Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne, standing, presents his case to the jury in the Cara Lee Rintala murder trial on Thursday, March 7, 2013. Seated are Rintala's lawyers, David Hoose, right, and Luke Ryan, left. SARAH CROSBY
NORTHAMPTON — The question of whether Cara Lee Rintala ended her wife’s life on the basement floor of their Granby home is now in the hands of a jury.
Jury deliberations in the trial of Cara Rintala, accused of the strangulation death of Annamarie Cochrane Rintala, began Thursday afternoon following closing statements from the defense and prosecution. Testimony in the trial began Feb. 20.
Rintala’s lawyer told jurors Thursday that his client is the victim of an investigation that presumed her guilt from the start, while the prosecutor said investigators followed evidence where it led and that Rintala pointed the finger of blame squarely at herself.
Cara Rintala has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the death of Annamarie Rintala, March 29, 2010.
Defense attorney David Hoose reminded jurors that the state has the burden of establishing Cara Rintala’s guilt.
“I don’t have anything to prove in this case,” he said.
Hoose claimed investigators decided shortly after finding Cara Rintala in the basement, cradling her wife’s lifeless, paint- and blood-spattered body, that she was guilty of murder. He said investigators clung to this belief at the expense of pursuing other leads, and their presumption of Cara Rintala’s guilt influenced the quality of the entire investigation.
Hoose said officers heading to the scene after a 911 call were incorrectly informed they were responding to a domestic disturbance. He said that presumption caused investigators to overlook and misunderstand things at the scene.
Hoose asked jurors to consider whether, while police were collecting Cara Rintala’s clothes, jewelry and other items as evidence and interviewing her the night of her wife’s death, she was “treated like a spouse who had lost a loved one, or treated like someone who murdered her spouse?”
Hoose said the tenor of the investigation was set early in Cara Rintala’s police interview the night of her wife’s death, when she was told by a state police detective that she “understood there was a history of domestic violence” in the relationship.
Hoose spent about half of his hourlong statement asking jurors to consider why other potential suspects in Annamarie Rintala’s killing weren’t interviewed or more closely scrutinized.
Among others, Hoose said, a close friend of Annamarie Rintala’s, Mark Oleksak, wasn’t considered a suspect though he lied to police twice about where he was the day of the killing.
Annamarie Rintala successfully kept the relationship between her and Oleksak secret from her wife, Hoose said.
“Mark Oleksak can account for his time (the day of the killing) less than Cara Rintala can,” Hoose said.
Only about two years after Annamarie Rintala’s death did investigators try to obtain phone and bank records from Oleksak to try to confirm his whereabouts the day of the slaying, Hoose said.
By the time that was done, most of the records were unavailable save for a receipt that showed a purchase of cat box filler from a supermarket and a $7 pair of fleece pants from a Wal-Mart.
“Were his pants dirty? Did he ruin them? We don’t know,” Hoose said.
Oleksak, Hoose said, had at least as much of a motive to kill as Cara Rintala. Oleksak allegedly opened a credit card for Annamarie Rintala with about a $7,000 balance and had lent her $370 for the purchase of a puppy and dog crate, neither of which were ever purchased. He suggested Annamarie Rintala’s poor financial discipline could have drawn the ire of someone she owed money to and that may have been a motive to rob or harm her.
“Some people don’t want to wait to be paid back,” he said.
Oleksak’s alleged odd behavior following Annamarie Rintala’s death — including using, about eight months after her death, a sleeping bag that belonged to her — triggered further scrutiny from state police investigators, but he was eventually cleared as a suspect.
Hoose said despite claims of “thousands” of photos taken at the home by investigators, none of them thought to photograph or collect items that may have pointed to a break-in and robbery, including an empty purse, a portable safe and jewelry boxes. Despite testimony from several witnesses that Annamarie liked jewelry and gadgets, none of those were found in the house.
Hoose also disputed what he called the prosecution’s attempts to portray the relationship between the two as constant “combat.”
Hoose dismissed the notion there was anything suspicious about a period of non-activity on Annamarie Rintala’s cellphone after a call was placed to her aunt about 12:21 p.m. the day of her death. Likewise, he said, there shouldn’t be any inference from Cara Rintala’s phone being silent during the afternoon of her wife’s death, because she left the house with their 2½-year-old daughter to allow Annamarie to get some sleep.
Hoose said Cara Rintala’s actions after coming home about 7:10 p.m. and finding her wife’s body at the base of the basement steps were rational and proper.
