Anatomy of Murder

A murder case has many layers: the victim, the crime, and the investigation. To truly understand it, you need to dissect each piece of a tragic puzzle. Join Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi and Scott Weinberger every Wednesday for an insider’s perspective, as they reveal to you the Anatomy of Murder.

Depths of Darkness (CJ Kunstmann)

Depths of Darkness (CJ Kunstmann)

Tue, 16 May 2023 07:00

A missing woman is found buried in a shallow grave. What happened to her will shock the conscience. And for investigators, the challenge is proving who committed the crime.

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We must warn you that today's episode contains graphic descriptions that may be disturbing or triggering to some. We will warn you as we approach those sections, but discretion is advised. I was trying to look at her lips like I'd do my son and she was wording help. They were vicious. I just helped. They were cruel. Or call for help. They inflicted all this harm for their own pleasure. What do you think she meant? They felt in control. I don't know exactly. They kind of got into a group mentality of let's all have this rage. But I know my mind if I was in her state calling for help. And this was the ultimate betrayal. You witnessed her getting lit up fire? Yeah, parts of the lit on fire. I'm Scott Weinberger, investigative journalist and former deputy sheriff. I'm Anna Sige Nikolasi, former New York City homicide prosecutor and host of investigation discoveries through conviction. And this is an out of me of murder. If there's one word that would describe today's story, it is dark. There is a sadistic quality to this crime not often seen. For today's case, we interviewed Deputy DA Denise Yokem. During my career, I've had a variety of cases, gang cases, cold cases, homicides. You name it, I've tried it. On July 15, 2011, the Riverside Sheriff's Department in San Bernardino County got a call. There were some local hikers walking by and they noticed some lakes partially sticking up from the ground. The Riverside Sheriff's Department sent a deputy out there. What they found was a partially buried body of a woman. There were signs of animal activity and worse. The body had maggots and insect activity. The body wasn't a decomposition stage. Now, detectives actually found a second grave site. It looked like a grave had been started, but not completed. And remember that fact because it will be important later in our episode. The areas surrounding the body, there wasn't a lot of houses around. There actually wasn't much at all. It was a very remote area. However, even though it was remote, it didn't mean that it wasn't frequented by a lot of people. This tree is known as the party tree. Many young people go drinking and smoking underneath that tree. So there's trash everywhere. But there are dirt roads that lead to this tree. No paved roads. It's out of the way. You have to be local to know about this tree. I could see on a scene of the remoteness of the area, why it would be a attractive place. Not only to hang out as a teen, but also, unfortunately, to dump a body. But the scene would need to be processed to determine that the location was just that. A place where a body was either discarded. Or whether the crime actually occurred there, what do you think? One of the questions always is where you find a body often equates to where a homicide occurred. But also, not always. And we know that in many cases. And here, usually when you have an area like this where someone has gone to the lengths to bury the body, at least to me, Scott, and what I've seen that usually means the homicide didn't occur there, or at least not where the body was found. Once the crime scene was set up, investigators from the coroner's office prepared the body for removal and transport. And the autopsy of that body would be the key first step in this investigation. Dr. Holt, the forensic pathologist, conducted the autopsy on July 20, 2011. And the body really told investigators so much about what had happened to this young woman. But how the body was left and how long the body may have been out there are two important keys that will come out of that autopsy. He said there was animal activity and maggots on her body. And the passage of time destroyed potential evidence. He said decomposition had taken place and her skin was slipping off her body. Once they washed the mud and the dirt off her body, they saw things like the redness that was still there. And different indicators on her skin that this young woman had been burned when she was still alive. He also noted a head injury which was consistent with blunt force trauma to the head. He said she had not eaten for several hours. She was extremely dehydrated. And when they did a toxicology, you know, looking for any drugs in her system because again, they're trying to figure out what caused her death. They did find one drug in her system, but it was an anti-seizure medication. And while the medical examiner could not give a definitive cause of death, what he was able to do is rule this, a homicide. And this is not that uncommon, right? Because she's been out there for a while. They can't really tell what. But just look at the various injuries you had signs of being burned before she was killed. You have the blunt trauma. You have other indicators of recent injury and then of course she's found buried. He said it was