopher Lorenzo, and computer forensic animation played in securing Fr. Robinson’s conviction. However, before we get to that let’s take a brief look at the facts of this fascinating case.
The 1980 murder of Sister Margaret, could only be described as brutal and ritualistic. She was strangled and stabbed more than 30 times inside the chapel building at the Toledo Mercy Hospital where both she and Robinson worked. Robinson, then 42, was the hospital chaplain and Pahl, 71, was caretaker of the chapel. Nine of the stab wounds were in the shape of an inverted cross and a smudge of blood was left on her forehead in what prosecutors would later argue was a mock anointing. Pahl was found covered in an alter cloth and her body and clothing, as reported in Wikipedia, were arranged in such a manner as to suggest that she had been sexually assaulted. In a twist of irony, Robinson presided over Pahl’s funeral mass four days after the murder.
Cover up or not?
Within the first two weeks of the investigation Robinson emerged as a prime suspect. Police had found a sword-shaped letter opener inside a desk drawer in his apartment. In addition to that, Robinson initially told police that someone had confessed to the murder, a statement he would later recant, admitting that the story was a fabrication. And, while Robinson was questioned, he was never charged. Allegations would emerge of a police cover-up involving then Deputy Police Chief Ray Vetter, purportedly a practicing Catholic. It was alleged that Vetter interrupted and disbanded a homicide investigators’ interview of Robinson some two weeks after the murder, allowing Robinson to walk out of police headquarters. It was also alleged that Vetter ordered detectives to surrender their reports to him and that some of those reports simply disappeared after that.
Cover-up or not, the active investigation died there and it remained a cold case with no new leads for 23 years. Then, in 2003, police received a letter from a woman using the name “Survivor Doe.” In her letter, Survivor Doe alleged that Robinson had sexually abused her when she was a child in a series of satanic ritual ceremonies that included human sacrifice. Police were never able to build a sexual abuse case around Survivor Doe’s allegations, but it did provide the impetus for a fresh team of investigators to revisit the Pahl case. Ultimately, investigators were able to establish that the patterns of blood stains on the altar cloth matched patterns found on the letter opener seized from Robinson’s desk drawer in 1980. And, thanks to some new technology not available to investigators back then, a connection between the killing and the letter opener was established.
Robinson was arrested for the murder of Sister Margaret 24 years after the crime. At his 2006 trial, prosecutors argued that the motive behind the killing was Robinson’s ongoing and unresolved anger toward Pahl stemming from what he felt was her overly domineering personality.
The trial itself included some relatively uncommon forensic technology, for its day. More than a quarter century after the murder, the crime scene – the hospital chapel – was no longer in existence. Prosecutors had to turn to architect and forensic animator Christopher Lorenzo to help present a compelling visual statement about where and how the crime occurred. Chris created a 3D animation of the crime scene and Robinson’s movement within it. Through his animation Chris was able to demonstrate how Robinson navigated from point to point within the chapel, murdered Sister Margaret, and all within the time-frame the prosecution claimed the murder took place.
It should be noted that throughout his trial and right through to his death, Robinson maintained his innocence.