Convicted murderer James Biela maintains his innocence

Courtroom sketch artist David Tscheekar drew this sketch of James Biela’s appeal hearing on July 11.

Courtroom sketch artist David Tscheekar drew this sketch of James Biela’s appeal hearing on July 11.

Illustration/david tscheekar

Column note

Entirely by accident, I came across a website, “Exonerating Jimmy,” dedicated to exonerating James Biela. Everyone knew he was guilty. They had his DNA. The website, which appeared to be managed by his sister, said otherwise. Apparently everyone but his sister knew he was guilty.

It could only be some glitch. Some evolutionary defense mechanism that could cause those who love him to be unable to see the obvious—that in 2007 and 2008, he stalked and attacked three or four young women, raped three of them and killed one—that he was, to put it simply, a monster.

The disappearance—later found to be the murder—of Brianna Denison put the city of Reno on edge for six weeks. On January 21, 2008, while back in her hometown, Reno, on vacation from college in Santa Barbara, Denison disappeared from a friend’s house near the University of Nevada, Reno. Less publicized were the attacks on Taiwanese exchange student Emma C. that occurred five weeks earlier, an attack—apparently an aborted rape attempt—on UNR student Anna P. a month before that, and the rape of Amanda Collins three weeks before that.

Prior to the trial, news agencies reported that Biela’s DNA had been matched to three of those crimes—all but the attack against Collins. Collins didn’t report her attack until two months after it occurred, so no DNA had been recovered in that case.

Biela was charged with all four of these attacks, and, with the exception of charges related to the attack on Anna P., which were inexplicably dropped, was convicted on all counts and sentenced to death.

Because of the death sentence, the case was subject to mandatory appeal by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court’s written decision, in which it denied all the claims brought by Biela’s counsel, could be called perfunctory. One hopes judges always do their jobs with diligence, but the tone of the decision gave the impression they found the grounds brought unworthy of serious consideration.

So despite DNA evidence and no hint of uncertainty on the part of the supreme court, Biela, and apparently his sister, still were attempting to convince the world of his innocence. And he was working with considerable diligence.

Biela initially filed his own 200-page petition, back in December of 2012, burying himself in documents in the process.

I sent an email to the contact on the website in March 2014. Only a few hours later, I was contacted by Biela’s sister, Kim Eastman, who asked for details on what exactly my intentions were. I explained I was a journalism student hoping to do a documentary on her efforts to exonerate him. After exchanging emails over the course of a week, she passed my address on to her brother. I soon received a letter from him, and over the course of the next two years we regularly exchanged letters and spoke on the phone about 10 times.

“I have 700 police reports, then I have the Secret Witness tips,” Biela told me. “So I have thousands and thousands of pages of random garbage. But some of it is pretty interesting.”

Some of what he found is bizarre. For someone widely considered a monster, some of it seems to genuinely shock him.

“When Miss Denison was gone, and they were sending out search parties, they found a human skull. It wasn’t hers, but you never heard anything about that. And I find that to be strange. I mean, whose fucking head was that? … Kind of weird. Then they call me weird.”

The surprising thing is, though, he doesn’t seem weird—nervous, frustrated, occasionally angry, but not weird. In fact, he was friendly and funny. He didn’t resemble the descriptions of sociopaths I had read: cold, self-absorbed, free of shame. He was none of those things. He just seemed … normal.

Eastman, Biela’s sister, is also unable to reconcile the brother that she knew with the murderous rapist he was accused of being.

“I don’t remember him ever being violent, and as a kid, the role he played in our family was the funny one,” she said. “He was like the class clown kind of personality. He was always joking around and trying to make people laugh.

“I don’t believe Jimmy’s someone who’s capable of doing something like that. It literally was from left field. Jimmy growing up was quiet and shy, and he’s sensitive. He doesn’t fit the profile to me. And I’m sure that lots of people say that about their family members once they’re arrested. But I know there’re also people who’ve shown that side of themselves—that they are aggressive or angry. And I’ve never seen that side of Jimmy before.”

The question of Biela’s personality and demeanor turned out to be at issue in the trial. The prosecution brought in witnesses to testify how he reacted when he heard the news Denison’s body was discovered. Defense attorney James Leslie claimed they refrained from putting Biela on the stand because, in Leslie’s estimation, he was incapable of seeming sympathetic. Ideally, a person’s demeanor should not be used as an indication of guilt or innocence. Trial lawyers aren’t naïve, however—they know a person who seems guilty, who acts like a criminal, is more likely to be convicted.

Eastman didn’t think her brother seemed guilty, her gut feeling wasn’t the only reason for doubt.

“There are parts of his case that don’t add up,” she said.

The Washoe County Crime Lab (WCCL) and the Reno Police Department both made the assertion that Biela’s DNA had been matched to three different attacks. Generally the media repeated this claim, without explaining exactly what these “matches” entailed. Even when the story gained national media coverage on the show Dateline, host Josh Mankiewicz claimed “the prosecution had rock solid DNA evidence.”

