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Burden of Proof

Ted Binion Case: Girlfriend and Her Lover Charged with Murder

Aired May 2, 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)

DAVID ROGER, CHIEF DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: 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.

ROBERT BUCKLIN, DEPUTY MEDICAL EXAMINER, CLARK COUNTY, NEVADA: I believe Mr. Ted Binion died of an overdose of morphine and of Xanax.

BECKY BELMAN, TEN BINION'S SISTER: He would never have any kind of accidental overdose, and I know it wasn't suicide. So, like I said, I was asked, would you please treat this as a homicide until proven otherwise?

ROGER: Do you think that it would be advantageous for Ted Binion's killers to make it look like a suicide?

PAUL DOUGHERTY, CRIME SCENE RECONSTRUCTIONIST: Well, that's always a case that you have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Las Vegas gambler Ted Binion was found dead in his home in September of 1998. Drugs were found in his blood. Was it accidental or murder? A defense expert says police work at the crime scene was, quote, "incomplete."

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

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

The courtroom is dark today in the case of Las Vegas gambler Ted Binion. On trial for murder is Binion's live-in girlfriend, Sandra Murphy and her lover, Montana contractor Rick Tabish.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Binion died of a drug overdose in his home in September, 1998. Prosecutors say Binion, a longtime drug user, was forced to ingest a lethal dose of heroin and prescription antidepressants. Defense lawyers say the overdose was an accident.

VAN SUSTEREN: Yesterday on the witness stand, a defense expert testified, essentially, that the police blew the investigation. The crime scene reconstructionist said there was inadequate recording of evidence and questioned whether authorities might have lost DNA evidence.

COSSACK: Binion's death was not ruled as a homicide until weeks after his body was found.

Now, joining us today from Las Vegas is the attorney for defendant Sandra Murphy, John Momot. Also joining us from Las Vegas is Jeff German of the "Las Vegas Sun."

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us here in Washington, Niel Glansey (ph), former federal prosecutor Peter Spivack, and Allison Jacobson (ph). In our back row, Jamie Kravitz (ph) and Alena Wright (ph).

Let me go first to you, Jeff. What is the prosecution's evidence that this was a murder as opposed to an accident?

JEFF GERMAN, "LAS VEGAS SUN": Well, basically, they built up a huge circumstantial case. They have two key medical witnesses, the chief medical examiner in Clark County, Larry Sims, who's concluded that it was a -- that he died of a lethal overdose of heroin and Xanax -- a forced overdose. He's concluded that it was a homicide. They have Dr. Michael Baden, who has interpreted Dr. Sims' report on the autopsy and who has concluded that -- taken a step further and concluded that the accused killers suffocated Binion.

Beyond that, there's a number of other witnesses. They called as many as 90 witnesses throughout this trial who have talked about motive and those kinds of things in terms of leading up to the -- to corroborate the medical evidence.

COSSACK: Jeff, tell us -- backtrack a second and tell us who Sandy Murphy and Ted Binion were, and Rick Tabish. And tell us what the claimed motive for all of this was.

GERMAN: Money and greed, basically, is the motive, Roger. Ted Binion, of course, is the son of a prominent gambling figure -- legendary gambling figure in Las Vegas, Benny Binion, and who died, I believe, in 1989. He's a -- Ted Binion's a colorful figure in his own right. He's been known to have, prior to his death, to have had a heroin habit. He lost his gaming license six months prior to his death because of ties to reputed mob figures.

Sandy Murphy is someone who had been living with Binion for three years. In the three years leading up to his death, she met him at a topless nightclub in town where she was dancing briefly. And about a month after they met, she moved in with him. She's from California. She was maybe, what, 26 at the time of Binion's death.

And Rick Tabish is someone who had befriended Binion several months prior to his death. He comes from a prominent family in Missoula, Montana. He was a contractor, ran a trucking business, and ended up working his way into Binion's life and actually helped move all of this silver that has come out in -- during this -- in this trial to a rock where they buried it under ground. I think it was $6 million worth of silver bars and coins.

So that's, in nutshell, you know -- are the players.

VAN SUSTEREN: John, you heard the description of your client, Sandy Murphy. I assume since you're a defense attorney, she's your client, you might have a different view of her. Give me your description of your client.

JOHN MOMOT, ATTORNEY FOR SANDRA MURPHY: Look, this is a young girl that came from Southern California and she met Ted Binion and he took her into a different level of a lifestyle that she wasn't accustom to. And because of the amount of money that he had, the Rolls Royce, the allowance that she was given, the credit cards, it's a distorted view. It becomes a very veneer type of lifestyle, typical what can happen here in Las Vegas. This is a gambling town and you have to have a gambling mentality. And a lot of this does go on, and it's not the norm in our society.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, you describe -- I mean, the fact that Jeff says that she was a topless -- met at a topless nightclub, was a dancer there doesn't necessarily mean that she is also a murderer. But is she sort of -- does she run on the wild side?

MOMOT: No, this is a girl that was a finance manager in California at a car sales facility. She's not that at all. What she did do is, in this club she was selling costumes, she met Ted Binion and, yes, she did get up and dance for him topless. And what guy wouldn't like that?

COSSACK: David, but it's sort of more than that.

VAN SUSTEREN: You mean John.

COSSACK: John -- I'm sorry -- to describe it as somewhat of a -- of not being on the wild side. I mean, after all, isn't your client -- hasn't it been proven that she came from California, she had $10,000, she lost every bit of it at the gambling tables and then went on to that club and then met Ted Binion?

MOMOT: I know, Roger, but so what? Here's what the situation is that we have. We have a person who is deceased. And at that time, the estate attorney's office, 17th, came over there. There was plenty of opportunity by their -- what they had in their knowledge, especially the one lawyer, Mr. Brown. He was allegedly told the day before, hey, if I'm dead, Sandy Murphy must be involved in killing me. He's there with the police officers and doesn't tell this to the police.

Now, what happens after that is the police released the scene to the estate security, and then after that we have total contamination. And because of that, we don't have valuable evidence which is lost. And of course, naturally, it's the defense problem and it's our fault.

Now, what we have here is a drug overdose. Now, whether you want to consider that accidental or intentional on his own part, that's up to the jury to decide. There's nothing shown in the evidence that anything was forced down Mr. Binion's throat. And that's the status of this case.

So whether she's a topless dancer, whether she's car salesman, whatever, what difference does it make?

COSSACK: Well, Jeff, that isn't what Dr. Baden testified to, is it? I mean, didn't he say that, in fact, he believed that there was evidence to show that things were forced down Binion's throat?

GERMAN: Well, not necessarily that they were forced down his throat, but he is -- from viewing the photos of the autopsy and tissue samples, he determined that there were blood vessels that were -- that had burst under his eyes, eyelids. There were -- some of the marks on his body, on his chest and on his wrists were indication of a struggle and indication that he was suffocated in the struggle. So he's interpreted it in, that you know, in that regard.

One thing I neglected to mention earlier, Roger, is that a key part of this story is that Tabish and Murphy became lovers prior to Binion's death. They were carrying on a romantic relationship. They both, if you believe prosecutors, had a financial motive to kill Binion. Murphy stood to get more money if he died. She was in his will and she was going to inherit some things. Tabish was in all kinds of financial trouble, according to prosecutors. And so they did have a motive. They were romantically involved, and.that's all part of this mix as well.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next, the defense is on the offense. Find out why when we come back.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

An investigator who probed the federal government's actions at the Branch Davidians compound near Waco, Texas was found dead in his office Friday. The body of Carlos Ghigliotti (of Infrared Technology) was taken to a Maryland state medical examiner for autopsy. Police say they found no evidence of a break-in.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: you can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide 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. 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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID ROGER, CHIEF DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Sandra Murphy led a pretty good life when she lived with Ted Binion, and I'm not suggesting that it's always a day at the beach living with a drug addict, but she had many material items. MOMOT: That's what happens when you love your drugs more than your woman. You don't take care of your women 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)

COSSACK: The investigation of Ted Binion's death exposes the excesses of Las Vegas: drugs, money and sex. But was the high-profile gambler murdered? Sandra Murphy's attorney says, no.

John, your defenses should be starting, in fact, you should be in the middle or at least partway through your defense. What is your defense, and what witnesses do you intend to bring forward?

MOMOT: Well, what we are doing right now is, first of all, I relied on the state's witness, Dr. Sims, he's really my witness, he already came in with his conclusion, his opinion that the death was undetermined, meaning it was either a suicide or a drug overdose. And then, six months later, miraculously he changes it to a homicide without any kind of causal connection.

I brought in a Dr. Bucklin, and he is a forensic pathologist for 60 years. He also worked for the Clark County Coroner's Office. He has always testified for the state, so I put him on the stand, and let him tell his story, and his opinion was in accordance with Dr. Sims.

The only problem that we have is the speculation rendered by Dr. Baden who comes in and changes his theories at the last minute and can just about say anything that he wants to say on the stand. And there is nothing to support his conclusions.

VAN SUSTEREN: Peter, in most murder cases, in all murder cases, you must show the manner of death a homicide, but usually that's not a particular troubling issue. How much of a problem is it here, do you think, for a prosecutor?

PETER SPIVACK, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I think it is difficult because there is no direct evidence as to how this Ted Binion died. I mean, I think what you are concentrating on is the bursting of blood vessels in the eyes, which is usually considered a classic sign of suffocation, not of drug overdose.

VAN SUSTEREN: But don't you, in some ways, when you overdose with drugs there are instances, I suppose, let me go to you, John: Was there anything to suggest that this -- that he vomited and suffocated that way that, and that could perhaps lead to the blood vessels bursting in the eye.

MOMOT: This is a great issue because what I did yesterday, I took the autopsy photos, the Polaroids at the Coroner's Office and I blew them up, and I asked the Dr. Bucklin to show the jury where the patchiai (ph), that is what it is called patchiai, the so-called "bursting of the blood vessels in the eye," where they are in the eye. And it is not there. What you have are lines in the eye on the mucosa, which is called tash noir (ph), and that when a person is deceased and their eyes are not completely closed, and it is a dryness on the eye. Now, patchiai does not have to be just in the eye, itself, can be found in other areas of the body, and none was found in any other areas of the body.

Coincidentally, the prosecution then starts cross-examination: Well, maybe, instead of this Burke (ph) method, could it have been a pillow over his face, or all these other alternatives and theories.

VAN SUSTEREN: Peter, when you hear John, obviously we don't have the prosecutor prosecuting the case, but this is the case where it almost seems like it is going to boil down to a battle of experts. Does a prosecutor prefer a case where it is a battle of the experts or you prefer when you are sort of duking it out on the facts whether the person actually did it?

SPIVACK: Well, I think you definitely prefer the type of case where you are duking it out on the facts, I mean, you don't want to get into a battle of the experts, simply because you can get an expert to say something that sounds very reasonable and very credible, and can come to any conclusion that you want to reach. And I think it is very effective that the defense has found somebody who could come this with a different interpretation of what the prosecution has to be resting their case on in terms of the manner of death.

VAN SUSTEREN: If it is a tie, you know, if it is a tie, the defense wins because of the burden of proof.

SPIVACK: Absolutely.

COSSACK: John, let's talk about some of those other facts, though. For example, the allegations that your client had made a statement to the manicurist that Ted Binion was going to be dead in a few days. And what about the fact that her lover, admitted lover, was out digging up the silver right after Binion's death.

