One Down

In the trial of Clint Shelton, lead prosecutor Toby Shook unveiled a mind-numbing 138 pieces of evidence and presented nearly three dozen witnesses in seven days of testimony. But in the end, there was one simple reason why he was able to convince a jury to convict Shelton of murdering Michael Hierro and permanently disfiguring his wife, Marisa, with a shotgun on the night of December 20, 1999.

The reason is Rowlett police officer J.B. Rutherford had to take a pee.

Rutherford was among the battalion of officers who secured the bloody murder scene outside the Hierros' home on the night of December 20. The house is located in a subdivision that was still under construction at the time and thus was dotted with blue portable toilets leased by construction crews.

When nature called that night, Rutherford headed for the toilet located on the lot behind the Hierros' house. Rutherford pulled open the door and struck a cop's equivalent of gold: There, floating in a pool of blue-tinted water, were two white latex gloves and a pair of nylon pantyhose. The pantyhose had been converted into a mask. More important, they contained several hairs that DNA testing would later prove to be Shelton's.

At the trial's conclusion, the mask stood alone as the only indisputable physical evidence that put Clint Shelton at the scene. But its real value came long before the trial ever began. During their investigation, Rowlett police used the mask to back Shelton into a corner, where he rashly changed his initial claim -- stupidly put in writing -- that he was home at the time of the murder and didn't know where the Hierros lived.

Faced with inescapable DNA evidence, Shelton cooked up a new story about how he had dressed up "commando style" and staked out the Hierro home several times before the murder. He said he was trying to verify that the couple lived there so he could serve Marisa Hierro with a subpoena in his divorce case. He admitted he dumped the mask and gloves in that toilet on the night prior to the murder.

At trial, Shook methodically dismantled Shelton's story, countering each claim with an opposing fact. By the time Shelton took the stand and lamely claimed his innocence, Shook had him beaten by his own lies.

When the jurors filed into Dallas County District Judge John Nelms's court on Wednesday, November 15, their eyes uniformly cast down, their verdict was loud and clear: Shelton was guilty of first-degree murder and second-degree aggravated assault. The next day they sentenced him to life in prison.

But the verdict did not bring closure to a case that has rocked the Dallas legal community. Instead, it only added fuel to a burning question that police and prosecutors have not answered: Will they ever arrest attorney and former Houstonian Catherine Mehaffey Shelton, Clint's estranged wife and suspected co-conspirator, whose alleged participation in the murder was a central part of their case against Clint?

Jurors bought the prosecution's theory that Clint and Catherine committed the murder together. As part of the theory, which centers on Marisa Hierro's "ear witness" testimony, Shook argued that Catherine decided to kill Marisa after Marisa left her law practice in March 1999, taking with her a lucrative, if unethical, business that exploited illegal immigrants.

While the trial erased all doubt about Clint's role as the shooter, it revealed a major hole in the police investigation, which after nearly a year of speculation explains why Catherine is at large: The police have no physical evidence linking her to the case.

Unless officers uncover something new, there remains only one person who could corroborate Marisa's story and tie Catherine to the murder. That person, of course, is Clint Shelton.

Clint, 43, will not be eligible for parole until he is 73 years old, but in the coming weeks he could slip through one last loophole. Clint could file a motion for a new trial, and should he choose to cooperate, prosecutors could agree to the motion and allow Clint to plead guilty at a second trial in exchange for some lighter punishment.

Shook, who says he never offered Clint any deals in exchange for testimony against Catherine, agrees that the scenario is very possible. But he quickly adds, "I don't think that's going to happen in this case."

In August Clint's first attorney filed a motion to withdraw as his counsel, citing "a conflict regarding trial strategy." That fueled persistent courthouse rumors that Catherine, a criminal defense lawyer who regularly visited Clint in jail, drove off that court-appointed lawyer because she wanted to control the direction of Clint's defense.

John Young, Clint's trial attorney, counters that by saying he accepted the Shelton family's request to represent Clint on one condition. "I took this case with the explicit agreement that I don't lawyer by committee," Young says. "There ain't going to be any finger-pointing over how we're going to do it."

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Rose Farley