In fact, the crime lab was only able, at best, to recover partial matches.

Biela was initially linked to an attack on Anna P., with the WCCL claiming it had matched DNA from this attack to Biela. The charges were later dropped without explanation. However the supplemental petition filed by Biela’s lawyers states the WCCL discovered the DNA match was a false positive.

From the attack on Emma C., the crime lab was only able to discover a Y STR—which is the male half of DNA. Jeff Rolands from the WCCL stated the profile they developed would match about 1 in 493 Caucasian males, meaning more than 200 people in Reno at the time would have matched.

Of all the attacks, however, the DNA evidence used in the Denison murder case was the most damning and the strangest.

Rolands testified that immediately after the discovery of Denison’s body in February 2008, he tested the DNA and developed a genetic profile. However, one month later, RPD lieutenant Robert McDonald sent a letter to the WCCL director requesting that the DNA evidence be sent to a lab in Florida in order to “determine a physical profile.” The crime lab director, Renee Romero, passed the letter on to Rolands, after adding a note instructing him to send the samples out. Rolands added his own note to the document, which simply read “sample not sent—not enough for testing.”

After Biela’s arrest the following November, the WCCL claimed Biela matched the profile that had been developed. This match was claimed to be far more powerful than the match to Emma C.—on the order of one in trillions, even though the crime lab had never found a complete profile.

The defense obviously wanted a second opinion, so in March 2009, Biela’s attorneys requested the DNA evidence be sent for analysis to a Chromosomal Labs in Arizona. The prosecutor responded by forwarding an email he had received from the WCCL. The crime lab stated for all the samples relevant to the Denison case, no swabs remained, “only the sticks.” For three (the perineum, vaginal and lips) a small amount of extracted material remained, but for two others (door handle and genital) “no extract remained.” It is not clear from the correspondence if this extracted material would be sufficient to test. But remember, Rolands had already stated two weeks earlier that there was “not enough for testing.”

In May, the parties met in court for a status hearing. By now, two months had passed, during which the defense had tried in vain to receive the DNA samples. In court, defense attorney Rich Davies said it was the defense’s understanding that no DNA remained to be tested. The prosecution did not contradict this statement.

Courtroom sketch of Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Backman during Biela’s hearing.

illustration/david tscheekar

Since the defense was now under the impression it would be impossible to have the DNA independently tested, they filed a motion to have the evidence suppressed. In their opposition to the motion, the prosecution stated there was DNA left to test. Consequently, the motion to suppress was denied, and the defense and prosecution agreed that the samples would be sent to Chromosomal Labs. It was now January 2010—nine months after the defense had first requested the samples.

If there was anything still left to test back in March, there wasn’t by January. When Dr. Vincent Miller at Chromosomal Labs finally received the package of evidence it contained only empty test tubes.

Still, by rehydrating them, Miller attempted to test the dried out samples he received. Like the WCCL, he also found an incomplete male profile and an incomplete female profile. However he also found an allele that was present in neither Denison’s nor in Biela’s profile.

“DNA is key,” said Biela. “That’s why I was arrested. That’s why they were pointed to me. That’s the crux of the case—the reason I was arrested. So when I try to defend myself, I automatically jump to the DNA, which they never disclosed, and what they did disclose had a result that’s not my profile.”

From the attack on Amanda Collins, there was no DNA evidence recovered at all. This attack differed from the others in some other striking ways, to such an extent that police were reluctant to link this attack to the other three. There was, as one detective described it, “internal war” over this issue.

It was the only attack that occurred in a public place. (Denison was attacked at a home, while both Anna P. and Emma C. were accosted in residential parking lots.) And it was the only attack that involved a gun. The description of the attacker differed significantly from Emma C.’s description and from Biela’s actual appearance.

Collins described her attacker as 5’8” or 5’9” weighing about 170-180 pounds, though Biela is 6’, and when he was arrested weighed 253 pounds. Before going to the police, Collins wrote a letter to a friend in which she described the attack and claimed she didn’t know what the attacker looked like. However, she later helped the police produce a sketch of her attacker’s face.

The prosecution’s explanation for how Collins could have produced the description shifted during the trial. Though Collins had reported she had never gotten a good look at her attacker, prosecution argued at trial that Collins had managed to glimpse half of her attacker’s face; the sketch was made simply by adding the mirror image of that half. The prosecution also argued that she had seen his face, but didn’t remember it in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

“The jury submitted a question saying how can you do a sketch if you didn’t see the guy? Sattler reiterated that. Where the fuck is it,” Biela said, searching for the passage in the court transcripts.

“’That part’s true—she couldn’t remember at the time,’” Biela said, quoting prosecutor Elliot Sattler from the transcripts. “How do you remember something—later?”

Collins additionally claimed she contracted herpes from her attacker. So, in 2009, the police requested and received an order to get a sample of Biela’s blood. However, tests indicated that Biela did not have herpes.

