One morning in June of last year, Houston defense attorney Jack Carroll arrived preoccupied at Harris County’s 338th District Criminal Court. He had never appeared before the court’s presiding judge, Brock Thomas, and he needed to ask for a continuance. As he waited for his client to be brought in, he ignored the disheveled woman in jail orange waving frantically at him, trying to get his attention.
The woman was Ana Lilia Trujillo, who was on her way to becoming the most notorious accused murderer Houston had produced in years. She’d been arrested for killing her boyfriend, Alf Stefan Andersson, less than 24 hours earlier, and already it was nationwide news.
If she had stabbed Andersson with a steak knife, it would have been unremarkable, a commonplace if terrible act of domestic violence. But instead she had stabbed him with her five-and-a-half-inch stiletto heel. The legal sharks of Houston’s criminal defense corps, who like nothing better than the kind of attention the case was receiving, sent emissaries to tout their skills to Trujillo.
She already knew who she wanted, though. In the nineties Trujillo had frequented the same downtown bars that Jack frequented, back before downtown Houston was trendy, back when bars in the area were for serious drinkers. Jack in those years was a heavy drinker who came to know many prospective clients in the process, and he represented them well enough to earn street cred as a tough defense lawyer, which is how Trujillo remembered him. Two weeks after her arrest, the Stiletto Heel Murder was still reverberating on cable news, and Jack’s mother, in Miami, learned about it that way. She called her son to see whether he knew any juicy details. That same day he took the case.
I should mention here that Jack Carroll is my brother-in-law. His twin sister, the actress Lisa Hart Carroll, has been my wife for 25 years, so I’ve known Jack since the eighties, before he became a lawyer. He was an oil and gas headhunter when I met him, poaching geologists and oil traders from and for prominent companies, and was very successful. He drove a Jaguar and golfed for large bets with Major League Baseball Hall of Famers, several of whom showed up for his wedding in 2005, by which time he’d put heavy drinking behind him.
The headhunting job helped pay for law school and prepared him for the career he really wanted. After graduating from South Texas College of Law, in 1990, he took on court-appointed indigent clients, mostly drug offenders and drunk drivers, while also practicing corporate law to help pay the bills. Jack discovered he was adept in the courtroom. He was tall and lanky and good-looking, he could think on his feet, and juries liked him. Because he wasn’t afraid of going to trial, he soon found himself taking tougher cases, defending accused drug dealers and the occasional accused murderer. He once defended a man charged with killing a policeman, in a courtroom filled with officers in uniform, and managed to get the case dismissed.
He made a nice living, but Jack still called himself “a ham-and-egg lawyer.” His wife worked as a registered nurse. His office was a walk-up above a bail bondsman, near the criminal courts building. He’d never had a big, splashy case, the kind that propels trial lawyers into high-rise office suites, until Trujillo asked him to defend her. She had no money to pay his fees, but TV producers soon began calling and offering to buy the rights to her story, all promising prime-time attention.
As the trial drew near and reporters kept circling, Jack would ask me whether he should trust them. I could tell he was excited by the fuss but also resentful of the pressure that came with it, the mounting concern that this one trial might define his career. He spent more and more time, unpaid time, preparing for it—studying the case file, interviewing potential witnesses, pondering the killing. He became convinced, truly convinced, that Ana Trujillo was innocent.
Andersson, the stiletto heel victim, was a Swedish-born biochemist who came to America in 1986 and became a U.S. citizen ten years later. He was 59 years old and, save for a brief marriage in his thirties, a lifelong bachelor. Since 2009 he’d been a visiting research professor at the University of Houston, where he was considered an expert in, of all things, female hormones. At trial Andersson would be portrayed as unfailingly gracious and mild-mannered, a passive and solitary man with no close friends or notable interests outside of his work, which he found stressful. He took antidepressants, as well as beta-blockers for heart disease. He was also a prodigious alcoholic. The university sent him to rehab for two months in 2010, but he relapsed soon after and was again drinking heavily by the time he met Trujillo, in August 2012.
Nobody could picture them together. Trujillo was fifteen years younger and far earthier, twice married and twice divorced. She sometimes worked as a massage therapist. She had been arrested for public intoxication and DWI. In court, accounts of her personality would range from “very nice” to “mean,” “crazy,” and “belligerent.” Jack came to know her on jail visits, perhaps not the best way to become acquainted with someone, and thought she was “a really sweet person” incapable of a brutal murder.
