Police said Thomas Kimbell Jr. knew details about the stabbing deaths that only the killer could know.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- A sobbing and shaking Shirley Kimbell had to be led from the courtroom as four "innocent" verdicts were read for her son.
"We finally got our lives back," she said a few minutes later with tears in her eyes.
Thomas H. Kimbell Jr., 40, has spent the past four years in prison in the stabbing deaths of Bonnie Lou Dryfuse, 34, her daughters Jacqueline, 7, and Heather, 4, and her niece Stephanie Herko, 5. He had been held since his arrest in 1996, two years after the slayings.
In the retrial, a jury of seven women and five men decided Kimbell was innocent after they deliberated 12 hours Thursday night and Friday morning.
Another Lawrence County jury convicted Kimbell in 1998. He was sentenced to death.
He was granted a new trial by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court because his attorney was not permitted to cross-examine Stephanie's mother, Mary Herko, about a statement she made to police after the slayings.
Herko had to be taken away by ambulance just minutes after the verdicts were read.
Prosecutor Anthony Krastek said Herko collapsed after words were exchanged with members of the Kimbell family.
Other family members of the victims chose not to speak, walking solemnly out of the courtroom.
What prosecutor said
Krastek said he was disappointed with the verdict.
"Four years ago, almost to the day, another jury sentenced him to die. It's frightening to think this man is getting out," he said.
He acknowledged there were problems in this trial, including a witness who changed his testimony and another who died since the first trial.
Kimbell's attorney, Thomas Leslie, said additional DNA evidence not available in 1998 and a forensic pathologist who testified for the defense likely made the difference in this trial.
Since the last trial, defense attorneys also had discovered that Kimbell is a mild hemophiliac who bruises easily. Leslie argued that Kimbell had no bruises on his body when he checked himself into a psychiatric ward the day after the slayings.
Prosecutors contended Kimbell, a crack addict, killed Mrs. Dryfuse and the family while on a drug binge.
Kimbell's mother testified he was home eating a sandwich and drinking Kool-Aid when the slayings occurred June 15, 1994.
What Kimbell knew
There was no physical evidence placing him inside the trailer at 100 Ambrosia Road, but police said Kimbell made statements and knew details about the deaths known only to the killer.
Leslie, in his closing statement, told jurors there were others who could have killed Mrs. Dryfuse and the children.
"There are a lot of questions there. I don't have to prove anything, but they never eliminated Jake [Mrs. Dryfuse's husband] as a suspect," Leslie said.
It's unclear if police will continue looking into the slayings. Pennsylvania State Police troopers who investigated the case left the courthouse with Mrs. Herko and could not be reached.
Kimbell was expected to be released Friday night. He had to be taken back to the state correctional facility in Greene County, Pa., where he has been an inmate since his 1998 conviction, to collect his belongings and be formally released.
His plans were not disclosed Friday.
"The immediate thing is to spend some time with his family," Leslie said. "I don't know what he will do, but hopefully, it will be something productive."
Kimbell's sister, Susan, said the family's only thoughts were of bringing him home. His mother said she can't wait to hug him.
The family has not been allowed to touch him since his arrest, she said.
After the verdicts were read and sheriff's deputies were taking a crying Kimbell from the courtroom, he turned and yelled to his family: "Don't forget to come and get me out of jail."