A trial for a generation

Monday, July 6, 2009 at 12:00am
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Every few years, media outlets from all over the country dub some murder case somewhere as the “trial of the century.” We saw it with O.J. Simpson in 1995, but before him were cases ranging from Sacco and Vanzetti to the Scarsdale Diet murders. Each one of those cases briefly held the moniker as “trial of the century.”

Nashville too has had its famous trials as a result of murder cases. These came upon the deaths of David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife in 1973, or when prominent businessman W. Haynie Gourley was gunned down in an alley on a Friday morning in 1968. More recently there was the conviction of Perry March in the death of his wife Janet.

All were tragic and garnered a lot of attention, but for the most part they were voyeuristic episodes that didn’t change the way we live. They didn’t force the locking of doors, the changing of family rules, or the calling of neighbors to know where loved ones were at any given moment.

No, that was the result of the case that hit Nashville hardest. It won’t be called a “trial of the century,” but in many ways it will be the trial for a whole generation of Nashvillians.

It is the trial of Jerome Sidney Barrett for the 1975 murder of 9-year-old Girl Scout Marcia Trimble.

DNA trail leads here

On July 13, jury selection will begin and members of this community will sit in judgment of a man already convicted earlier this year for the murder of Sarah “Sally” Des Prez. Des Prez was a 19-year-old Vanderbilt University student killed at her apartment just a few months before Trimble vanished near her Green Hills neighborhood home.

Barrett was convicted in January for Des Prez’s murder after a three-day trial. DNA evidence presented at that trial was a major factor in the conviction. While the defense implied a consensual sexual relationship occurred and the DNA was a byproduct of the encounter, the jury in the case did not buy it.

And the jury had not been informed that Barrett, 61, who was 27 at the time of the Des Prez murder had been released from prison in 2002 after serving 26 years in jail for the rape of a Belmont student. Those facts would have made defense implications even less plausible had they known.

Because the death penalty was not on the books in 1975, the maximum Barrett could get was life in prison and he got it. The same holds true in the Trimble case, there can be no implementation of the death penalty should he be found guilty.

DNA is expected to play a major role in the upcoming trial over whether Barrett killed Trimble or not. Explaining how your DNA came to be found with a 9-year-old girl last seen delivering Girl Scout cookies will not be an easy task should that be the type of evidence introduced.

Police face scrutiny

While the defense will have their hands full dealing with DNA concerns, it is possible that Barrett won’t be the only one whose actions will be questioned. Metro law enforcement will have to answer questions as well.

In the 34 years since Trimble disappeared, Metro Police have arrested one person for the crime and publicly let on it had cast suspicions on another.

Jeffrey Womack, now 49, was arrested on his 20th birthday in August of 1979. He had been a neighbor of the Trimble family. By all accounts, police and prosecutors decided early on that the killer must have been someone who knew Marcia and police believed Womack fit that bill.

However, one year after Womack's arrest, all charges against him were dropped. Prosecutors were unable to muster enough evidence for an indictment, but he remained Metro Police’s main suspect, something that kept finding its way into the local news.

Then on Aug. 28, 1990 — again, on his birthday — Womack was working in a Nashville Burger King when police reportedly descended on the location with guns drawn. They wanted a DNA sample, and this was how they asked. Womack, whose attorney rushed to the scene, was taken to General Hospital where he provided the samples.

Up until Barrett was charged, many folks in Nashville held the belief that for years Womack had been getting away with murder. It is possible that there is no person, not including members of the Trimble family, who has been waiting for this trial more than Womack.

Besides Womack, the neighbor subjected to the most public attention and police pressure was March Egerton, son of author John Egerton.

The Egertons lived immediately across the street from the Trimbles on Copeland Drive. At the time of the disappearance March was 10, a year older than Marcia.

After years of scrutiny and multiple police interviews, March Egerton too has been seemingly vindicated by the arrest of Barrett.

More than one victim?

There is no question that Marcia Trimble was the real victim in 1975. Her killing in the city’s quiet Green Hills community while out selling Girl Scout cookies, and the subsequent discovery of her lifeless body on an Easter Sunday, shocked Nashville in so many ways.

Still, this crime in many ways made victims of Womack and Egerton. Their families will be watching the coming trial for closure and perhaps different forms of vindication.

When the crime is explained to a jury for the first time, many who knew the key players in the case, will be transported back in time to those fateful days in 1975. And to some degree, Nashvillians of a certain age and era, too, will be transported back in time.

Today there are adults, facing sagging waistlines and mortgage payments, but as this “trial of their generation” unfolds they likely will become a 9-year-old child again — watching a helicopter fly overhead, searching for a girl from their school, hearing the distant sound of their mother’s voice wanting them to stay within sight of home.

In other words, the sights and sounds, fears and suspicions of 1975 that changed how Nashvillians forever lived their lives, will resonate once again.

Staff writer E. Thomas Wood contributed to this story