because she was buried and she could not have killed herself and then buried herself. So when they put that together, they can tell that it's a crime and thus equating homicide. Her fingerprints were able to help them determine her identity. Her name was Christine Johansman, but her friends called her a buyer nickname CJ. CJ was a 45 year old woman. She was single, but she had a lot of friends and her friends described her as everything from loving and kind. But all of them that were interviewed at different times talked about she was someone that was always so helpful to her friends and those in need. Since childhood, CJ suffered from petite malseizures that would temporarily cause her to slow words and also become somewhat in coherent. Some friends described her as sometimes a bit naive. There might be a slowness to what she could perceive and when. And that fed into her financial affairs so she could work, but she only worked part time and she was able to receive so security disability payments. Definitely for the seizures and how that incapacitated her times, but also maybe for something more that we don't know exactly any sort of diagnosis. But she also was given financial help from her father. Christine's dad lived in Nevada. He was the one that helped her with her finances. He actually helped her financially. But he also helped her take care of bills and make sure that she was always okay and with that they had regular communication. CJ's body was found on July 15, but her father had last heard from CJ six weeks earlier on May 30. For homicide detectives, those first six weeks are key, piecing together what happened, the who, the where. It would lead investigators to witnesses and maybe even a killer. And it all starts when the father first noticed that something was terribly wrong with CJ. He could no longer get a hold of his daughter by phone. Strange people were answering her phone. She wasn't calling him back. He began to worry. And to see it's one thing to know that the dad thought she was living alone. Now to have these people, these strange people answering the phone that he wasn't able to recognize and then asking them to have her call him. And that call never take place. Exactly because you start to wonder who are these people? Are they friends or do they actually have something to do with her disappearance? He knew this wasn't like her. He always managed her bills and talked to her every week. He became concerned and he filed a missing persons report. So the first thing investigators did was try to find friends or people that might be able to give some information about when CJ was last seen. Two of the neighbors in the apartment complex, both told police they had seen CJ on Memorial Day weekend at the apartment complex. One witness said she was wearing a hoodie and was covered in bruises. They were quickly led to an apartment that they were told that she spent a lot of time and was some of her friends. And the man that lived in the apartment was named Michael Perez. He lived there with his girlfriend and a child that they had. And he quickly told investigators that he and CJ had known each other for years. CJ had spent a fair amount of time with Michael Perez at his apartment complex, the Peppertree apartment is located in the small city called Banning. That is within Riverside County. The Peppertree apartment building is an average apartment building. Working class people live there. Young people live there. The detectives interviewed Perez. He said he had no idea where she was that she left their apartment and as far as he knew she was going to Nevada to go see her dad. And here's where the timeline gets more puzzling. As far as anyone knows, CJ was alive on May 30th. So was she then killed the next day on the 31st? The detectives ran CJ's credit cards and they got a hit. It turns out her card had been used at a gas station in the city of Banning in Riverside County. Now there are two things to note. First, the gas station is not far from where Michael Perez's apartment is and the second it was used after she was reported missing. So investigators have a couple of scenarios here. On the one hand, it's a clue that might indicate that something happened to CJ after she filled up gas. But on the other hand, it's just a credit card hit. There's no indication that it was CJ herself that physically swiped the card. So was CJ murdered and then robbed? Or maybe she was killed in a robbery gone wrong? So since Michael Perez was a name that kept coming up to investigators, he was the one that they started with. And they started to look not only at his relationship with CJ, but at the others in his life as well. So when finding out a little bit more about the man that they're speaking to, Michael Perez, they found out that he was living with this woman who he had a child with and her name was Virginia Backland. So of course they're going to speak with her too. But they also found out that he had a relationship with another woman as well who he also had a child with and her name is Desiree James. We found evidence that it was a consensual three way relationship. And you know, as far as the relationship between these three, you know, it's like whatever floats your boat, but it does play into the interpersonal dynamics between them. James had her own apartment, but spent a significant amount of time with Perez and Backland at their place. And it didn't take long on July 