“Perry Mason” moments are rare, but a Norfolk lawyer turned the tables in the middle of a murder trial last month by pinning the rap on a man who had been dead for 20 years.
In an unannounced strategy, attorney James Broccoletti brought the dead man’s relatives to court to describe evidence that the decedent — and not Broccoletti’s client — was the real killer of a 17-year-old Virginia Beach girl who died in 1990.
The courtroom drama ended a cold case saga involving a murder that remained unsolved for two decades until fingerprints tied a Pennsylvania man to the crime scene.
Since the day police showed up at the Erie home of Robert Malick in 2014, the former sailor denied killing Joan Schoppaul.
Police were unpersuaded. A new lab report showed Malick’s fingerprints matched those found on a trash bag used to dispose of Schoppaul’s body in a dumpster. Further, Malick admitted he had had sex with Schoppaul on the day she disappeared, 24 years before.
Schoppaul’s 1990 death shook the middle class Green Run neighborhood. The teen had been strangled and beaten. The cause of death was given as “blunt force trauma.”
Evidence suggested she also had been raped and sodomized.
Now with a scientific link, police arrested and charged Malick with the crimes. He hired Broccoletti.
In 1990, Malick was a 22-year-old sailor who lived in Schoppaul’s neighborhood. As authorities hunted her killer, he and others came under police scrutiny.
One of the others was neighbor Larry Outten. A single father, Outten reportedly hired Schoppaul to babysit his three children. Outten was last person seen with the girl before she disappeared.
At the time, police never developed enough evidence to charge anyone. The case went cold for years. Outten died in 1996.
When Broccoletti undertook Malick’s defense in 2015, he started with the 1990 police files. Outten had been the prime suspect at the time, and there was talk that he had confessed to the crime on his deathbed.
“We began to develop evidence to basically prosecute that person,” Broccoletti said.
The defense lawyer called on private investigator Ron Budd, a former NCIS detective, who started trying to locate witnesses, long gone after 25 years.
“I think the hardest thing we had to do was to find people who had changed their names,” Broccoletti said.
Budd was able to locate family members of Larry Outten, including two sons. He showed them a picture of the sleeping bag found with the victim’s body — they both confirmed it resembled one that had been at their house in 1990.
The sons described seeing their father in “inappropriate behavior” with the teen victim before her death.
What’s more, the sons said Outten’s older brother, William, had heard their father confess to the girl’s killing.
William was still in Virginia Beach, but under medical care in a rehabilitation center. He confirmed the confession of Larry Outten.
Broccoletti did not tip prosecutors to the new-found evidence or urge authorities to turn their attention to Outten.
“They had the files. They had the same information. They had the same ability to run down and track down the same individuals. That indicated to me that it would be a worthless endeavor” to suggest another culprit in the killing, Broccoletti said.
The lawyer saved the evidence for trial, arranging for the wheelchair-bound William Outten to travel in an ambulance to the courthouse.
Outten’s oxygen supply proved a problem. The bottles kept running out and having to be replaced until the elderly witness took the stand around 5 p.m. on June 13.
William Outten told the jury about a 1996 conversation with brother Larry shortly before Larry’s death. William asked Larry in a joking way if he had killed the girl. Larry Outten reportedly confirmed that he did. William said he believed the reply was no joke.
Larry’s two sons also provided significant testimony, Broccoletti said. They both recognized the sleeping bag. Asked about hairs from a German Shepherd dog found near the body, they said the family pet at the time was a German Shepherd.
Hearing the evidence that pointed to Larry Outten, the jury returned with a “not guilty” verdict for Malick after two-and-a-half hours of deliberation.
Earlier, prosecutors had dropped charges of rape and sodomy after a defense-hired expert disputed evidence of sexual trauma.
Malick walked free, telling reporters at the courthouse he was going to KFC for a meal.
Proof of innocence is rare
Broccoletti recalled only one other “Perry Mason” moment in his legal career, where the stakes were not quite so high. A man accused of a home invasion said his brother did the crime.
Broccoletti brought the brother from a jail cell, put him in a thrift store suit, and stood him next to his client.
The victim looked from one to the other for several minutes and finally acknowledged the brother was the perpetrator.
In this case, the lawyer said, the proof of innocence was not so easy to come by.
If Budd had not been “so dogged in his pursuit of all these people” and if Malick had not had the ability to pay for his lawyer, the investigator and the forensic pathologist, the outcome might have been different, Brocoletti said.
Updated to indicate a jury, not judge, delivered the verdict.