By Christy Strawser
WYANDOTTE (WWJ) The media got in front of it first with screaming headlines about a jailhouse confession — and that’s the basis of the reason Jim Mitzelfeld, a former federal prosecutor and Detroit News reporter, thinks Lawrence DeLisle didn’t get a fair trial.
Mitzelfeld, who now works as investigative counsel in the NASA Office of Inspector General, covered the story 25 years ago when DeLisle was accused of intentionally driving into the Detroit River with his wife and four children. Only the adults emerged from the car; the kids, trapped in their seats, drowned in 30 feet of water. DeLisle, 28 years old at the time, said a foot cramp caused him to stomp on the accelerator, and claimed it stuck.
The story was “really tragic,” Mitzelfeld told WWJ’s Roberta Jasina in an exclusive interview.
This is how it went down: The case was investigated by Wyandotte police and about four days after the incident, DeLisle was arrested and charged with murder. Not too long afterward, police issued a statement to the media suggesting DeLisle had confessed to intentionally driving into the river and killing his children.
Stories about his alleged deed piled on top of each other, story after story consumed local media, and the public couldn’t get enough. Why did he do it? How could he do it? What did the wife believe?
“There was a great hew and cry among the population,” Mitzelfeld said, describing the public mood at the time of the incident, adding many wondered how “two parents could let their children die in such a tragic way.”
Eight months later, the media, including Mitzelfeld, was allowed to listen to the 12 or so hours of the DeLisle interrogation, and the veteran reporter was left with the feeling it wasn’t as clear cut as the police claimed. “It wasn’t clear at all that he had confessed,” Mitzelfeld said. “He was interviewed shortly after he lost all of his children and made statement that could be interpreted many different ways.
“This was a distraught man.”
His lawyer won his motion the suppress the confession during DeLisle’s trial. The court ruled it was an “involuntary statement” that couldn’t be used against him at trial, Mitzelfeld said.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury deliberated eight hours before finding him guilty. “But the case still raises a lot of questions in my mind,” Mitzelfeld said.
Despite the fact he covered many dramatic, horror-filled stories, Mitzelfeld told Jasina this one had a lasting impact on him. “I think about this case all the time. It had all the elements of a tragedy that would linger forever,” he said.
It’s something he’s never forgotten. In fact, it helped change the course of his own life. Mitzelfeld said this one, and several other cases, convinced him to go to law school and start a new career. He became a federal prosecutor, saying “I’m sure this case had something to do with it.”
Does he think DeLisle did it on purpose? Not necessarily. As evidence, Mitzelfeld says DeLisle’s wife Suzanne, the only surviving witness, said he did not do this intentionally. “How many women would forgive their husband for intentionally killing their children?” Mitzelfeld asked.
“If she doesn’t hold him responsible, how can the rest of us?” he asked Jasina.
He added her story of the leg cramp and the stuck accelerator, “as freaky and bizarre” as it sounds, is no more difficult to fathom than a wife forgiving her husband for intentionally killing her children.
As for whether DeLisle got a fair trial, Mitzelfeld added Judge Robert Colombo at sentencing said he had serious questions about whether the proceedings had been fair. Five members of the jury said they were aware DeLisle had confessed even though the confession had been tossed out before trial, Mitzelfeld said.
Colombo told Jasina as part of this 25-year anniversary special report he now believes the verdict was fair. Mitzelfeld isn’t convinced.
“I don’t think it was fair at the end of the day,” Mitzelfeld said, adding no jurors should have been allowed to serve in the trial if they knew about the confession from media reports.
He thinks this shouldn’t necessarily be the end of the story for DeLisle.
“If I was governor, I think what I think I would do is seriously consider taking another look at this case,” he said. “If I could have two of the best lawyers come into my office and investigate the facts and have each of them argue one side and then the other and make a decision, I would. But I really think that if you look at the legal opinions that considered this case, there were some serious reservations.
“Two members of the Michigan Supreme Court believed he didn’t get a fair trial. I think it’s worth taking another look at.”
DeLisle has exhausted his appeals, so any change would have to come from the governor. If he was governor, Mitzelfeld said he would decide “enough is enough,” and let DeLisle go after the 25 years time he’s already served.
“I think the one thing that sticks out is there’s no question Larry DeLisle was responsible for his children dying … because he was driving the car, which wound up in the river, and his children didn’t survive. So there’s no question, morally or even legally, that he’s probably at a minimum responsible. So the question is ‘how responsible is he? And what punishment is appropriate. And anytime, I think, you have parents accused of killing their children, you know, it’s so hard for anyone else to fathom that, the emotions run so high.
“But this is the only case I can think of, or even heard of, where there was some ambiguity as to whether the parent charged with killing their children did it intentionally. That just doesn’t happen very often.”
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