The story of a former Rochester man who spent 2-1/2 years on death row in North Carolina before winning a new trial and being acquitted will be told in a two-part television miniseries beginning Sunday.
``Innocent Victims'' is the story of Timothy Hennis, who was convicted of raping a woman and murdering her and her two young children. He was later acquitted in a second trial. The program will air on ABC Sunday and Monday nights.
Hennis grew up in Rochester and graduated from Mayo High School in 1976. He worked in Rochester until he joined the Army in 1980. His father, Robert, was a manager at IBM Rochester during much of the 1970s. The family moved to Rochester in 1963.
Timothy Hennis' father, Robert Hennis, who is retired and lives in Mount Dora, Fla., said the family isn't granting interviews.
``We just want to put this behind us,'' he said. ``It was enough at the time.'' He said his son also doesn't want to talk to the media or have his current community identified.
Others say Timothy Hennis is still with the U.S. Army and is stationed somewhere in the Midwest. He and his wife, Angela, have two children.
H. Gerald Beaver, Timothy Hennis' lead defense attorney, has previewed the miniseries with the Hennis family and said the producers and actors did ``an extraordinary job.''
``It took me back to places I never wanted to return,'' Beaver said from his home in Fayetteville, N.C. ``You can't imagine the horror of having someone sentenced to death you sincerely believe is innocent.''
Timothy Hennis was 27 and a sergeant with the U.S. Army in North Carolina in May 1985 when he was arrested and charged with the murder of Kathryn Eastburn, 32, and her two daughters, Kara, 5, and Erin, 3.
Authorities said the mother had been raped and all three had been stabbed several times. The girls' throats had been slashed. A third child, Jana, 18 months old, was found alive in her crib. The three bodies were discovered after a neighbor heard the baby's cries and alerted authorities.
Hennis was a parachute rigger at Fort Bragg Military Reservation. Eastburn's husband, Gary, was a captain in the Air Force and was air traffic control chief at nearby Pope Air Force Base. At the time of the murders, he was attending classes in Alabama. The Eastburns were planning a move to England after his graduation.
Two days before the murders, Hennis had gone to the Eastburn home to buy their dog, Dixie, which was being sold because of the move. North Carolina officials said the murders occurred sometime between 8 p.m. May 9 and 3 a.m. May 10. The bodies were discovered May 12.
Hennis went to police after hearing a news report that authorities wanted to talk to the man who picked up the Eastburn dog. He was arrested after a witness said a man fitting Hennis' description was seen near the house about 3:30 a.m. May 10.
A year after the murders, Hennis was tried and convicted. He was given the death penalty and put on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. He stayed there for 845 days before the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered a new trial in October 1988.
Beaver said that, to his knowledge, it was the first time a prisoner on death row in North Carolina was granted a new trial. And he said the ruling came within days, rather than months, of oral arguments being heard.
Hennis was acquitted in the second trial in April 1989. The murders remain unsolved.
In ordering the new trial, the North Carolina high court cited the prosecution's repeated and inflammatory use of pictures of the crime scene and the autopsies. Slides of the scene were shown on a giant screen over Hennis' head so the jury could see the slides as well as how Hennis reacted to the pictures. Later, the prosecutor handed out color prints of the slides for jurors to review.
Beaver said there were a number of significant differences between the two trials. Use of the photographs was greatly limited during the second trial, and new evidence regarding the eyewitness was presented, casting doubt on his statements.
The defense also located the man seen walking in the neighborhood who was thought to be Hennis. Finally, Beaver said, they were able to more effectively portray the lack of physical evidence connecting Hennis to the crime.
Hennis did not testify at the first trial, but did at the second. He told a local newspaper after the acquittal that he didn't testify in the first trial because he knew he was innocent. ``But I saw how that didn't exactly work out,'' he said. ``I was glad to get my side of the story.''
The television miniseries is based on a book of the same name written by Scott Whisnant, a copy editor for a newspaper in Wilmington, N.C. Beaver said both the book and miniseries raise serious questions about the police investigation and prosecution.
He noted that at the time of Hennis' arrest, the prosecutor allegedly cautioned officers to not make an arrest until more evidence was obtained, ``but there was so much pressure to solve the case, a quick arrest was made.''
When physical evidence test results showed no link to Hennis, Beaver said, ``testimony was molded and shaped to say this was not important.''
Veteran actor Hal Holbrook plays Timothy Hennis' father in the miniseries and Rue McClanahan plays his mother, Marylou. Hennis is portrayed by John Corbett. Rick Schroder and Tom Irwin play the defense team.@et