25th, both Backland and James were interviewed by detectives. And they all described the demeanor of these women, not only with them, but with one another as less than cordial. The two women were very obnoxious and rude with the detectives. Backland said she didn't want CJ in her apartment because she smelled an aster to leave. James told detectives she told CJ don't ever come back and see us lose our number. And this is where the investigation takes its kind of first turn and it comes through the voice of Backland. The interview backland and she says that she has no idea where Christine is. And she introduces another person that raises suspicion. We already know of four people, our victim CJ, her friend Michael Perez. The two women Perez was dating that were in his life whose last names were Backland and James. And here's number five, CJ's ex-boyfriend Troy. Backland says that possibly her boyfriend Troy hurt her and that she'd had a seizure at their house but left. Backland and James pointed the finger at Troy saying that he was abusing CJ and that he was responsible for her murder. So now it is separately and independently they're all saying the only other person they can think of is this boyfriend well dinking, dinging, of course investigators are going to have to look there. But they're also looking more closely at the relationship not only of these three people with one another but their relationship with CJ. Second time detectives interviewed Perez, he says maybe her ex-boyfriend Troy killed her because she was afraid of him. And you know when I heard that I was thinking to myself it really can only mean two things. It's absolutely the truth or it's a complete misdirect. I mean they all had an opportunity to confer with each other but you know the stories were very similar and I think police needed to look at both of those paths. And they did but all they have is a first name they have to find out who this guy is and then start to see where he was at least the time that they believe that CJ had gone missing. But as they are starting to look at the friendship between Michael and CJ they start to find out some things that really turn their heads. Now they had known each other for a while but there were indicators that the relationship was in no way equal and certainly not healthy. There may have been some mistreatment of CJ at the hands of Michael during this quote unquote friendship that they had. She had hopes that he would fall in love with her. She had been friends with him for years. They spoke to Christine's landlord and asked him when was the last time he saw Christine and he said it was in April and that she had a bruise on her eye and she was in the company of Michael Perez. So just to be clear we're not talking about bruising right at the time that CJ went missing but through the timeframe that CJ had been friends with this group. So police were thinking at that moment that that could be correlated to a domestic violence situation over a period of time. They all knew Perez was mistreating CJ and they saw the bruises on her and CJ kept saying I ran into a door. I fell down. CJ didn't want to say it was Perez but they all knew it was Perez and that he was using her. She had a car, she had money, she helped them out and so it was CJ's passion for Michael Perez that may have been driving her to spend as much time as she wanted with Perez and the other two women. So they're really are Scott these two different paths and you could really just go back and forth right I mean how many times have you heard that there is an ex who just can't let go or who comes back for revenge for one reason or another but then we're hearing these things that if true are deeply disturbing as well. Investigators did know that CJ's credit card was used on June 2nd and June 3rd and local convenience store. But it's the items that were purchased on that day that were very concerning to investigators. Mobile like wheelchair was purchased and alcohol bleach and rubber gloves. I mean unfortunately Scott it takes us down a road that we think that we kind of know where the direction of this investigation may turn. Yeah I mean if I was pulling those receipts through a warrant and I found it was a couple of bags of chips and a soda I wouldn't be as concerned but think about these items you know we have a body buried out in the desert and now we find items that were purchased weeks before her body was located and these items are something that we in our business we consider tools to potentially cover up a crime. But the question is who was it that was buying those items. They did a search warrant and they found out that it was present James who had purchased those things. So now that investigators know who purchased the items they also want to know where was CJ's car because they knew that was the transportation that she used not only did she use it for herself but she was asked to drive others around all the time including Michael the different friends that they had of this group. They all basically looked at her as the driver when they needed to go places but her car was nowhere to be found detectives create a flyer information about CJ and they put a photo on that flyer of CJ. The detectives left the flyers on various car windows in the apartment complex of Perez back London James. A witness said they saw a female removing the flyers from the windshield clearly someone didn't want people coming to police