The introduction of homosexuality into the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson recalls a similar trial in Hillsborough 39 years ago. The results of that trial should provide a cautionary tale to Durahm District Attorney Jim Hardin, who seems to be desperately grasping at straws in his efforts to establish a motive in the current case.
Arguing to bar evidence of Peterson's homosexuality, defense attorney Thomas Maher produced a 1965 N.C. Supreme Court case in which homosexuality was described as "moral degeneracy." But, said Judge Orlando Hudson "A whole lot has changed in our society since then." Maher replied: "Things may have changed, but some portion of the population still have an incredibly strong reaction [to homosexuality]." Maher said if only one juror says, "Oh, my God, this guy's gay," then Peterson would be denied a fair trial.
That is precisely what happened in Hillsborough in 1964. A 33-year-old UNC English instructor, Frank Joseph Rinaldi, was accused of beating his wife to death on Christmas Eve 1963. As with the Peterson case, most people felt he had something to do with it, but most people also felt the police had bungled the investigation. Unlike the Peterson case, the death of Lucille Begg Rinaldi was clearly a homicide from the moment the police arrived at the little rental cottage at 21 North Street, a block away from police headquarters.
One of many dramatic moments in the trial was when the police were forced to produce a big cardboard box and return all of the physical evidence to the defendant because it had been illegally seized. Piece by piece, the bloody clothing, the flashlight that had been the murder weapon, were carefully removed and given back to Rinaldi.
For me, a naive young closeted gay man just beginning his career as a reporter, there were many other moments of personal recognition and private horror at what was happening in the courtroom. From the beginning, Solicitor Dick Cooper attempted to show a motive for murder was "the kind of man he was."
I will never forget the face of a young gay man who worked at Duke as Cooper grilled him. He seemed like a trapped animal sitting there in the witness box. Cooper's interrogation was brutal. All the man had done was send postcards to his friend Rinaldi that mentioned "pansies" and "fruits." And suddenly his own life and lifestyle were on trial. The man's face turned such a beet red with shame and embarrassment, I honestly thought he might have a heart attack right there on the stand.
Cooper was relentless in his pursuit of homosexuality as a motive for murder. The morning of the murder, Rinaldi had climbed into the van of his best friend, a Durham insurance man whose middle name was Frederick, and said: "Together again, baby." (Keep those names, "Frederick" and "Rinaldi" in mind as you read this.)
"What kind of man calls another man, 'baby'?" thundered the solicitor. Well, the witness tried to explain, it was a hip expression a lot of men used. "That's in the crowd that you and Frank run around with," Cooper snapped.
Cooper's key witness against Rinaldi was a young man who worked as a waiter at a Chapel Hill pizza place. He said Rinaldi had tried to hire him to kill his wife on several occasions. He also told the jury that Rinaldi invited him to his apartment and asked him to come sit beside him. "...when I got over there he reached for my privates, my pants there, and he put his hands there; I pushed them down... he told me to unzip my pants; I wouldn't do it. I pushed him off again, so he said, 'Take it out, and let me see it.'... I didn't take it out, so he reached in his pocket and got some money out and handed it to me; I still rejected him and after kept rejecting him trying, he then told me he was sorry, he hated he had tried to do anything like that, he was ashamed of himself. After that I left."
Barry Winston was Rinaldi's lawyer. He was a bright and aggressive young man not long out of law school who was fast making a name for himself, taking on unpopular and controversial causes. He strenuously objected to the introduction of the above testimony, but the reactionary old judge, Raymond Mallard, was hearing none of his liberal palaver and allowed all of it.
Meanwhile, Solicitor Dick Cooper obviously felt he was onto something good. In his final argument to the jury, he repeated the question, "What kind of man calls another man, 'baby'?" over and over and over. He used the word "baby" 15 different times.
I was working for the legendary editor, Jim Shumaker, at the Chapel Hill Weekly and he gave me free rein covering this very sensational trial. We all but ran a full transcript of each day's proceedings, taking up whole pages of the newspaper. The Weekly's business manager was a member of the jury. When the guilty verdict was announced at 12:32 p.m. Nov. 18, 1964, I sat down with him and did a detailed account of how the jury of nine men and three women went from a preliminary vote of 10 to 2 for acquittal to unanimous for conviction in eight hours. A rigid retired Army colonel was elected foreman of the jury and he clearly took charge.
The time of the murder was a key factor in their deliberations, but another important fact was "the kind of man he was." I was stunned as I sat across from the Weekly's employee on the jury, this good and decent man I worked with day in and day out. I repeated the phrase, "The kind of man he was?" "Yes," he said, "that was important."
The Supreme Court of North Carolina disagreed. Rinaldi's lawyers promptly filed notice of appeal and the state's highest court took up the matter at its next term. On June 18, 1965, the court ruled: "In a prosecution of a husband for the murder of his wife, evidence tending to show that prior to the homicide he had made improper sexual advances toward the male witness does not, standing alone, tend to establish defendant's guilt of his wife's murder, and the admission over his objection of the evidence tending to show that he was a sexual pervert, emphasized in the solicitor's argument to the jury, is prejudicial error."
A new trial was ordered, and on Oct. 21, 1965, a jury in Hillsborough found Frank Joseph Rinaldi not guilty of murdering his wife. He went on to become an assistant instructor in English at the University of Massachussetts. His close friend is still in the insurance business in Durham.
I should explain that in the course of covering this trial, I became quite friendly with the irascible old judge and the sexist solicitor. After the end of one long day in the trial, my pal Charlie Craven of The News & Observer and I were leaving the courtroom when the judge called out, "Now, Charlie, you watch out for 'Perry-baby.'" I ran into the solicitor months later in a Chapel Hill bar. "Perry-baby," he said, giving me a big grin and a warm handshake. It was all a big joke to them, but the joke struck terror to my own heart.
It was still more months later before someone--I think it was novelist Reynolds Price--pointed out to me that the killer phrase in the solicitor's argument was actually a literary reference. What kind of man calls another man "baby"? Ernest Hemingway. In his novel, A Farewell to Arms, the fictional Italian surgeon, Rinaldi, constantly refers to his beloved American friend, Frederick Henry, as "baby." The question remains as to why Frank Rinaldi didn't point this out to his lawyer in 1964.
Perry Deane Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .