Ohio jury convicts priest in slaying of nun 26 years ago
TOLEDO, Ohio – The Rev. Gerald Robinson cannot celebrate Mass, cannot anoint the sick and dying. That didn’t keep the retired priest from wearing his collar every day of his murder trial.That holy symbol was at odds with everything jurors convicted him of doing to a 71-year-old nun in a hospital chapel 26 years ago, on the day before Easter.Her chest riddled with stab wounds in the shape of an upside-down cross, Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found dead, with blood on her forehead as if in a mock anointing, and with her arms and legs straight in what witnesses described as ritualistic fashion.Jurors would not look at Robinson when they walked into the courtroom Thursday, after deliberations that took six hours. He showed no visible reaction to the verdict, although his family and friends gasped.Robinson had been a popular priest in this blue-collar city of about 300,000; many appreciated that he delivered some sermons in Polish and could hear confessions in that language. He had long been the prime suspect, but he ministered for more than two decades to unaware Catholics before his 2004 arrest.Robinson, 68, was immediately sentenced to the mandatory term of 15 years to life in prison and led away in handcuffs after a trial in which forensic experts matched the victim’s wounds to a distinctive, sword-shaped letter opener found in the priest’s room.Pahl was choked and then stabbed 31 times while she was preparing the Mercy Hospital chapel for Easter services on April 5, 1980. Robinson, who had worked closely with Pahl as the hospital chaplain, presided at her funeral Mass.Pahl’s nephew, Lee Pahl, said his family always had suspicions that Robinson was involved. “It was conflicting because you don’t want to believe a man of God could do something like that.”Defense attorney John Thebes said he and his client were shocked by the verdict and will appeal.Bishop Leonard Blair of the Toledo Diocese issued a statement noting that Robinson is a retired priest barred from any public ministry. “Let us hope that the conclusion of the trial will bring some measure of healing for all those affected by the case as well as for our local church,” Blair said.Police had focused their attention on Robinson within two weeks of the slaying. He admitted making up a story that someone else confessed to the murder but was not charged, and though he was transferred out of the hospital a year after the killing, he continued to serve as a priest, at three parishes and later at nursing homes and hospitals.The letter opener and a blood-stained altar cloth found in the chapel might have remained locked in a police storage room were it not for unrelated sexual abuse allegations a woman made in a letter that surfaced in December 2003. The allegations have not been substantiated, but they led authorities to revisit the killing.Investigators soon discovered that blood stains on the altar cloth seemed to match the patterns of the letter opener. Technology not available in 1980 allowed them to connect the killing with the letter opener, which had a diamond-shaped cross-section and a dime-sized medallion with an image of the U.S. Capitol.Forensic experts said the blade was used to inflict the wounds, and that the medallion appeared to be the source of a faint stain on the altar cloth.The defense countered that DNA evidence failed to link Robinson to the crime. The nun’s underwear and fingernails had traces of DNA that were probably from a man but not from Robinson, Thebes said. The priest’s attorneys also said witnesses gave conflicting accounts of Robinson’s whereabouts around the time of the slaying.Prosecutor Dean Mandros said Robinson inflicted the stab wounds in the shape of an upside-down cross, anointed Pahl with her own blood in a macabre version of the last rites and stripped off her underwear “to degrade her, to mock her, to humiliate her.”Prosecutors suggested that Robinson’s relationship with the nun was strained and had finally reached a breaking point. According to testimony, Pahl was a strict taskmaster as the caretaker of the chapel and was upset over Good Friday worship services being shortened.Since Robinson’s arrest, allegations swirled that police did not pursue the case thoroughly because the main suspect was a priest in a heavily Catholic community.”I hope this doesn’t shake the faith of millions of followers of the Catholic church,” said Tom Ross, an investigator with the prosecutor’s office who took the priest into custody. “This was just one bad person.”Vail, Colorado
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