It’s been hard for the media to get it right on Sarah Pender. There have been erroneous reports that Larry Sells, the prosecutor who tried and convicted Pender of murder in 2002, was going to represent Sarah in a bid for freedom. A recent story noted that the Marion County, Indiana, prosecutor’s office has decided Pender does not deserve a new trial or consideration for a reduced sentence, despite Sells’ opinion that she did not receive a fair trial based on previously undisclosed evidence.
Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry said in that story, “I don’t doubt Larry’s sincerity in stating that but all we were presented with was a motion to modify the sentence.” That leaves the door open to more legal movement in the case, as Pender takes her hopes to the state Court of Appeals to ask for a second round of post conviction relief.
Pender’s case will be featured on the Sept. 22 episode of Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall. I was part of the taping. In advance of that show, here’s an exclusive interview with Larry Sells.
For 15 years, Larry Sells was the iron fist of the law in Marion County, Indiana, home of Indianapolis, ground zero for middle America.
As deputy prosecutor of homicides from 1991 to 2006, Sells put convicted murderers to death with creased-brow scorn. He was a no bullshit guy, a rangy Marlboro Man lookalike who had done some modeling in his wild days before settling into a law career. His Southern fried accent and dramatic demeanor gave him great favor with juries.
Today he’s 69 years old and has spent the last year in sleepless nights over a 23-year-old girl he put away on murder charges in 2002. He’s advocating on behalf of that young girl, Sarah Pender, who is serving her 110-year sentence in the Indiana Women’s Prison. Sells believes she didn’t get a fair trial.
His crusade began after reading a true crime book that revealed information that compromised his key witness in that case, a career criminal and jailhouse snitch named Floyd Pennington.
I wrote the book that changed Sells’ mind, Girl,Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender, an Edgar award finalist in 2012.
On page 115 of that book is a graph that may eventually give Pender her freedom.
There was a problem with [Pennington’s] testimony and, in the rearview mirror, its impact on the jury. A letter discovered after the trial in the police file found that Pennington had offered to turn evidence on a list of people, from drug dealers to chop-shop owners. He named names on a yellow legal pad in his own writing. But the list was never presented by the defense during Sarah’s trial.
The letter was a snitch list I found in the homicide file. It had never been seen by anyone outside the investigation, including the defense.
“Just some top-notch dope dealers I’m close to and can get in and make sells for and bust them…” Pennington notes in the handwritten list.
“That letter should have been given to the defense and I never even saw it,” Sells told me in a phone call in mid-2012, when he admitted it had stuck in his mind since he had reread the book earlier that year. “If that had been introduced to the jury, it would have made a huge difference on the impact of the testimony of the key witness, that of Floyd Pennington. She did not have a fair trial.”
Pender was an unsympathetic character. A former engineering student at Purdue, she had been part of a bloody double homicide on the city’s south side. The two victims, Andrew Cataldi, 25, and Tricia Nordman, 26. were found shot to death in a Dumpster, their hair matted with dried blood. Pender and her boyfriend, Richard Hull, were arrested. Until the murder on October 24, 2000, the victims, Hull and Pender had been roommates and business partners. They moved pot, meth and acid out of the two-bedroom house they shared.
But when some money got funny, Cataldi and Nordman wound up dead and Hull and Pender blamed each other for the shootings. Who pulled the trigger? Only those four knew for sure, and two of them weren’t breathing.
Helped by the testimony of Pennington, who testified in court that Sarah confessed to her role in the murders to him while both were in a jailhouse infirmary, Pender was sentenced to 110 years.
Pender was sent to state prison, where she remained until August 2008, when she escaped. For 136 days, Pender lived in relative freedom, meeting and being romanced by a man, working a regular job at a construction contractor in Chicago, living in an apartment in Rogers Park.
She was captured that December and returned to prison.
Even during her time on the run, Sells was convinced she had been rightfully convicted, calling her “the female Charles Manson” for her ability to convince others to do her felonious bidding.
Now, Sells talks about his change of heart and how the woman he so enthusiastically put away for the rest of her life needs to be let out of prison.
Steve Miller: The common joke is that prisons are full of innocent people – just ask the inmates. How common is something like this in the justice system, in which evidence that could influence a jury never comes to light?
Larry Sells: If a book were written about every case and the author was as thorough as in this book, there would be more things found. There are convictions set aside, of course. But usually it’s the defense that ferrets that out.
Steve Miller: You called me around June of last year to tell me that there was a major problem with the case and that justice was not served in Sarah’s trial. But you knew about that document, Pennington’s snitch list, since 2009, when I asked you about it.
Larry Sells: I didn’t look at the list very long although when I did, I thought, ‘Damn, why didn’t I have this back then in 2002?’ It really affects the credibility of Pennington. He was a shady witness then, as all jailhouse witnesses are. But by 2009 I was no longer a prosecutor. I retired in 2006. I still had a prosecutor mindset but I wasn’t in the office where I could do anything about it. When I reread it, it became crystal clear to me that this letter destroyed Pennington’s credibility. I had to do something. Yes, I saw the list, but when you see it described in writing, it makes more of an impact.
Steve Miller: What was your first move to make this right?
Larry Sells: I got hold of Sarah’s mom, Bonnie, it was the Friday before Mother’s Day. I told her, ‘you know Bonnie, it’s my opinion that Sarah didn’t get a fair trial and I will do what I can to help.’ When she realized I wasn’t pulling her leg and I was who I said I was, she burst into tears.
Then I called Sarah’s lawyers and told them what I thought. Then I got a call from the prosecutor’s office, which had heard through Sarah’s lawyers about my opinion. He was pretty attentive to what I had to say. Then I got a call from the sentence modification committee at the prosecutor’s office, and we met. We looked at the document, and at first, they were thinking this is no big deal, it’s simply impeaching evidence. When I ran my opinions by them, though, their opinions started changing. I’ve been interviewed by the Marion County prosecutor’s office. Sarah’s lawyers are pushing forward. Now things are up to the system.
Steve Miller: So is Sarah Pender an innocent person who has served all this time?
Larry Sells: I thought she was guilty before any testimony. I thought she was a dangerous person. She has expressed a couple of times that it didn’t bother her that her roommates were brutally murdered. I can’t say what her role in the shooting was, but based on this letter and the fact that her attorney didn’t have this document deprived Sarah of a fair trial. I am still not convinced of her innocence. But that doesn’t factor in to what I believe about her case. I had to come forward because it’s the right thing to do. I had to do it as a lawyer and a human being. My conscience wouldn’t let me do otherwise.