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Burden of Proof

Death in the Desert: Girlfriend, Girlfriend's Lover on Trial for Murder of Las Vegas Casino Mogul Ted Binion

Aired April 21, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is a picture of Ted Binion just before he died. He had many material items. Ted Binion bought her a Mercedes convertible. He said that Binion's girlfriend was going to be the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on Ted Binion worth somewhere around $875,000 and he wanted Ted Binion killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what happens when you love your drugs more than your woman. You don't take care of your woman, somebody else will. This case is not about homicide; this case is about heroin. This case is not murder; this case is about money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: The Las Vegas Strip: lights, gambling, money and sex. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Did all that Vegas offer spawn a deadly triangle of love? Is there death in the desert? or was it an accident?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Today, we turn our focus to death in the desert. On September 17, 1998, well-known gambling figure Ted Binion was found dead in his Las Vegas home. He died from a drug overdose.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: According to prosecutors, Binion was restrained and forced to ingest a fatal dose of heroin and a prescription antidepressant drug and that he suffocated. The defendants claim it was an accidental overdose. On trial for murder is Binion's live-in girlfriend, Sandra Murphy; and also facing murder charges, Murphy's lover, Montana contractor Rick Tabish.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDRA MURPHY, CHARGED WITH MURDERING GAMBLING FIGURE TED BINION: You know, I know what I'm about. Everyone that knows me and loves and cares for me knows what I'm about. And really, what everybody else thinks doesn't matter to me. And if it did, I wouldn't have been with Teddy all that time. QUESTION: Did you ever work as a topless dancer?

MURPHY: I was never employed as a topless dancer, ever.

QUESTION: Did you ever worked at Cheetah's?

MURPHY: No, I never worked or was an employee at Cheetah's ever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Joining us today from Las Vegas is the criminal defense attorney for Sandra Murphy, John Momot. Also in Las Vegas, Jeff German of the "Las Vegas Sun."

VAN SUSTEREN: And joining us here in Washington: Susan Filian (ph), former federal prosecutor Pam Stuart and Henrietta Pound (Ph). And in our back row, Kristin Dalope (ph) and Alexandra McCredie (ph).

Let me go first to you, Jeff. Let's start with the basics, who was Ted Binion?

JEFF GERMAN, "LAS VEGAS SUN": Ted Binion was a colorful gambling figure here in Las Vegas, the son of the legendary gaming pioneer Benny Binion, who founded the Horseshoe Club downtown in Las Vegas, which is one of the most popular gambling joints in the city. And prior -- Leading up to his death, he had a long running battle, Ted Binion did, with state gaming regulators and ultimately his license was revoked because of his associations with some reputed mob figures.

COSSACK: What was his relationship with his -- with Sandy Murphy, did they live together?

GERMAN: Roger, they lived together for three years and, contrary to what you saw Sandy say, she met Ted Binion at Cheetah's, which is a local adult nightclub here, and she was dancing briefly there when she met him.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me go, John, to you for a second about your client, just whether or not she danced at Cheetah's, the dance joint or not, doesn't mean that she is a murderer, but I want to find out a little bit more about it since there seems to be conflict. Tell me who your client is.

JOHN MOMOT, DEFENSE ATTY. FOR SANDY MURPHY: Sandy Murphy is a young lady that came from Southern California, she came from a nice family, she came out here, she lost some money gambling, she was in Cheetah's selling costumes to earn some money. She met Ted, and there -- for a two-week period of time she just worked on weekends, and on the last day she danced for him, and I guess took off her top. So if that's something bad, I don't know.

COSSACK: Well, it's not a question of being bad, the question I suppose is: Was she telling the truth when she said she didn't dance for him?

MOMOT: She danced for Teddy. She wasn't employed. She wasn't a topless dancer, she wasn't earning a living that way. She did it for him because their relationship developed to that.

VAN SUSTEREN: John, let me ask, who is -- your client Sandy was living with Ted Binion at the time of his death in September of 1998. Rick Tabish, or Tabish, where does he fit into this? who is he?

