“25 years ago I was unethically crucified…I am a good, kind, innocent man.” – Lawrence DeLisle, in a letter to WWJ.
By Roberta Jasina
It is a murder case that was heartbreaking and horrifying. Twenty five years ago, in one of the most talked about tragedies in Detroit history, 28-year-old Lawrence J. DeLisle of Lincoln Park drove his speeding Ford LTD station wagon down a dead end street in Wyandotte, catapulting the car into the deep, dark water of the Detroit River.
It was just after 9 p.m. on Aug. 3,1989. DeLisle and his wife Suzanne were able to get out of the car through the open windows, and surface and survive. Their four children tragically drowned inside the car, 30 feet underwater: 8-year-old Bryan, 4-year-old Kathryn, 2-year-old Melissa and 8-month-old Emily.
DeLisle told police he had a leg cramp that forced his foot down on the gas pedal, and that the accelerator stuck, causing the vehicle to careen down Eureka Road into the river.
The car itself had a haunting history. DeLisle’s father had committed suicide in that vehicle less than two years before at Elizabeth Park in Trenton. There were still blood stains from the shooting inside the car.
Police didn’t buy DeLisle’s leg cramp/stuck accelerator story. Investigators questioned him, gave him a lengthy lie detector test, and claimed they had gotten an official confession from him. Several days after the drownings, DeLisle was charged with 4 counts of 1st degree murder in the deaths of his children, and one count of attempting to murder his wife.
The case caused a frenzy in the local community and attracted national and international attention. There were stories in Time magazine and The New York Times. People wondered, how could an “average Joe,” a typical dad, with a good job at a local tire store, and a nice home in Downriver Detroit do this to his own kids. People openly speculated that DeLisle’s wife was in on it.
Angry anonymous callers phoned the DeLisle home, threatening to blow up their Austin Street house.
When the case went to trial the following June, Wayne county Prosecutor Kevin Simowski argued that DeLisle was a troubled man, drowning in debt, feeling burdened by life and by his wife and kids. Simowski argued that DeLisle deliberately planned the crash and fully intended to die along with the rest of his family that August night.
Defense attorney Frank Eaman claimed the car was defective, and that DeLisle was NOT guilty. Eaman also told reporters that the only reason DeLisle “confessed” to the crime was because police wore him down with an eight hour interrogation (with no attorney present) and basically brainwashed him and gave him a “kind of nervous breakdown.”
Eaman also argued that DeLisle could not possibly get a fair trial in Metro Detroit because of sensational media coverage by reporters “stalking” the DeLisle family.
The trial judge Robert Colombo Jr. did suppress the confession, however Colombo rejected the idea of moving the case out of town.
The trial lasted 8 days in downtown Detroit with more than two dozen witnesses called to testify. The jury deliberated almost nine hours over two and a half days. The jury found DeLisle guilty on all counts.
DeLisle and his wife both wept when the verdicts were announced.
Numerous appeals were filed. Attorneys claimed the jury was poisoned by pretrial publicity about the “confession” and that the case should have been moved. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.
Lawrence DeLisle is doing life in prison with no chance of parole in Coldwater, Mich.
He still maintains his innocence, and says he still grieves over the death of his children.
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