with more information about what they knew but the real first development now in the case would have to do with the recovery as you said at a seeker of CJ's car. The car was found about a quarter of a mile away from the apartments but when they found her car it led them somewhere but not where they had expected because the back windshield is smashed there still items there but then they're led to other people that they had never heard from before that had tried to use some of CJ's property including her registration to try to register her car in their name. What was interesting is someone had broken into the car smashed the window they had left CJ's person credit cards in the car and the car keys. Scott the question is was this a crime of opportunity or do these two have something more to hide. We've seen this movie before another homicide investigations where a vehicle which is tied to a victim of a crime is left or is taken by the defendant and left somewhere only to be broken in because it's a city mayor and no one seems to be recovering it and all of a sudden we've got fresh prints in that car and we've got evidence in that car. You know and you're thinking well this is connected to the person who killed by victim and that always is an unfortunate part of an investigation which takes you down a road but you really don't go because it's not connected and that's exactly what happened in this case. Another guy comes and breaks into the car and his girlfriend takes the purse they interviewed him and determined they had no idea who CJ was and that they had never met her or seen her or you she had been murdered. They were trying to sell the car to get money and they were trying to use her credit cards to buy things. And so while they closed that loop next they moved on to trying to find the ex boyfriend. Investigators already knew that they would need to locate and question the ex boyfriend Troy. CJ's family told them that they believe that she had not seen Troy in quite some time but investigators still wanted to find out for themselves if her ex could actually be involved. Troy told the detectives he had not seen CJ in over 20 years. They were able to confirm his alibi that he lived nowhere near CJ and CJ's family said they were not aware of CJ having any contact with Troy. So while investigators have these interesting question marks they're all leading to brick walls. The people who had taken things from her car boom nothing to do with the murder the boyfriend boom not involved in her murder. So now they're left with that receipt and these items that certainly seemed like somebody was up to no good. And when they looked at those items the people that had gone and purchased them Perez, backland and James. Now while that's going to put them right at the top of investigator suspect list it's very far from being enough to make an arrest. But the frustrations in this case were not going to stop there because something really unfortunate happened soon afterwards. Tragically the lead detective died in a car crash unrelated to his work. So other detectives had to pick it up. It really threw the case in a holding pattern and there's so many other murders going on they're just jumping from murder to murder. As you know all too well and I see getting a case reassigned happens all the time. And in most instances it's one investigator being promoted or moving into a different assignment or even retiring. Then there are those few cases where unfortunately a member of the service passes away. But anytime a new investigator catches a case it's a matter of getting read into the file and then to begin to determine how he or she is going to handle moving the ball forward at the time that they actually take full possession of that investigation. And while we don't exactly know all the moving parts to what happened here the case unfortunately did sit and we're not talking for just months. CJ's murder became a cold case and did not advance at all for four years. But then out of nowhere a call comes in from someone the police would never expect. And she told police that she witnessed the murder of CJ Kuntzman. You don't just have someone calling to say that they witnessed the homicide you have Virginia backland one of the two people who together with Michael Perez was known to have bought the items remember bleach gloves rubbing alcohol a wheelchair. And now she's calling after years have gone by. You know we always talk about how case goes cold because of a lack of evidence witnesses even sometimes resources the case can sit for decades but in sometimes time is a positive factor and here's what I mean. People who may have had a reluctancy to come forward at the time of the murder may have a change of heart years later and they could break a case wide open. And that also relates to potential accomplices or co-defendants. And it often comes down to one of two reasons a relationship may have changed where someone may have been close to someone and now they're not or something else happens if they feel more free to speak or it also happens that someone finds himself in trouble and uses their information almost as a bargaining chip and in this case both those things were at play. Backland contacts the police she's no longer living with Perez and James she's now moved on to a new relationship. However child protective services is threatening to take her new child away so she decides if she contacts the