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When Galveston police officers arrived at the scene, they discovered Hollis's corpse wrapped in yellow plastic trash bags. A band of silver duct tape was wrapped around his head, and two strips of white adhesive tape bound his ankles. White maggots crawled on the sheets wrapped around his body. The smell was so foul officers had to quit working every few minutes to go outside and get some fresh air, says Ibrahim, the district attorney who was called to the scene. "It smelled like death," he says. "That's the only way to describe it." Ibrahim says he had to throw away the shirt he was wearing because he couldn't get the odor out.
David was arrested and charged with two counts of abuse of a corpse, and held on a $10,000 bond.
"I didn't kill anyone," he told officers. "They died in their sleep."
Sunnye's eyelids were closed so tightly the coroner couldn't open them. She was five foot three, and her decaying body weighed 70 pounds. Her brain had totally degenerated, and insects crawled inside her skull. Her lungs had collapsed and were plastered in a sheet across her chest wall, says Charles Harvey, Galveston County chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy.
Sunnye had severe cardiovascular disease, clinical hypertension and Alzheimer's.
Her husband had severe heart, lung and kidney problems. Harvey says that in addition to bad hearts and hardened, clogged arteries, the couple had matching fractures in their necks. The fragile hyoid bones that support the voice box were broken. And Harvey says he saw hemorrhages in their neck tissue that appeared to have been made while their hearts were still beating.
He declared their deaths a textbook case of strangulation.
"I am absolutely convinced that these folks did not die of natural causes," Harvey says. "I can almost assure you that if I were to show these cases and these findings to 100 trained forensic pathologists around the country, I would get back 100 opinions that would say this is a strangulation."
David was charged with capital murder, theft and two counts of abuse of a corpse. Ibrahim, felony chief for the 405th District Court, decided not to seek the death penalty. Other than driving with a suspended license, David had no prior convictions; Ibrahim says he couldn't prove that David would be a future danger to society.
Plus, David's family didn't want him to die; they just wanted him to spend the rest of his life in prison. "When I first went to the courthouse, I had David hung," Dusti says. "I was just wanting him to rot in hell forever."
But now she wonders if he killed them out of compassion, and didn't bury them because he loved them too much to let them go. David's aunt, Clara, says Sunnye and Hollis would not have wanted to live without their minds. "My God," she says, "he did them a favor. I think they'd be better off in heaven than wandering around here being mistreated by people."
Ibrahim told the jury that David returned from Florida not to care for his elderly parents but rather to rob and murder them. "He came here with the intent to leech off of his parents," Ibrahim says. "Then he realized that he could go further than that -- not only could he leech off of them, but he could take it all. They were of no consequence to him anymore."
David rapidly spent their money, squandering more than $700,000, Ibrahim says. Then David realized that caring for his mother was too much work, so he strangled her.
David kept his father alive, Ibrahim says, because when relatives called, they always asked to talk to Hollis (since for years Sunnye had been unable to speak coherently). As Hollis became more demented and difficult to care for, he was less valuable to David, Ibrahim says. So David strangled him, too.
Graves, David's court-appointed attorney, insists that David was simply carrying out his parents' wishes. Yes, David spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (although he says it's closer to $500,000 than $700,000). And yes, he did live with their dead bodies. But most of the money had been spent before they died. Besides, David was the sole heir in the will, had power of attorney, and he would have received the money eventually.
"It just doesn't make sense," Graves says. "He didn't need to kill them for the money. He already had the money."
Graves argues that David would have benefited more if his parents had remained alive -- because he would have continued to receive their social security, pension and retirement income. Graves asked the jury to sentence David to a few years of probation.
Graves says the three versions of the autopsies are suspect. When Harvey originally examined the bodies, he didn't find any fractures. A few days later, Graves says, fractures were found when other pathologists working in Harvey's office examined the bodies. Then, a few weeks before the trial, the autopsy was amended.
"Fractures appeared and disappeared and changed from left and right, and hemorrhages as well appeared and disappeared in ways that are not scientifically plausible in any shape or form," says Lloyd White, a Nueces County medical examiner who testified for the defense. "It's like saying somebody was killed by a gunshot wound, then you come back and say, 'Well, no, maybe they were stabbed. No, maybe could be they were strangled.' There's just too many different versions here."