FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 3): A woman convicted of the arsenic murder of her third husband and facing a murder trial in the poisoning of her second spouse Friday became the first woman sentenced to die in Kentucky.
LaVerne O’Bryan, 43, who owns a Louisville junkyard, sobbed as Jefferson Circuit Judge S. Rush Nicholson handed down the sentence, which will be appealed automatically under state law to the Kentucky supreme court.
Nicholson ordered Mrs. O’Bryan to be executed in the electric chair between midnight and sunrise on Dec. 12 but the date is likely to be delayed indefinitely pending appeal.
“God have mercy upon your soul,” said Nicholson as Mrs. O’Bryan, shaking and still crying, was led from the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies.
Nicholson, who presided at the woman’s week-long trial in July, could have reduced the sentence recommended by the jury but commented, “There’s no other way I can do different in this case.”
Because no woman been sentenced to death in Kentucky, a special Death Row cell was prepared at the state’s only women’s prison in anticipation of her sentencing. Mrs. O’Bryan will be segregated from other prisoners at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women at Penwee Valley.
Kentucky’s electric chair is located at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, which houses only male prisoners. The last execution in Kentucky was conducted in 1962.
Mrs. O’Bryan was convicted in July of the arsenic murder of her third husband, John O’Bryan of Louisville, who died July 5, 1979, at the age of 37. she also was convicted of trying to poison her sister-in-law and Nicholson gave her a 20-year prison term for that conviction.
Authorities haven’t decided whether to bring Mrs. O’Bryan to trial on another murder charge in the arsenic poisoning of her second husband, Harold Sadler of Louisville, who died in 1967 at the age of 37.
During the trial the prosecution sought to portray Mrs. O’Bryan as an “insanely jealous” woman who was greedy to prevent her various stepchildren from inheriting the property holdings of O’Bryan and Sadler.
The prosecution said Mrs. O’Bryan tried to poison her sister-in-law with arsenic-laced coffee at O’Bryan’s deathbed last year because she had suspected her brother was a poisoning victim and intended to tell police.
The prosecution never attempted to show how Mrs. O’Bryan administered the poison but introduced evidence showing she had access to arsenic from her father’s farm and from a pesticide used to control rats at her junkyard.
[Thomas J. Sheeran, “Third Husband’s Poisoning Brings Sentence of Death,” syndicated (UPI), Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Fl.), Sep. 13, 1980, p. 3A]
FULL TEXT: Louisville, Ky. – After learning that two of LaVerne O’Bryan’s husbands had died of arsenic poisoning 12 years apart, authorities made a careful check of her home last year to find the possible source of the arsenic.
Investigators carefully swept up piles of rodent-soiled dust, collected cough syrup samples and confiscated a package of candy caramels. Nothing developed until their attention turned to a box with nine bottles of horse medication.
The horse tonic has become the focus of Mrs. O’Bryan’s trial on a charge of murdering her third husband, John O’Bryan, 37, of Louisville, and the attempted murder of a sister-in-law who suspected her brother was poisoned.
The trial entered its fourth day today.
Mrs. O’Bryan, who has sat impassively during prosecution testimony, also faces another murder trial in the death of her second husband, Harold Sadler, 37, of Louisville. On Dec. 23, 1967. Her first husband was unharmed.
In testimony Wednesady a state Department of Human Resources chemist, Mike Ward, said the horse tonic Duracao, distributed by Horse Health Products of Aikins, S. C., could be five times more toxic if swallowed rather than injected.
As little as one ounce from any of the bottles could represent a fatal dose, Ward said.
But under cross-examination, Ward admitted the tests he conducted couldn’t determine if the horse medication was the actual source of the arsenic found in fatal levels in the bodies of both men.
“No sir, all I can say is that the levels of arsenic are very high and very indicative of ingestion,” Ward said.
Asked if the men could have been poisoned by arsenic fumes from burning old cars at the junkyard Mrs. O’Bryan inherited, Ward said, “I don’t believe that would be possible.”
Ward said tests on various organ specimens taken from O’Bryan’s body showed levels up to nine times more than the amount needed to kill a man.
The prosecution has charged that Mrs. O’Bryan killed both husbands because of greed for their land holdings.
[“Horse Tonic Becomes Focus In Widow’s Arsenic Trial,” syndicated (UPI), The Middlesboro Daily News (Ky.), Jul. 24, 1980, p. 2A]
FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): Frankfort, Ky. – A Louisville woman’s murder conviction and death sentence has been overturned by the Kentucky Supreme Court.
The 5-1 decision said the evidence depended too much on testimony concerning a previous death, without proof the two were related.
The ruling Tuesday was a temporary victory for LaVerne O’Bryan, convicted in the arsenic poisoning of her former husband.
The court also reversed Mrs. O’Bryan’s conviction and 20-year term for the attempted murder of Le Anne O’Bryan, sister-in-law of the dead man.
The case involved not only the O’Bryans, but the arsenic poisoning of Harold Sadler 12 years before the 1979 death of O’Bryan. The prosecution had attempted to link the two deaths as part of a scheme.
Mrs. O’Bryan has been indicted in Sadler’s death, but the case is separate from the one involving the O’Bryans.
The majority opinion by Justice Robert Stephens said:
“We hold that prejudicial evidence concerning the death of Harold Sadler was improperly admitted. The judgment of the trial court is reversed and the case is remanded in the Jefferson Circuit Court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
In a dissent, Justice Boyce Clayton said the evidence of guilt is overwhelming.
“I believe there was competent circumstantial evidence establishing that (Ms. O’Bryan) committed a prior crime using the same common scheme or plan (poison), and was motivated by the same reason (profit), as in theb O’Bryan death,” Clayton said.
“The remoteness Sadler’s death should affect only the credibility of the evidence, and I think the peculiarity of death of arsenic poisoning makes it easier to overcome the task of proving commonality that would be true if the deaths were caused by a more typical means.”
The Supreme Court said Mrs. O’Bryan had been living with Sadler at the time he died.
It related testimony by Le Anne O’Byran that while her brother-in-law was in the hospital, she told the defendant there would be “one hell of an investigation.”
“For several hours after that, (Mrs.) O’Bryan allegedly brought Le Anne numerous cups of coffee,“ the court said. “The next day, Le Anne became ill and vomited regularly for two days. Eleven days later a urine sample revealed the presence of arsenic.”
Stephens and the prosecution produced a substantial amount of evidence concerning Sadler’s death and his prior relationship with Ms. O’Bryan.
He said she collected Sadler’s life insurance and acquired his business and land “by filing a false affidavit of descent which identified herself as his widow and co-heir, with Sadler’s mother.”
The Supreme Court said O’Bryan’s murder occurred after he decided to move to Brandenburg and buy a horse farm. It said the prosecution portrayed Ms. O’Bryan “as a jealous person acutely conscious of money and financial security.”
“It is obvious that the evidence of the O’Bryan homicide was bootstrapped by the evidence concerning the Sadler death,” Stephens said.
But, he added, there is no evidence yet of a crime in Sadler’s death because “the most that can be said is that Sadler died of arsenic poisoning. No one knows was administered the poison. Although not likely, it could have been self-administered.”
Stephens also said the proof did “not point sufficiently” to (Mrs. O’Bryan) as the cause of death and failed to show a common scheme, plan or system on (her) part.”
The majority opinion said, too, there should have been a hearing on the defense’s request for another trial site.
[“Split Decision - Court Overturns Sentence,” Daily News (Bowling Green, Ky.), Mar. 10, 1982, p. 4-A]
For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.