Those two disparate characters, the sweet person and the hostile nut, played lead in the drastically different theories of the killing offered to the jury in opening statements. Co-prosecutor Sarah Mickelson, a severe blonde with a stylish wardrobe, at one point got down on her knees and pounded the floor with her blue-patent-leather Manolo Blahnik pump, exclaiming, “She beat him to a bloody pulp!”
Jack’s opening statement was less theatrical but equally accusatory. “There was a life-and-death struggle that night,” he said, pacing along the jury rail. “The man was drunk and went crazy; he slammed her against the wall. She couldn’t breathe; he was suffocating her. She did the only thing she could do: take a weapon at her disposal, which was a shoe, and started clobbering him with it.”
The physical evidence was ambiguous, at least in Jack’s view. The state called as its forensic expert Officer Chris Duncan, a seventeen-year veteran of the Houston Police Department’s Crime Scene Unit. His crime-scene photos, displayed on flat-screen monitors, told a graphic story that began with pictures of Andersson’s condominium and culminated with grisly close-ups of the victim, lying on a blood-soaked white carpet in a hallway. Andersson’s face looked as if it had imploded. One of these images lingered on the monitors while co-prosecutor John Jordan chatted with his witness for a long minute, until Jack objected.
At issue was whether Trujillo had defended herself against an enraged, drunken man, then tried to revive him after he’d lost consciousness, or whether she had continued to pound him in the face once he was already down. To dramatize the latter version, the prosecution mounted actual-size photos of the blood-spattered hallway on each side of a table, on top of which lay a manikin’s head and torso. Jordan climbed over the manikin with a stiletto in hand, state’s exhibit 56. It was the left shoe of a size 9 pair of cheap blue-suede platform pumps—the mate of the one Trujillo had used as a weapon—with five-and-a-half-inch, steel-reinforced heels that tapered to a tiny oval tip. Jordan pantomimed hitting the manikin’s face with this heel while Duncan explained why the blood would spray the walls in exactly the way it did if the crime had been committed just so.
On cross-examination, however, Jack offered an alternative story. Wasn’t it possible, he asked, straddling the manikin himself, that Trujillo had been attempting CPR, compressing Andersson’s chest and slapping his bloody face to revive him? Her 911 call implied as much. The seven-minute tape had been played for the jury, and she could be heard pleading, “Breathe, Stefan, breathe,” while the operator instructed her on the procedure. Could that not produce the same spatter pattern on the walls? I counted six times in ten minutes that Duncan answered, “That’s possible,” or “That’s reasonable,” to Jack’s questions.
The exact time and cause of death were also in doubt. The emergency medical crew had arrived at 3:58 a.m., nineteen minutes after Trujillo’s 911 call, and pronounced him dead at the scene. On cross-examination of the medical unit’s supervisor, Jack elicited the fact that the unit had been in the final hours of a 24-hour Saturday-night shift and never attached an EKG monitor to determine if there was a heartbeat, as was normally required.
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Dr. Jennifer Ross, had listed the cause of death as “blunt force head and facial trauma” and declared it a homicide. She counted 25 small “contusions and lacerations” that matched the shoe’s stiletto tip. During the trial, she described similar bruises on his hands and wrists as “defensive wounds,” from trying to fend off the blows. But the cause of death isn’t the same as the mechanism of death, which Ross qualified in her testimony. It was possible, she said, that Andersson had bled to death, though it was also possible that stress had triggered an adrenaline rush, causing a heart attack.
She couldn’t say for certain, prompting Jack to ask whether “Dr. Andersson might have died while the police and EMTs were standing around.” Jordan objected to the question as speculation before Ross could answer it, and Judge Thomas sustained the objection, but the suggestion had been made.
The state rested after Ross’s testimony, leaving Jack in a quandary. He didn’t think the prosecutors had proved the case, and he was tempted to forgo a defense and send it straight to the jury. Jordan had done him a favor by playing the entire three-and-a-half-hour videotape of Trujillo’s interview with homicide detectives, which meant Jack didn’t have to put her on the witness stand. He had tried rehearsing her but found that she tended to wander off topic and came across as self-absorbed.
In the homicide interview, conducted a little more than five hours after police had arrived at the scene, it was clear she’d had no sleep, and she was doubtless hungover. She rambled on about her relationships with men, who were always “completely obsessed with me”—a phrase she used a dozen times to describe different men—and always turned abusive. “I’m too loving, I care too much,” she said, calling herself “a very spiritual person who only wants to help people.” This was all delivered in a sad, soft voice, her eyes downcast as she hugged herself. It wasn’t until she got around to Andersson that the detectives stopped her to read the Miranda warning.