“This is two years after they spoke to her, and they’re still believing she got it from her attacker, then suddenly three months later at trial they’re saying, oh no, she got it from her fiancé,” said Biela. “How the fuck do you not know who you got herpes from? Don’t you think you’d have a conversation with your significant other?”

To me, Biela has always maintained his innocence. But of course he would. It was only after learning the extremely confusing facts about the case that I started to have serious doubts about the dominant narrative, that this was a slam-dunk case. I was doubting that he was guilty at all. For one attack he was convicted based on no physical evidence, only a description that didn’t much resemble him. For another, there was DNA evidence that could have implicated hundreds of men in Reno. And for the third, there was what the prosecution claimed was very strong DNA evidence, but then they played a shell game with it, appearing to do everything they could to hide it from the defense. And when they finally disclosed it, it didn’t quite match.

Then there was Biela himself. We had now been exchanging letters for two years. I had spoken on the phone with him a dozen times. It was hard to believe he could have done these things. These kinds of actions are committed by monsters. Or sociopaths, or whatever word can indicate rapes and murders of complete strangers are entirely inhuman behaviors. Biela seems completely human. Even nurturing. After canceling a couple interviews—because of fallout from my own marital problems—I received this letter:

I wanted to make sure you’re doing okay (because of your divorce). I’m sorry, I know it’s not really my business. I just wanted to remind you that things do get better. It’s always hardest when it’s new. I don’t have much experience with divorce, but I recall how hard it was for me when I was first arrested.

As you know I lost virtually everything. While some feel that I ’deserved’ that (and more) it was very difficult for me to deal with. When I was in jail at the beginning, I was placed on suicide watch, which means you are in a cell with a suicide prevention gown only. There is literally nothing to do but sit and think, which made the situation harder.

After a week of that, they moved me to a cell in the infirmary where I could wear clothes, have a blanket and pillow and could read a book. Whoever had been in that cell before me carved into the shelf the phrase ’this too shall pass.’

I read it with a mix of anger and laughter. I remember thinking ’I’ll probably be imprisoned forever; how is this going to pass?’

I can fast-forward almost six years now and realize that it did pass. Although I am still in a very bad situation, it is considerably better now than it was. Whomever originally said: time heals all wounds, or whichever inmate carved ’this too shall pass’ into that shelf was right. During my trial, when the state would lie and I wanted to scream out, I would actually say that phrase over and over in my head.

It will get better. Time itself is the hard part, but it moves on and things pass.

If you need anything (not that I could provide much other than just talking/writing) please let me know.

Nearly seven years have passed since Biela was arrested. For now, his goal is to get a new trial. If the DNA evidence were to be thrown out, it would all but guarantee an acquittal. We won’t know the outcome for at least a month. The hearing on Biela’s petition has been continued and will resume in August.

Biela’s case already went to the Nevada Supreme Court, but, in that case, Biela was prohibited from raising several issues he wanted to raise. For an issue to be raised on direct appeal, an attorney needs to have made an objection during the initial trial. If no objection is made, the issue can’t be raised on appeal. But such issues can be brought up appealing on the grounds of ineffective counsel—basically making the argument that your lawyers didn’t make enough objections for there to be a fair appeal (or otherwise failed to do their job competently). That’s what Biela is doing now.

It must be a difficult position to be in for the original defense attorneys. A person they worked to defend is now availing himself of one of the last mechanisms that could save him from execution. A defense attorney may still be on his former client’s side in such a situation. Still, he’s publicly accusing them of incompetence.

When two of his attorneys from the initial trial were required to testify in this case, on July 11, they seemed to have very different reactions to this tension. Mazie Pusich seemed friendly towards Biela’s counsel, admitting in several instances she should have done things differently. Jay Slocum, on the other hand, seemed hostile and was resistant to giving direct answers to even simple questions.

Biela’s attorneys were barely better off than if they had been questioning a wall. But when the DA was able to examine the witness, Slocum finally had something dramatic to contribute, the answer being a consequence of a particular legal rule: when you accuse your attorney of ineffective counsel, you lose attorney/client privilege.

Slocum stated that James Biela knew the house from which Denison disappeared was usually left unlocked. Slocum claimed Biela had told him he knew this because Biela had been in the house before. This comment was walked back slightly and framed as a hypothetical. The defense needed an explanation for how Biela’s DNA had been found on the doorknob of the house, so (hypothetically) Biela had been in the house on several occasions, to masturbate with the tenants’ underwear. However, Slocum didn’t know if he’d been there on the night of the disappearance. Hypothetically.

It was the only time during the hearing that Biela reacted to anything that was said. Having sat still during the entire proceeding, he began shaking his head vigorously, and then he whispered something to his counsel.

I hope I can ask James Biela (or Jimmy, as I’ve gotten used to calling him) what he said. Why was he shaking his head? I hope he can tell me it’s not true, that he was never in that house. Or maybe I don’t hope that. I don’t know if it’s better if he was there or wasn’t.

Either an innocent man has been sentenced to die, or horrible attacks were committed by a man who seems sane, funny and caring. I honestly don’t know which possibility is more terrifying.