MOMOT: He is a fellow that was doing some work for Ted Binion, and -- independent of Sandy, I mean, he met Ted Binion on his own, was doing work for him, ultimately built the vault that stored the silver out in Nevada in which there was about $6 million worth of silver stored there.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was he the lover of Sandy while she was the live- in girlfriend of Ted?

MOMOT: Ultimately, and at the -- towards the end of her and Ted's relationship, she developed a relationship as a result of all the drug abuse and the physical abuse that she was sustaining while living in that household.

COSSACK: Now, Tabish has said to other people that, you know, about his involvement in this murder and, in fact, witnesses have come forward that said that, for example, this Kirk Grazer (ph) has said that Tabish went to him to assist with the murder of Binion. Jason Frasier (ph) has said that Tabish tried the get him to provide an alibi for him. What do you say about that?

MOMOT: You know, Roger, as far as Mr. Grazer is concerned, he was going to commit this murder by jumping out of an airplane, doing a halo jump, and that is a high-altitude, low-opening type of jump that you do in the military, and then somehow land on the Binion property and assassinate Ted Binion. Now, if you want to consider that as credible evidence, I think he should have been on lithium when he testified because I think that's what he needed.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me back up for a second. Jeff, I mean, the crux of this case. as I understand it, first you've got to show -- the prosecution has got to show there was a murder. The defense says, it was an accidental overdose. You are the reporter on this case. Tell us what the evidence is that points in the direction of murder and the evidence which points in the direction of an accidental overdose.

GERMAN: What we have, Greta, are basically three theories that have developed in terms of the cause of Ted Binion's death. You have the one theory, which was advanced by Dr. Larry Sims (ph), who is the chief medical examiner here in Clark County, who did the autopsy on Ted Binion, and he concluded that Binion died of heroin and Xanax intoxication, and that it was a forced overdose, and that is part of the theory that the prosecution is relying on.

But at the same time, the prosecution has a dual theory, which is -- which has been advanced by Dr. Michael Baden, the famed New York pathologist, and that is that there were not lethal levels of heroin and Xanax in Binion's system, but Binion, rather, was suffocated.

And then you have the defense theory, which is advanced by John Momot, and John is going to be presenting another well-known pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht later in this trial, who is going to contend that Binion considered suicide with a drug overdose.

So you have these three competing theories, two of which are being used by the prosecution itself.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it committed suicide or accidental death from ingesting heroin, the defense theory?

GERMAN: My understanding is, and of course John would be a better -- could explain it better, but my understanding is that they are contending that -- and Cyril Wecht is going to contend that he committed suicide with an overdose.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we are going to take a break.

People are lining up in Las Vegas to look at the players and listen to testimony. Find out more, when we come back.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

Beginning today, Web site operators must comply with a federal law requiring parental permission before collecting personal information from children.

The 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act was enacted after federal officials found companies asking children for information while they played video games and did research online.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the Worldwide Web. Just log on to CNN.com/Burden. We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

VAN SUSTEREN: Casino magnate Ted Binion battled with his drug addiction for more than 20 years. Defense lawyers say he died of an accidental overdose of heroin and Xanax and it might have been suicide. But prosecutors say he was forced to swallow the drugs and then he was suffocated. The defendants are his girlfriend, former topless dancer Sandra Murphy, and her lover, Rick Tabish.

Pam, you know, most murder cases you don't have to -- you have to establish murder, but it's not such a big deal. Here we're going to have the battle of great experts, Cyril Wecht for the defense, and Michael Baden, both doctors, for the prosecution. What kind of problem is this for the prosecution?

PAM STUART, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, they definitely have somebody who's dead, so that's not a problem. But what they're trying to do is to create a scenario that the jurors can accept beyond a reasonable doubt that shows the two people on trial committed this murder. And they have some problems. VAN SUSTEREN: If there's a murder. I mean, the fundamental problem in this case for the prosecution, they must establish it was actually a murder. It could have been an accident, could have been suicide.

STUART: Well, but the place you look to get the answer for that, I think, is not only in the circumstances which establish a motive, an opportunity here, but also to the physical evidence. And the physical evidence that I think is going to be particularly important is the abrasions that were found on the face of Mr. Binion, and also the blood peticiai (ph), it's called by these forensic pathologists. When you are strangled or you lose air, the blood rushes to the areas around your eye and you can see that in the autopsy, and apparently that was reported. That will be powerful evidence against the accident theory, I think.

