For nearly two decades, a letter opener shaped like a sword remained locked in a police file.
It wasn't until investigators began examining it two years ago that they determined the diamond-shaped blade that belonged to a priest was used to stab and kill a nun in a chapel the day before Easter in 1980, a prosecutor said Friday.
The blade found in the priest's room fit the nun's wounds "like a key in a lock," Lucas County Assistant Prosecutor Dean Mandros said Friday in opening statements of the priest's trial.
The Rev. Gerald Robinson, 68, is accused of strangling and stabbing Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, 71, in the chapel at the hospital where they worked together. The priest presided at her funeral Mass four days after her death.
The tip of the letter opener fit exactly into a small hole found in the nun's jaw, Mandros said.
‘Pieces of the prosecutor’s puzzle do not fit’
Defense attorney Alan Konop said inconsistencies in statements by witnesses over the last two decades will leave doubt in jurors' minds about who committed the crime.
"Pieces of the prosecutor's puzzle do not fit," he said.
Investigators who reopened the murder case say they arrested Robinson in 2004 after they found that bloodstains on an altar cloth matched those from the letter opener. They said the stains were created when the letter opener was laid on the cloth that covered part of the nun's body.
Prosecutors said they will not try to prove a motive in the killing.
A hospital worker will testify that Sister Pahl was upset "to the point of tears" over the way Robinson conducted Good Friday services, Mandros said.
The defense says prosecutors continued their investigation after Robinson was arrested because they still had not proved their case.
"This is all being done after the humiliation and degradation of the arrest," said Konop, who briefly rested his hand on the priest's shoulder while making his opening statement.
Life in prison if convicted of murder
Robinson, who faces life in prison if convicted of murder, closed his eyes periodically while Mandros described the nun's brutal death. Robinson was the chaplain at Mercy Hospital in Toledo and worked closely with the nun, who was the chapel's caretaker.
Suspicions have swirled that the killing was some kind of ritual slaying. A detective in the case said after Robinson's arrest that the nun's murder was part of a "ceremony" that took place in the chapel.
Sister Pahl was stabbed 31 times, including nine times in the shape of an upside down cross, Mandros said.
"Strangers don't typically have that emotional energy to stab someone 31 times," Mandros said.
Robinson was a suspect early on because he was near the chapel at the time of the killing.
Prosecutors reopened the case after receiving a letter about a woman's claims that she was molested by priests as a child. Among the names she mentioned was Robinson. Police were unable to substantiate her allegations of sexual abuse.
Prosecutors used a video board on Friday to show jurors a black-and-white photo of Sister Pahl and a color photo of Robinson taken around 1980, showing a youthful-looking priest with dark hair before he grayed.
Jurors on Friday walked through the hospital chapel and the sacristy, where the priest's robes are kept and where the nun's body was found. They also saw Robinson's old room where he lived in the hospital.
During the coming days, Mandros said witnesses will testify that:
- Footsteps were heard in a hallway near Robinson's room around the time the nun was killed. Investigators have said he was the only one who lived on that floor.
- Robinson lied about having a key to the chapel sacristy.
- An examiner found no fingerprints or residue on the letter opener and said it looked like it was sterilized. The examiner removed a medallion on the opener and found a speck of blood not long after the killing.
The defense says that in the last two years investigators tested a foreign substance found on the nun's undergarments and took samples from underneath her fingernails, and neither matched Robinson's DNA. Her body was exhumed two years ago to gather DNA samples.