More than two years have passed since the night her then-husband, Samuel Parker, nearly killed her, but Alice Wheeler says she remembers almost every detail of the beating--until the point she lost consciousness.
She's sitting in a classroom at ASU West, telling her story to students in an undergraduate sociology class called Family Violence. A thick layer of rouge and mascara is no match for fluorescent classroom lights, which reveal every line on a 46-year-old face surgeons spent hours reconstructing. "I knew I was gonna die cause my arms were getting tired from blocking the blows," Wheeler tells the students. She didn't see her own blood that night as it coursed down her face, but assumes it saved her--she slipped from Parker's grasp when he tried repeatedly to choke her. When the knock at the apartment door came (the police--the result of a friend's 911 call), "I hollered, 'Help me, help me, please, somebody help me,'" she says.
According to police, Parker opened the door willingly. "I beat the shit out of her," he told Phoenix Police Officer Alan Knecht. Police say Parker also told them he hoped Wheeler was dead. Wheeler lived. Parker was arrested on two counts of aggravated assault and a count of kidnaping. In September 1991, Parker faced criminal trial. The jury acquitted him. For more than two years, Alice Wheeler searched for justice. With the help of volunteer attorneys, she sued Parker. Last month a jury awarded her $100,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. New Times reported Wheeler's story after Parker was acquitted (Beaten a Second Time," November 13, 1991). Dianne Post, who teaches the Family Violence course at ASU West and is the founder of an organization called Lawyers for Abused Women, read the story and put Wheeler in touch with Michael Beale. Beale, an attorney with Jennings, Strauss and Salmon (and a member of the board of directors of Lawyers for Abused Women), took Wheeler's case on a pro bono basis. Beale maintains that it was Alice Wheeler, not Sam Parker, who was put on trial in 1991. Her crimes: a 1985 felony conviction, parole violations and, allegedly, a history of lies and substance abuse. Wheeler herself admits to a troubled past, but she and her attorney maintain that her past is irrelevant. The evidence should prove Parker's guilt.
"They used her checkered background as justification for this horrible beating," Beale says. But after Parker's 1991 acquittal, jurors told New Times that county prosecutor David Rodriguez botched the case. The only documentation of Parker's crime presented at the trial were photographs taken of Wheeler after she had been beaten and testimony from Wheeler and police.
Rodriguez's response at the time: ". . . the judge instructed the jury all we needed to show was 'any physical injury using a dangerous instrument.' And we used the photographs. The photographs clearly showed injury."
The jurors disagreed. "In the beginning, obviously, you're going to be startled by that [photographs], but then again, they can be very deceiving," jury foreman Sabine Wallman-Evans told New Times. ". . . All it would have taken was a hospital report," she said. Wheeler was horrified by the acquittal, and by the way she says the jurors treated her. The torture of a kidney-shaped glass ashtray slamming into her skull was nothing compared to the pain she suffered when one of those jurors looked her in the face and laughed, she says. As for Parker? "He turned and looked at me in that courtroom and sneered," Wheeler says. "I was devastated. The system let me down."
John Wolfinger, Parker's attorney in the second trial, declined to discuss the details of the case. "I was surprised with the verdict. But other than that, I really don't have any comment," he says. Parker could not be reached for comment.
Beale says that on the stand, Parker denied that he ever told police he had wanted to kill Wheeler. He cried self-defense, stating that Wheeler had struck out at him first that night. According to medical records and Wheeler's account, the woman suffered six separate fractures, including one to her skull. She spent days in intensive care. Surgeons reconstructed her face with plastic, metal and 77 staples. And according to police reports, Parker towers over Wheeler by more than a foot. He outweighs her by 50 pounds.
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"How that [those facts] can square with his [Parker's] testimony is beyond me," Beale says.
It was obviously beyond the second jury, as well. The civil trial lasted two days; the jury deliberated for just one hour. Elizabeth Painter, an associate of Beale's who did most of the work on the case, recalls that Wheeler burst into tears when she heard the decision. Parker was not present for the verdict. This time, Painter says, the jurors shook Wheeler's hand and wished her luck. Wheeler says she plans to move out of state within the next month. She will continue to speak publicly. That helps. So did last month's verdict.
"I'm still humiliated by it [the beating]. But I'm a lot stronger today," she tells the ASU West students. She defends Rodriguez, who is still with the County Attorney's Office. Wheeler says they keep in touch, that he was happy to hear of the latest verdict. Rodriguez declined to comment for this story. Wheeler says, "David Rodriguez has been . . . deeply hurt and devastated and dumfounded" by the outcome of the criminal trial. Beale isn't nearly as gracious. He says, "If I was a prosecutor and I couldn't convict this guy [Parker], I would quit.