If she murdered her wife, calmly cleaned up the scene, left the house, took their daughter shopping, bought groceries, returned to the house, covered herself in her wife’s blood and poured paint onto the body and floor then sat down under the body and began crying, Hoose said, “That is an Academy Award performance.”
Hoose said Cara Rintala did not have a mark on her where blood would come from and a trickle of blood from her nose, spotted by a paramedic who responded, was so insignificant that the paramedic didn’t even make note of it in his initial report.
“The commonwealth never loses if justice is done,” Hoose concluded. “Justice in this case is to find my client not guilty.”
First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne told the jury the evidence in the case led investigators directly to Cara Rintala. He denied that they presumed her guilt.
“The only person who could have done this is sitting right there,” Gagne said. “Cara Lee Rintala is guilty of murder not because I say so, but because the evidence says so.”
As for Hoose’s contention that Oleksak was another likely suspect, Gagne said his whereabouts were accounted for, he had no motive and would have no reason to know that Annamarie Rintala was home alone that day.
He said while some of the evidence in the case is admittedly circumstantial, circumstantial evidence can support a guilty verdict.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt “does not mean proof beyond all possible doubt,” said Gagne. “It’s a standard we don’t fear.”
Gagne also said Cara Rintala brought suspicion on herself when she told police shortly after they had arrived at the home — before it had been declared a crime scene or there had been any talk of homicide — that she understood she was “the No. 1 suspect.”
Gagne said Cara Rintala spent about two-thirds of her 2½ hour police interview discussing stress at home, including financial burdens and feeling “bullied” in her own home.
Cara Rintala referenced the argument the two women had the night before her wife died and told investigators that the two were still “tit for tat” in the doorway when she left the house that day.
He said that investigators had been dealt a hand of cards but that Cara Rintala had “shuffled the deck” by attempting to clean up the crime scene and later contaminating it to cover up any remaining evidence.
In terms of motive, Gagne said Cara Rintala never got over alleged attempts by her wife to get sole custody of their daughter Brianna during a tumultuous relationship.
Gagne told jurors Cara Rintala made some “fatal mistakes” in attempting to cover up her involvement in the killing. Cara Rintala told investigators she left the house about 3 p.m. with Brianna. She returned about 7:12 and found the body in the basement before going to a neighbor’s house to have them watch the child and the family dog and call 911.
Gagne said text messages and calls from Cara Rintala to her wife in the intervening time were an attempt to create a “digital alibi” describing the route shes was driving, where she had come from and where she was going next. Despite telling investigators that she left the house about 3 p.m., he said, she sent six text messages and left four voicemail messages beginning about 90 minutes later.
Gagne said Cara Rintala poured paint on her wife’s body and the basement floor in a “last-ditch effort” to compromise the scene before police arrived after the 911 call. Despite estimates that Annamarie Rintala had been dead for several hours, the paint poured on her and the floor was still wet when police and paramedics arrived.
Gagne said the apparent cleanup efforts made in the basement also point to Cara Rintala as her wife’s killer.
“Only one person would take that risk,” he said.
Minor damage outside the home suggests there was no real attempt to break in, he said.
Gagne said evidence suggested that Annamarie Rintala was alive but likely dazed or unconscious when the strangulation began, making it difficult, if not impossible, for her to fight back.
“When all of the dots are connected,” Gagne said, “we have to come to the conclusion that this woman sitting right there committed murder.”
Defense’s last witness
Before closing arguments, Hoose called medical examiner Dr. Elizabet Laposata as the defense’s final witness.
Laposata, who disclosed she was being paid $400 per hour by the defense team for her services, was called to provide an estimate of Annamarie Rintala’s time of death.
A state medical examiner testified for the prosecution earlier in the trial that Annamarie Rintala died 6 to 8 hours or more before police arrived at the home.
Laposata said, based on her experience and the information she reviewed — including descriptions of the body’s stiffness and photos showing its condition and the amount of blood pooling — that Annamaire Rintala likely died 2 to 4 hours before being discovered.
Under cross examination by Gagne, Laposata changed her estimate to 4 to 8 hours.
Before court recessed for the day, 12 deliberating jurors were chosen from the 16 who heard evidence in the case. The remaining four will serve as alternates in the event that any of the 12 deliberating jurors — seven men and five women — cannot complete their service.
Judge Mary-Lou Rup finished giving the jury instructions about 4:15 p.m. Thursday. Jurors then deliberated for about 45 minutes before Rup dismissed them for the day.
Deliberations are scheduled to resume today at 9 a.m.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.