police and lets them know about a murder maybe child protective services will be easy on her. And backland had a story to tell she had firsthand knowledge about who murdered CJ. She said that CJ was in their bathtub in the bathroom being tortured by Perez and James. She did admit to some involvement in helping that happen. She also told detectives something they didn't know which was CJ was beat near the oak tree three days before she died. Two other people could also add something to the story and their names were Tabatha and Natasha. They were two friends of Perez. They have a lot of names here but really what we need to focus on this we know that CJ is the victim we're talking about Perez, James and backland. It's Michael Perez with the two women in his life James and backland then you have these two other women friends of theirs Natasha and Tabatha. So basically the story that they're told is that all five of these people had been out there with CJ by the oak tree and that they had taken turns hitting her while they were out there. And here's one of those moments that once again we want to give our listeners a warning about the brutality that you're about to hear. After they did that they all left the oak tree CJ left with James Perez and backland in her car. They made her drive them back in that same car back to the apartment and the abuse continued from there. They started yelling at her and hitting her more. They placed CJ in the tub poured scalding hot water in her. This is the voice of Virginia backland and some of her conversation with police. You witnessed her getting lit on fire? Yeah, parts of the lit on fire. We have to stop here for a moment. We are talking about what was done to another human being. And while all of this actually happened we are going to skip some of the most graphic portions suffice it to say beyond the things that we have and will talk about. CJ was also denigrated in ways we don't want to report. They start to do things like that waterboarding treatments that torture you have heard about in the movies and that happened sometimes at war. Then they just kept hitting her and wouldn't let her get out of the bathtub. This really is mob mentality feeding off of one another in the cruelest of ways. Backland held a knife to her throat and over a course of three or more days she started to die slowly. Every day just losing consciousness and going downhill. So I was trying to look at her lips like I do my son and she was wording help. Like just help or call for help or get some help. What would you think she meant? I don't know exactly but I know more maybe thinking in my mind if I was in her state calling for help. And they wiped CJ's body down with rubbing alcohol because they watched CSI and they knew they had to get rid of the evidence. It's just it's inhumane. Even repeating what happened here is completely sickening. So let me step back for one second in the midst of this evil torture and remind us all that these people were her friends. She went out of her way to do things for them. Gave them money, bought them food, drove them where they wanted to go. You know we've said this before. Loved to be loved, want to be loved. This is how they ended her life. Over three days this is the treatment that she received. You know all of this there is just one word that keeps coming to mind and that is sadistic right? Sadism it's like driving pleasure from inflicting pain and humiliation on somebody else. And each one of these acts that they are committing against this defenseless woman is just inhumane but it's going on until she finally loses that final consciousness and likely dies. You know how to say it as you know in some cases we have an assault which happens within a matter of seconds. And sometimes in those cases a defendant would say it was in the heat of passion or it was a split second mistake. That doesn't make them any less responsible for their actions but in this case to have her in the tub for days without getting her help. I think it says a lot about the people who are responsible for these despicable acts and in my opinion how the judicial system should treat them. Well I don't even think it wasn't just getting her help. They were continuing the abuse and the torture for days and when she would cry or when she would be allowed or anything they would come back and inflict some more pain. I haven't seen many cases like this before I have handled ones unfortunately just like it which is just sickening to me that there are like-minded people in the world like this. But you know this is right now a story being told an investigators can't rely on just the words of one person because remember she comes to them because she is in her own trouble. She's no longer in a relationship with Perez additionally she is having child protective services threatened to take her child away. So police need to go out and see if they can corroborate these words. They were shocked but they also felt backlin had more to do with it than she said they thought she was minimizing her involvement. So the next step was the detectors looked for Natasha and Tabitha because they've never heard of these two people. The investigators also decided that it was time to contact Denise at the district attorney's office. Even if I have these confessions it's not going to be enough I have to have something else. I have to have some other evidence. And investigators did ultimately track