VAN SUSTEREN: John, what about that?

COSSACK: John, let me also ask you a question in terms of other witnesses. Deanna Perry (ph), the manicurist, has apparently testified that your client predicted to her that, in fact, her husband, Binion, would die. How do you get around that? And what do you get around the fact that Tabish, the lover, was caught two days later digging up the silver -- attempting to dig up the silver?

MOMOT: Well, two things. Number one, Deanna Perry: Here is a situation where Sandy Murphy goes in for a manicure, never met the woman in her life. She spent a total of four hours in salon. It was the first hour that she actually communicated with Deanna Perry. And during this first hour, it's miraculous that Sandy Murphy told her about homicide, digging up silver, discussing all these plots and plans. And it's unbelievable how Deanna Perry responded to this all in the first hour.

And, coincidentally, unfortunately, her dad is doing like a life sentence in a federal prison. So who knows if there's some thoughts about trying to get him consideration for a reduction of sentence, or her request for any type of reward money. I don't know.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about the issues that Pam raises in terms of the medical examiners, the debate about whether it was the man or his death is a homicide? Explain that to me.

MOMOT: That's great because, you see, I think every pathologist has got to say one thing that's consistent: It's the person who's examining the body itself right at the scene -- it's most important. And what we have here is Dr. Sims, the coroner, examined the eyes with a magnifying glass, and he didn't find any peticiai.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you about the coroner. Sometimes coroners are not medical doctors. Dr. Michael Botton is a well- respected medical examiner. Certainly yours is as well, Dr. Cyril Wecht. Was the coroner an MD?

MOMOT: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: That settles that then.

GERMAN: Well, Greta, he's actually...

STUART: Apparently.

GERMAN: Greta, he's the medical examiner, he's not actually the coroner. He is a doctor, but what I think the prosecution -- and I'm not taking sides here -- but what I think the prosecution is relying on Dr. Baden for is his experience. Dr. Simms maybe conducted...

VAN SUSTEREN: But so is Dr. Wecht. I mean, you've got the battle of the giants in this game. What makes this case so intriguing is you do have the medical giants, Dr. Baden and Dr. Wecht, with different opinions.

COSSACK: And that's why the other parts of this case are going to become so important.

John, let me go right back to you again. The maid has testified that -- unusually, and perhaps never before happened -- that your client sent her home early on the day before the murder and told her to take the next day off. Suspicious?

MOMOT: Not really. I mean, he was up all night smoking heroin, actually, chasing the dragon, and he was sick, he was nauseous, vomiting. She was taking care of him. It's just a typical bout with drugs that she's experiencing. And, naturally, the house -- she's an immaculate girl and she kept the house...

COSSACK: Well, in that case, let's talk about the video that she made, then. The day after she was arrested, she was -- or the day after she went to the hospital after the 911 call, she was described as being overly hysterical and hysterical at the hospital. The next day, it seems like we saw a completely different person, that she took this video trying to show, apparently, that the Binion family had stolen from the house while she was gone. And it appears, at least the prosecution claims, that in the middle of this video where she is pointing things out, she picks up what appears to be a wineglass and attempts to put it into her bag as a way of, perhaps, hiding evidence.

MOMOT: Well, that's an interesting spin, and I think that's what the prosecution wants you to believe. Number one, she was very hysterical when she went to the hospital the day before, and then they gave her -- they sedated her with Valium and things of that nature. The next day, she comes to the house, she wants to get her belongings. And all of a sudden, the Binion money machine takes over. All of a sudden, she's not a Binion. She can't return into her own home that she lived in there for four years. And then she's confronted by a lawyer for the estate and the lawyer literally slams the door in her face.

She runs to get a police officer and comes back and says, look, I want the get into my own house. The officer confronts the lawyer. The lawyer says, wait a minute, she's a California resident. That's what he says. This lawyer is supposed to be a 25-year friend of Ted Binion. Do you ever think that he says, look, a couple of days ago, I heard from my client, which he was his cash cow, and say he thought that he was going to die in her hands, and now we have a dead body, I think we have a homicide? No.

What he says is, she's not a resident here. And until she pulls out her drivers license and shows the police officer that she's a resident there, then the police officer decides to let her in the house. Now she's -- she goes into the house. It's already gone- through by whomever, and here drawers are open, all her personal effects are laying all over the house and she's really upset.

COSSACK: All right, John, let me interrupt you one second. I'm going to let you finish up on this thought, but we've got to take a break right now.

With more than 100 witnesses, including everyone from a former mayor to a former cleaning woman, the murder trial of Ted Binion is being called Las Vegas' "trial of the century." More on the case when we come back.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: A Tampa fourth-grader is raising money to buy bulletproof vests for which special members of the police force?

A: The Hillsborough County police dogs.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: The Las Vegas murder of Ted Binion has all the components of a B-movie crime story: the topless dancer accused of the crime and the truck driving lover and the dead casino boss.

Jeff, what's the interest like in Las Vegas about this trial? It seems like it has all the elements to make a -- an incredible drama.

GERMAN: It really does, I mean, it has, what, love, betrayal, sex, gambling, of course, the allegation of murder, buried treasure, all in the backdrop of one of the most glamorous cities in the world.

But in Las Vegas in particular, this trial has been incredible in terms of public interest. It's being televised live continuously. Every pre-trial proceeding was televised live. There's an immense amount of interest in this case primarily because of the Binion family's name, which is well-known, but also because of this plot.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what, Jeff, with all due respect, Las Vegas, I hear is a wild city, I'll take Paris as being a -- more glamorous. But anyway, let me turn to the corner and send it to you Pam...

COSSACK: You snob, you.

VAN SUSTEREN: Anyway, that was the only thing I took issue with. Pam, the decedent here is a man who has a history of drug abuse, he seems to have had everything, money, you know, the world, and this is where he ended up: with heroin addiction.

How much of a problem is it for a prosecutor when the decedent isn't a particularly attractive character for the jury?

STUART: Well, it's a problem, but the jury eventually comes around to sympathize with the person who has had their life taken away from them. And they want to find out who did it and that's -- that's going to be the driving force.

VAN SUSTEREN: What if he beats his girlfriend? What if the evidence, and John has made some reference to that, what if the evidence comes out that he's also beat his girlfriend even though this isn't self-defense?

STUART: Well, that's more of a problem because it's the same girlfriend that is defended in the case and then you have to worry about the sort of, what we used to call in my old office, the who cares factor, if the decedent is really an unattractive person.

VAN SUSTEREN: Still doesn't deserve to die by the hands of -- murder but nonetheless...

STUART: Exactly, and that's the argument that's made. But you worry that jurors might take that into account and give the defendant the benefit of the doubt they shouldn't have.

COSSACK: John, one of the hardest decisions any lawyer can make is whether or not to put your client on the witness stand. You know and I know, and certainly Greta knows, that oftentimes those juries want to hear your witness get up and say -- or your client get up and say: Look, I didn't do this.

You made any decisions?

MOMOT: Well, this is a major decision that we are going to be faced with. Sandy is very articulate and intelligent and she's always worked very diligently with us in preparing this case. But I haven't made that decision yet.

You know, keep in mind, you know, we deal about the demise of Mr. Binion. You know, he's the son of a legendary family and it's unfortunate. See, nobody wins in this case because Mr. Binion died of an overdose and he died of a conspiracy all right, a conspiracy between Xanax and heroin, and that was his problem, that's verified by the Gaming Control Board here where he lost his license. He was depressed.

He went and bought the 12 balloons the night before. He went the day before and got a doctor to give him a prescription for 120 Xanax tablets, and any heroin addict knows you don't mix Xanax and heroin. And that's what happened here, and there's no evidence of any forced injection...

VAN SUSTEREN: And unfortunately, we've run out of time. I'm sorry, we would still like to hear the end of this, but it's not over. But that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

COSSACK: Later today on CNN: reuniting Elian Gonzalez with his father. When will it happen and how? Phone, fax or e-mail your ideas to "TALKBACK LIVE." That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, noon Pacific.

And we'll be back Monday with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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