Sense Not So Common

Gregory Steen
Gregory Steen (Photo By John Anderson)

On March 7, after six hours of deliberations, jurors found defendant Gregory Steen not guilty of the 1997 murder of homeless drifter Jim Dunham. Unfortunately, the verdict failed to answer the trial's central question: Who killed Jim Dunham?

As reported here last week ("Murder Most ... Peculiar," March 8), prosecutors argued that Gregory Steen lured Dunham to a deserted road in eastern Travis County, where he shot and killed Dunham over a bad batch of cocaine. That's what the state's star witness, Steen's ex-girlfriend Kelly McGary, told them -- after being granted immunity. Travis County prosecutor Todd Ward told the jurors it was a case about "common sense" -- yet there were more than a few problems with the state's brand of that particular logical commodity. It is true that Steen has had more than one run-in with local law enforcement for having and selling drugs -- indeed, he's best known for being shot in the back by an APD officer as he was fleeing a crack house in Oct. 1997, a month after Dunham's murder. But based at least on the trial testimony, it appears that unsavory episode was the only connection between Steen and the state's theory about Dunham's death. And it seems there were several other suspects -- suspects the state relied on for testimony but failed to consider as possibly committing the crime. As a result, the murder of Dunham may remain forever unsolved.

One prominent player was Markus Green, in whose car the victim was found the morning of Sept. 12, 1997. Green (currently awaiting trial on three unrelated counts of practicing medicine without a license and sexual assault, a consequence of his hanging out a shingle as freelance gynecologist) at first told detectives he'd only bought beer for Dunham the night before. A few days later, Green helpfully informed them he had taken out a major life insurance policy on Dunham just before his death. Prosecutors insisted, nonetheless -- according to "common sense" -- that Green wouldn't have wanted Dunham dead until he was sure the policy would be accepted, nor would Green have left the deceased in his own car.

Prudential Investigator Paul McNulty had also explored Dunham's relationship with Green, and what he turned up diverged, unsurprisingly, from what Green had told detectives. And although Green testified that he had insured nearly 200 people, each time with himself as beneficiary -- thereby requiring, in theory, thousands of dollars in premiums as well as a considerable avalanche of paperwork -- Green told the court he couldn't remember any of the names of the insured.

Then there's star witness Kelly McGary, who alone linked Steen to the crime. According to McGary -- a former drug addict and convicted forger whose own relationship with the truth is admittedly tenuous -- she and Steen were staying at the same motel as Dunham on Sept. 11, and on the night in question, Steen and another man (never precisely identified) followed Dunham out to Platt Lane, where Steen got out of the car, walked up to Dunham's car, and shot him -- handing the murder weapon to McGary for disposal. She later fled town -- supposedly with all or part of the money Steen stole from Dunham.

But this is just McGary's latest version of events, and apparently the jury didn't find it any more persuasive than her earlier, recanted tales. McGary insisted this was a drug murder, yet detectives admitted that they found no drug paraphernalia in Dunham's motel room. If he was a dealer, Dunham was hardly a high-roller. An investigator from Prudential Insurance -- the company that held Green's policy on Dunham -- testified that just before his murder, Dunham opened a checking account with $25, which he promptly overdrew. McGary's tale essentially required the jury to believe that some generous coke entrepreneur would front a half-kilo of cocaine -- worth upward of $10,000 on the street -- to a penniless homeless man. TCSO detectives told the court that they didn't feel the need to check out the inconsistencies in McGary's stories -- apparently applying their common sense, they just took her most Steen-incriminating version at face value. Finally, although McGary had repeatedly told investigators she did not know Green, she testified last week that she had told defense attorneys she had known Green for at least two weeks before the murder.

All in all, the "witnesses" assembled by the prosecution were unlikely to have inspired the confidence of a gullible child, let alone that of the court or the jurors. McNulty said TCSO detectives had told him they lacked sufficient evidence against Green to take the case to a grand jury. Yet they found no similar impediment regarding Gregory Steen, apparently believing that the immunized testimony of Kelly McGary would be enough to deter all reasonable doubt. They were wrong.

So, who killed Jim Dunham?

Considering the standards of prosecutorial common sense which apparently prevail among Travis County prosecutors, it seems unlikely we will ever know.

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