down Tabitha she wanted no part of them at least in the beginning but then slowly that changed. She finally came forward and told them exactly what she had seen. Tabitha said she never met CJ before but CJ was nice enough to give her a ride as she was the only one who had a car and the only one who had money within that group. Tabitha needed to ride home from work that day and Perez ordered CJ to pick her up from the job and it was during that ride home. Tabitha claimed that CJ was driving a ratic, running a stop sign which really upset Tabitha. So when she arrived at Perez's apartment she told Perez CJ just ran a stop sign so they decided as a group they were going to take her to the oak tree and beat her for doing that. This as is motive for murder and torture you know when I did a little more digging and reading into the case it did sound like one of the children of one of these women was in the car. But again remember first of all we're talking about someone who has an issue with seizures but regardless even if she went through the stop sign there was nothing that any of them said to make them think that she was purposely putting any of them in harm's way. So Tabitha told the investigators that she had mentioned to Perez that she thought that CJ was putting her life in danger by driving recklessly was because CJ may have been jealous with any woman that Perez may have been hanging around with and was her way of getting back but either way that was the very reason that four women and Michael Perez decided to go to that lone oak tree and take it out on CJ. And as nonsensical as that reasoning is for any of us Tabitha's story still was not over. Tabitha actually went to the apartment building a couple days after the beat down at the oak tree and wanted to use their bathroom and they tried to stop her from going into the bathroom and she saw James walk out of the bathroom and walked right past her went into the bathroom close to the door. And then all of a sudden she heard moaning and she pulled back the shower curtain and saw CJ in the bathtub. Tabitha has admitted to investigators that she was well aware of what CJ's condition was in that bathtub but she chose not to dial 911 and not to get CJ help. And this is one of those things that always jurors just or anyone just it's very hard to wrap their head around why which he not have called the police. So just if we take ourself out of this particular story for a moment while the reasons are often things like self preservation it could just be straight callousness it can be fear. And investigators don't know enough to know yet what's at play here but they do know that armed with this new information it's time to bring Perez and James back to the precinct and sit them down again. The question really would be who would be the first one to admit their involvement and what likely led to the death of CJ those interviews were recorded and we have them here for you. How are you going to know? The audio quality is not great but certain sections are better than others. And during the conversation with Michael Perez, investigators wanted to know more about this waterboarding about how he did it. So where would you put the right? You know, and then what would you do for the water? And put a water where I'm talking from now? James admits to participating in the murder of CJ separately and Perez admits to participating in the murder of CJ separately. It really seems that it's Perez who is the driving force in all this. Perez told investigators that he was well aware of CJ's affection for him. He called it a fatal attraction. He returned those feelings with emotional and physical abuse. He called her the perfect wife who supported him financially, providing him and his girlfriends with cell phones, clothes, food, cigarettes, jewelry, and anything else they wanted. It was a story actually that I read in one of the reports that at some point remember CJ was always wanting to take care of others. That she had asked her dad who was pretty crafty if he would build a storage dresser so that she could give it to Perez for a baby that he had recently had. And her dad did. And so CJ gave Perez this dresser that she had painted blue because she wanted to have it for his new son. And it really talks about the heart that this woman had. They all took advantage of a very vulnerable person. All she really wanted to be was to be loved. And here's where investigators did something interesting, something I haven't seen before. Detectives then put them both in the same room and they cooperated their stories. I can imagine the phone call to you at Asiga after going through this interview with both in one room and trying to explain to a prosecutor. I'm like wait, what did you do? Yeah, I mean, trying to understand the tactic and you know, and certainly we weren't there and I'm not judging anybody based on the decision that they made. But it's an interesting tactic to take if it works. I'm not sure, but it's interesting. So it's really like why would they do that? It's very interesting because you cannot use what one defendant says against another, which is why we very often have to have separate trials or multiple juries in one case because you can't use what they say against each other. And that really comes down to the right of confrontation without going deep into the legal rabbit hole. Just think about it, you know, they are there on trial. You have the right to remain silent. You don't have to put on any defense, but you're kind of confronted with someone else's words. So what investigators did is like, hey, we could think of a workaround for this. If these guys are willing to be together in the same room and talk to us, well, now they're together. They can answer with the other saying they can deny it. They can correct it. They can say, yes, that's what happened. And that's exactly what they did. So now they had in a way this gift that they could put this conversation between these two people in front of that same jury. James and Perez for the most part agreed on all of the acts of torture that happened to CJ, but there were a few times where they disagreed about it. James said that he had used lighter fluid on CJ and Perez said, no, it was rubbing alcohol. James said she didn't feel like she could leave and Perez told her why the door was unlocked. You could have left whenever you wanted to. They had a couple of differences and argued about it, but ultimately they both admitted that the three of them tortured and murdered CJ. Remember earlier in the show, I talked about the fact that a second grave had been discovered and that would be an important fact within this story. Well, here you go. When James finally confesses, she says they tried to dig a grave near the tree, but the ground was too hard. So they had to move closer to the tree where the ground was softer. Scott, when I heard this piece, this is the key to the case and that's how I would start my summation is that this shallow hole near the tree, not the one that CJ was found buried in, but this one that was just this dirt moved around on the ground. Well, that's how you know that all of what they're saying is what actually happened. That was never put out in the press. That was nothing that someone would have known but for being out there. But investigators knew it was true because they had been out there processing this crime scene. So it is one of these things that in and of itself, well, in case she wasn't buried there, why doesn't matter. Well, it means everything because it shows the knowledge that only someone that was actually there would have. I didn't have any physical evidence. I didn't have any DNA evidence. And in court, you can't just have a confession. You need other things to cooperate. What a suspect says. After they had spoken to investigators and made these unbelievably sickening albeit admission statements, Perez, James and backland were arrested and charged with the torture and murder of CJ consman. They were charged with murder and torture and the special allegation of life without parole. So that special allegation is really just special circumstances. What it means is that there is something else going on with the crime that changes or ups the level of charges or impacts sentencing in some way. The first task for Diddy's was to contact CJ's parents to notify them to review the case and discuss the charges and potentially a sentence. CJ's mom and dad were no longer together, so I had to call them each separately. I spoke to them about seeking life without parole or the death penalty. I thought that they deserved life without parole. They tortured CJ for days. And then they did everything they could to cover up their crimes. And the torture of CJ was horrific. I've never seen anything so dark. CJ's mom was against the death penalty as well as her sister. They felt that life without parole would be enough. CJ's father said it was up to the district attorney's office and he didn't want to give any input as far as charges and sentencing. Denise is a seasoned veteran prosecutor who has handled many a difficult case. But this one, the depravity of what happened to CJ probably rises near the top. Somebody has to speak for victims and I chose to speak for CJ. She did not deserve any of this inflection of hits, burns, waterboarding, the vulgarity of the things they were doing to her were shocking. Denise ultimately did multiple trials here because while there are three people going to trial for CJ's murder, remember you have different statements and backland had her own trial. Remember she's not part of the statements when you had James and Perez together in the same room. So Perez and James were tried jointly. But at both trials, each woman, Beckland and her own and James and hers both testified. Beckland testified that she was a victim of domestic violence and she went along with everything because she was afraid Perez would kill her. I cross examined her and asked her about her background in the military because she had been in the Army reserves. I asked her about all the training she received in regards to medical aid, treating burn victims, giving CPR and she admitted she had taken all those classes but didn't use them. Most experts will ultimately come out on that even with abuse and control that doesn't excuse certainly not legally the conduct of taking part in these acts. She hired a domestic violence expert to come testify about her IQ and about the effects of domestic violence on people and how they react differently than other people. How if it all would it move jurors? I mean, me as just a human being, even as a prosecutor like yes, I can have empathy for that even the person sitting in the defendant chair, but that doesn't equal an excuse or defense under the law based on everything that was seen. At Perez and James trial, Tabitha testified for the prosecution and had a few things to add. Unfortunately, Tabitha had testified the door was unlocked to the apartment. The door to the bathroom was unlocked. Tabitha said, neither backland or James had any injuries on them. She said they were acting like nothing was going on. She said they didn't ask her for help. She said they could have easily left the apartment. Denise did ask the question that was undoubtedly on everyone's mind. Why didn't she call the police? When she testified at trial, I asked her, why didn't you call 911? Why didn't you get help? And she said that she regretted not doing that and that she had told all three defendants you need to get her help as she left the apartment. And then she said she heard sirens in the background, so she just assumed they got help for CJ. And interestingly, there is no requirement under the law to call the police. I've had cases that they've actually tried to instill legislation because people saw things as similar as you can to this. You know, just horrific state of human beings that are still alive and people don't call the police for fear, or callousness, whatever the police would be. And people just say, no, you have to call. But there are constitutional issues and all sorts of issues, why you can't require people to take this action. So it really comes down to more of an ethical moral obligation, but not legal. Just based on the nature of CJ's injuries, it would be difficult for any jury to comprehend and for any prosecutor or member of law enforcement to work from crime scene to completion. But certainly for Denise, the nature descriptions of the photographs, the testimony, it all was a concern for her when it came to the jury. And when it got to their hands, how would they be able to process all of it? Not once, but twice. I had to tell a jury about the depth of darkness of these three defendants. They were vicious, they were cruel. In my opinion, they inflicted all this harm on CJ for their own pleasure. They felt in control. They felt like they could contain her in this bathtub and do whatever they want to her. And clearly based on the trial itself, it was difficult for all of them to hear not just the jury, but the court staff, the parties being the attorneys, and even the judge. The judge during the whole trial kept taking breaks. It was tough for him, it was tough for the court staff and the jury. It was so heavy. And the judge said that he's like, this is just so heavy, we have to take breaks. This is just a lot. It's so difficult to imagine as a juror having to sit through for days, going through these types of materials, seeing some of the photographs, the testimony, the interrogation audio with the defendants themselves. It weighs heavily on anyone who's not used to seeing specifically these type of details and talking about the injuries and really seeing the way CJ lost her life over a period of three days. It's just heartbreaking. In her closing statements, Denise asked out loud, why would anyone, these defendants torture and kill CJ over perceived poor driving? It's what I kept saying in my closing argument, just don't get in the car. If you think she's a bad driver, you don't get in the car, you don't torture and killer. The intention was always to kill her because the oak tree CJ was told this is where you're going to get buried. Perez and James were found guilty. Backleham was also found guilty of first degree murder and torture. In unusual move, the jury went to the sentencing. Some of the jurors showed up and they told me they wanted to see the case all the way through. They told me that they felt so bad for CJ because of all the pain inflicted on her and they were shocked that the three defendants would do something like this to anyone. They were so moved by this case that some of them went to the oak tree after the verdict because they wanted to see where CJ spent her time being buried before she was discovered. They also said some prayers for her at that oak tree. I was pretty moved when I read that honestly. I mean, we know that jury is a civil duty, but to sit through that case, all of the emotions involved and wanting to see what happens at sentencing is pretty honorable. At the sentencing, CJ's friends made victim impact statements and they weren't the only ones. So while they were giving their impact statements, they were struggling. Every single one of her friends got up there and felt like they should have done more to protect CJ. They felt they could have stopped the smurger if they had done more for CJ. And the judge addressed all of the friends and said, look, we're never going to know why they did this because there is no reason why. This is the most heinous crime I've seen in my 25 years of practicing criminal law and there is no human reason for the evil that was conducted in this case. I've never seen such horrific acts done on such a victim who was so innocent before. It was quite clear throughout all of the testimony that all three defendants participated in a horrific act of torture toward someone who did nothing but want to be around them. He said, no one could have predicted this because no one expected CJ to be treated this horribly. Tune in next week for another new episode of Anatomy of Murder. Anatomy of Murder is an audio chuck original produced and created by Weinberger Media and for City Media, Ashley Flowers is executive producer. So, what do you think Chuck, do you approve?