By Austin Nolen
On Tuesday morning, an unusual murder case was presented in a preliminary hearing in Courtroom 306 of the Criminal Justice Center. In Philadelphia, as in so many other urban areas, the nightly news often seems like a grim rerun with varying places, names, and supporting characters, but featuring the same tragic victim – a young black man killed using a firearm. And according to 2012 homicide data provided by Philadelphia Police (which there is little means of independently vetting and verifying), slightly over two thirds of victims are African-American; almost three quarters are forty or under; over 5/6 are male and about the same percentage are killed using firearms (this can be viewed in graphic form presented by The Inquirer). But murder is never the norm, and belongs to no neighborhood or narrative, as was seen Tuesday as the desperately tragic case against Denise Taylor unfolded.
The preliminary hearing is an opportunity for the court to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to warrant a trial; in Philadelphia, the hearing occurs before a municipal judge, and if the judge finds the case adequate, it is “held” for trial in the Court of Common Pleas. During the hearing, prosecutor Richard Sax presented evidence to support his allegation that Denise Taylor, 57 years old, whipped and beat to death her roommate Saundra Barley, 62 years old.
The evidence presented by Sax – the Medical Examiner’s report, Taylor’s confession to homicide detectives and the testimony of one of the detectives, Francis Graf – paint a picture of a bizarre day culminating in Barley’s death. According to Barley’s family, Barley had allowed Taylor, who has several convictions for drug and prostitution offenses, to move into her apartment in March 2014, and they believed the roommates had a contentious relationship; the Medical Examiner found several old scars similar to the fresh whip injuries.
In Taylor’s statement, she claims that the two began fighting when Barley began exhibiting strange behaviors that annoyed her (Barley had a history of severe mental illness). Taylor alleges that Barley entered her room naked and began to hit her. Taylor hit back, at which point Barely grabbed an electrical cord and whipped Taylor with it. Taylor confessed to then grabbing the cord and striking Barley repeatedly; the Medical Examiner’s report states that Barley’s body had at least 115 different injuries that might have been caused by the cord.
Taylor states that she then left to dispose of the cord, and when she returned, Barley pushed her and hit her; at this point, Taylor admits that she “slung” Barley around several times. Barley staid down for a time, and then got up and again began doing something Taylor considered odd. At this point, Taylor “punched her in the face and grabbed her by her neck and really slung her this time,” right into a door. Afterwards, Taylor checked to see if the food stamps had been refilled and went to bed, only checking on Barley later at night, to discover she was dead.
On discovering Barley’s body, Taylor decided “to call the police and tell them that three guys had broke in assaulted me and killed Saundra.” Detective Graf testified that Taylor was initially taken to the hospital then questioned as a victim, before detectives noticed “inconsistencies” and notified her of her rights. The statement was made several hours later. During the preliminary hearing, the public defenders assigned to Taylor’s case questioned Graf about the length of time she was held in an interview room and the conditions in the room. Graf admitted that the statement was started after about 24 hours in the room. However, Taylor was given food and multiple bathroom breaks. She did complain in her statement about not being given normal clothes after hers were taken for evidence.
At the close of the hearing, Taylor’s lawyers requested that her case be held for trial on third-degree, as opposed to first-degree murder. In Pennsylvania, first-degree murder requires a specific intent to kill, while third-degree requires only malice toward the victim. ADA Sax requested that the trial be held for first-degree murder, since, under Pennsylvania law, even if Taylor did not begin the encounter with an intent to kill Barley, that intent can be formed very quickly during the encounter, and her intent can be inferred from the nature and number of Barley’s injuries. Municipal Court Judge David C. Shuter ordered Taylor to stand trial for first-degree murder; she will be arraigned on March 3rd.
Barley’s daughter and other family and friends watched the hearing from behind the courtroom’s bulletproof glass. Her daughter was visibly upset, and after the hearing, told media that she understood Taylor’s right to a lawyer, but was glad the judge denied the third-degree request. Taylor’s lawyers from the Public Defender Association provided no comment.