MOMOT: Don't forget, Roger, this woman has been living with a drug addict for a lot of years, and I guess if you don't live with somebody who is abusive, whether it is alcohol or drugs, you don't understand the real concept of what's going on in the household. And ultimately, she sought relief, and some type of consultation from Rick Tabish, and a relationship developed thereafter. And everybody made a big thing about this relationship. We admitted that right off the bat in opening statements that a relationship existed.

And as far as the silver is concerned, Ted Binion's own lawyer, Tom Standish, got up on the stand and testified that a week earlier they were in a conference with Sandy, Rick Tabish himself, and Ted. And Ted told him: Listen, if anything happens to me, I want that silver moved back over to my ranch because there was a problem with some type of title with his ex-wife on the real estate where the silver was buried. Now, that's out of his own lawyer's mouth. That's not my witness. That's their witness who says this.

VAN SUSTEREN: It is always an awful position for a defense lawyer to have so many things to have to, quote, "explain away," even if there are reasonably good explanations, but we need to take a break.

Up next, the prosecution claimed the defendants kill Ted Binion by forcing him to overdose on heroin and an antidepressant drug. Murder or accident? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: A Southern judge who gained national attention for hanging a plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom is the front-runner in what race?

A: Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Weeks after police found the body of gambling figure Ted Binion in his Las Vegas home, prosecutors charged his girlfriend and her lover with murder. The defense claims Binion accidentally killed himself.

Jeff, Ted Binion used to have a casino, why did he lose his license?

GERMAN: Well, he was a part owner of the Horseshoe Club in Las Vegas, which was well-known casino downtown. He was arrested in 1987 on a drug possession charge related to his heroin addiction, and went into a long epic battle with gaming regulators over his drug use, and ultimately it was learned that he was hanging out with some unsavory character types, people like Herbie Blitzstein, who was the right-hand man for Anthony Spilotro, who was the reputed overseer in Las Vegas for the Chicago mob. And ultimately, after gaming regulators documented those ties, his license was revoked, and that occurred in March of 1998, six months before his death.

COSSACK: Peter, let me make you the prosecutor in this case, for example. You know, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence, there is obviously experts that are testifying both ways, how do you go about prosecuting this case?

SPIVACK: Well, I think you really hit on the motive. I mean, you want to keep going back to the money factor, and the fact that Sandy Murphy stood to benefit if Binion died. The fact that Tabish was found three days later in the middle of the night I believe digging up the silver that only he and a few other people knew about.

Then I think you want to go to opportunity, the fact that Sandy Murphy was a person who knew Binion's habits, who knew his vulnerability perhaps to drug use, and who could have provided the opportunity for someone to come in and murder him in the way that the prosecution alleges happened.

VAN SUSTEREN: John, when do you think this case is likely to get to the jury?

MOMOT: This case will probably get to the jury some time next week. We are going to put on various other expert witnesses besides Dr. Bucklin, we have a renowned expert Dr. Wecht, who is going to be testifying tomorrow, we have a toxicologist coming in, we have a couple of toxicologists available to us to deal with those issues.

VAN SUSTEREN: Will your client be a witness?

MOMOT: Probably -- well, we are considering this at this time. Whether or not she is going to testify the final decision hasn't been made.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where was she at the time that he died?

MOMOT: Well, according to the telephone call from the realtor at 12:04 in the afternoon of the day of this incident, she was at home. And then afterwards, she went down to Horseshoe gaming office, and then at lunch, and then at 4:00 she returned to her house to find the decedent.

COSSACK: Where was Rick Tabish during all of this?

MOMOT: He's out working, he's not even around. So they can't even place Rick Tabish at the house, much less Sandy Murphy, and that is more of the problems that you have here.

Let's get back to one other thing...

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what, John, let me cut you off right there. We will bring you back to talk about this, but we are all out of time. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Tomorrow on BURDEN OF PROOF: cable access, the feud between Time Warner Cable and the ABC television network. That's at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time, 9:30 Pacific.

COSSACK: Join us tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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