By Christy Strawser
WYANDOTTE (WWJ) Attorney Frank Eaman represented Lawrence DeLisle in court, presenting a flashy, dramatic case that Judge Robert Colombo remembers 25 years later as one of the best courtroom performances he’s ever seen.
Eaman also made enemies of local police by blaming them for what he thought were bad interrogation techniques that caused a confession. The confession was tossed out before trial, but it already existed in the minds of jurors. “But all the jurors had read the confession in the papers, so it didn’t really matter that it was out of evidence,” Eaman said to WWJ’s Roberta Jasina for a special report on the 25th anniversary of a crime that riveted the nation.
He adds he wishes in hindsight he had lost the motion to suppress the confession, so jurors could have seen how it was extracted.
Eaman thinks the interrogation is what planted the idea in DeLisle’s head that he intentionally drove his station wagon into the Detroit River, killing his four children. Eaman still thinks the gas pedal stuck, causing DeLisle to careen into the water, a notion rejected by police, the judge, and jury.
What about the seven seconds the car was careening toward the water without any application of brakes, the moment DeLisle allegedly steered between poles to head straight to the water? “If you’ve never been in in that situation before, you don’t know what to do,” Eaman said.
“They broke him down, essentially, and gave him what you could call a nervous breakdown by those interrogation techniques,” Eaman said. He says those tactics erased DeLisle’s real memory and implanted a new idea into his head, one that held him responsible for the deaths of his children, three daughters and a son.
“When the police tested the car, the first thing that happened was the accelerator stuck,” Eaman said. The police say the accelerator problem DeLisle claimed — when he said a leg cramp caused him to stomp on the accelerator — couldn’t be replicated.
Eaman blames the police, and he blames the judge for failing to move the venue to an area where jurors hadn’t already read media reports about the confession.
But he doesn’t seem to blame DeLisle. “I feel very bad for those children who died, and shouldn’t have died at such a young age … I happen to know Larry DeLisle feels bad about that, and he always has,” Eaman said, adding his client didn’t have a chance to grieve until he went to prison.
How’s DeLisle in prison? Eaman said he’s “adjusted” to prison life, but he’s been in prison a long time. “I would hope that after, as long as he’s served in prison … that somebody would take another look at this case,” Eaman said.
He says the whole case “sticks in his craw” as the only high-profile case he ever lost.
Peter Van Houk, the attorney who took DeLisle’s appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, where they refused to hear it, said he thought the conviction would be overturned somewhere along the way. The fact five jurors said they knew about the confession was solid grounds for appeal, Van Houk said.
In the realm of reality, following the exhaustion of all the appeals, would the Michigan governor commute his sentence? “I think it is a situation where there is some possibility (of a pardon),” Van Houk said.
“If he wants to seek that, I would certainly assist him,” Van Houk said about DeLisle, adding, “I think he has a decent chance of it.”
DeLisle still sends him a Christmas card every year, the only client who still does that, Van Houk said.
The Christmas cards have hung on as long as public fascination with the case. So why does the DeLisle incident still resonate so much with people? Plenty of unimaginable crimes, stories of death and destruction, innocents lost too soon, have happened since then that barely outlasted a 24 hour news cycle.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kevin Simowski, who won the conviction against Delisle, sees it this way: “I think most people remember the DeLisle trial. I think he was a desperate guy, This wasn’t the stereotypical killer, and a bad guy with a long criminal history. It was a guy who went to work every day and lived downriver and had a family.
“It was a hot night and the kids were acting up and the baby was crying, I think he hit the breaking point.”
Eaman has a different perspective on the slippery facts of the case. “Here, they got the confession that they needed to support their theory,” Eaman said about the police, adding their immediate working theory was DeLisle wanted to kill his family because of financial pressures.
“If you ever watch the videotape of the State Police interrogation in Lansing, it’s unbelievable what they did in that tape,” Eaman said, adding the police used a hypnotic technique that even reeled him in. He said he started watching the tape, and couldn’t stop until 3 a.m.
“I got hypnotized myself in that when I started watching the tape, I couldn’t stop,” Eaman said.
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