Nearly a decade after Wanda Wood Darling fell to her death from a bluff near Homer on Aug. 24, 1997, TV viewers across the nation voiced their opinions: Was it an accident or was it murder?
Darling’s death, the first-degree murder trial of her husband, Jay Darling, and the not-guilty verdict from a Homer jury were featured on “Cliffhanger,” a segment of the television show “Dateline NBC,” which aired June 11. After seeing it, viewers immediately began posting their responses on the show’s Web site. More comments were posted on the show’s blog.
“I know in my heart he did kill her,” wrote Diane Edwards, a woman who claimed to be from Wanda Darling’s hometown of Haleyville, Ala., and the dead woman’s cousin.
Others refused to consider the woman’s death a murder.
“As much as I feel for Wanda’s family, there was just not enough evidence to prove that he killed his wife,” wrote Paula B. of Raleigh, N.C.
Those who set Jay Darling free bore the brunt of some reactions.
“I and other citizens are ashamed of the jury,” wrote Homer resident Lee Mayhan.
Wanda Darling’s sister, Tammy Ward, gave the program a favorable rating.
“We thought they did a very good job. They were very accurate of their portrayal of Wanda, what a lovely person she was and what a loss the world has suffered,” Ward told the Homer News. “We’re really glad that, based on the blog, the majority of people can see Jay for what he is.”
Former Alaska State Trooper Lary Kuhns of Homer was among those interviewed by “Dateline” correspondent Keith Morrison. Kuhns, now a Homer Police Department investigator, worked diligently to bring the case to trial.
“Overall, I think they were very professional and they showed both sides of the story and left viewers to come to their own conclusions,” Kuhns said. Kuhns considered not watching the show, but changed his mind based on a favorable review of the program from a family member in Ohio who saw it earlier that evening
From years of being immersed in the case, Kuhns identified details not included in the program that resulted in questions from viewers. One example was the unrecovered camera Jay Darling said he and his wife were using to take photos from the bluff location where she fell.
“Let’s consider when the search for the camera happened,” said Kuhns, who had search and rescue personnel prepared to comb the face of the bluff for evidence the same day of Wanda Darling’s death. His supervisor delayed the search, and by the time it finally happened, heavy rain had swept through the area. The camera was not found.
“The quality of evidence was greatly diminished by waiting,” Kuhns said.
Ron Hess, to whom Jay Darling went for help after Wanda Darling’s fall, said “Dateline” “did a fair job” covering the case. Having read through viewers’ comments, Hess also questioned the jury’s decision in light of Judge Richard Savell’s instructions that circumstantial evidence was to carry the same weight as physical evidence.
“I remember what the judge said when (the jury) walked out for its deliberation. If you go to bed at night and look out the window and it’s snowing, then when you wake up next morning and there’s snow on the ground, you know it snowed last night. If you go to bed and it’s not snowing, but you wake up and there’s snow on the ground, you can reasonably assume it snowed the night before. I think he was trying to give them a hint,” Hess said.
Juror Sandy Stark did not watch the television show, but was one of three jurors interviewed on “Dateline.”
“It just seemed like it was something that the public had a high interest in and the folks on the jury worked really hard on it,” Stark said of her decision to be interviewed.
According to Stark, the jury kept going back to what happened on the bluff in the moments before Wanda Darling’s death.
“In any situation where there’s a key action, you need to understand it and you need to know the validity of the evidence,” Stark told the Homer News.
Witnesses at the trial testified Jay Darling had given numerous explanations for his wife’s fall from the bluff. Hess said he was told the couple was taking pictures, Jay Darling turned his back to his wife “to answer a call of nature” and when he turned back around she was gone. An insurance agent said Jay Darling told her that his wife “fell off a cliff.” Lisa Eddins, Jay Darling’s former girlfriend, was told “he saw her jump off the cliff. He said that Wanda was very depressed and upset.”
“What the jury heard was fairly consistent with one version that was presented by the defense, that basically an accident had occurred,” Stark said.
Still, Stark said her “gut reaction” is that Jay Darling murdered his wife.
“But that’s not an evidence-based judgment,” she said.
With regard to the importance the court placed on circumstantial evidence, Stark said, “I would say the circumstantial evidence does not have as much weight as direct evidence. In the jury’s mind. And in my mind. That’s not the American system of justice. You have to have proof.”
Remaining steadfast in his belief that Jay Darling murdered his wife, Kuhns told Morrison he felt shame when he heard the “not guilty” verdict read.
“Not on me, on them (the jury). Shame on them. If the issue was proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that doesn’t mean proof beyond all doubt,” he said.
Reliving her sister’s death and the trial “just kind of tore the scab back off,” Ward said of the family’s reaction to the TV coverage. “I hope everybody saw Lary (Kuhns) as the dedicated officer that he is, an officer that believes in justice for everybody.”
For a transcript of “Cliffhanger,” to view comments posted by viewers or to post a comment, visit the Web at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032600/.
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