She agreed to waive her rights and keep talking. She called Andersson her “fiancé,” who “completely became obsessed with me” even though “I told him I didn’t want to be involved romantically.” She said he’d become jealous when another man bought her a drink at the bar they’d been to earlier in the evening. Then she jumped straight to the fight at the condo. “His face got red, red. He got infuriated. ‘You’re not going to leave me!’ We were wrestling.” She demonstrated the wrestling by tugging at her shoulders and legs, her eyes half-closed, as she narrated in a mumble: “I got away . . . he was on top of me, suffocating me . . . I was begging him . . . he kicked me . . . I went and took my shoe off . . . I hit him a couple times . . . he was bleeding . . . I started doing mouth-to-mouth . . .”
The most telling part was one of the few times Trujillo looked directly at her interrogators and spoke in a mumble-free voice: “This is the homicide department. Does that mean . . . ?”
“Yes,” replied the lead detective. “Stefan is dead.”
She didn’t bat an eye. “He assaulted me” were the first words out of her mouth. Mickelson would later replay this moment during the closing argument.
When that video played in the courtroom, the jury members kept glancing from the monitors to Trujillo, at the defense table. She had dressed demurely for the trial, with her wild raven hair pulled back in a tight bun, and she stared into her lap much of the time.
Occasionally, though, the jury saw Trujillo reveal a different side of herself. One such moment occurred when the prosecution showed footage from the security camera inside the bar where Trujillo and Andersson had been drinking that night. The woman who’d taken them in her cab from the bar to Andersson’s condominium had testified that Trujillo spewed a torrent of threats and curses the entire way home—so hostile and alarming that the driver asked Andersson to pray with her before she left. She had also said that at the bar, Andersson went back inside three times before he could get Trujillo to leave. The footage indeed shows him returning from the front door three times, the last images of him alive. In the courtroom Trujillo smiled as she watched herself dance in her seat, her doomed “fiancé” waiting for her. Then she laughed. And the jury watched her laugh.
Even so, Trujillo was Jack’s client, and she believed in him completely, which made him inclined to believe in her. He’d sympathized with her situation during the jailhouse interview—an exhausted woman being grilled by tough male cops—and so he’d looked past the narcissism and focused on her story of self-defense. He bought it and thought others would too. He was confident the jury would acquit Trujillo, and when the prosecution rested, he was ready to let them.
Except that it was Friday by then. All week long the trial had received massive media attention. In addition to camera teams from Houston’s four major broadcast stations, an ABC network crew had come to tape lengthy segments for 20/20 and Good Morning America. Cable-news agitators like Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell were brandishing high heels and screeching bloody murder, stabbing cantaloupes with gusto. Although Jack felt he was winning, he didn’t want a weekend verdict that missed the prime-time news cycle. So Jack began his defense, calling one inconsequential Friday witness, a waitress at Andersson’s favorite hangout, and Jordan encouraged her to keep talking during his cross-examination. She talked all morning about life at the Hermann Park Golf Course clubhouse. Even Judge Thomas played along, adjourning right after lunch.
Over the weekend Jack issued subpoenas for every member of the EMT crew, and on Monday they took the stand one after another to pass the buck while Jack drove home their failure to attach an EKG monitor. He followed with his best witness, pathologist Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, who testified that every one of Andersson’s injuries was “superficial,” or a flesh wound. “All of the injuries he received were nonfatal, in and of themselves, and were all potentially survivable.” She agreed that the cause of death was blunt force trauma, but the probable mechanism, in her opinion, was heart failure. “We don’t know what his status was because nobody checked him for a heart rhythm,” she said, implying that Andersson’s life might have been saved had the first responders acted more aggressively to aid him. That might be enough, Jack thought, to make jurors hesitate to convict someone of murder.
He had spent the entire trial chipping away at the physical evidence, casting doubt on the prosecution’s version of events. Meanwhile, his blind spot had been sitting next to him the whole time.
It took the jury only two hours to find Ana Trujillo guilty of murder. There could not have been the slightest doubt among them. Jack was stunned. He’d offered the bailiff five-to-one odds that she would be acquitted, and the bailiff had turned down the bet.
Two days later, after four hours of deliberation, they gave her the maximum sentence of life in prison. That completely flabbergasted Jack, who had argued that she qualified for the two-to-twenty-year sentence imposed by Texas law for “sudden passion” in such cases. “She didn’t plot to murder the guy,” he said. “She didn’t have any motive to kill him. It was obvious something happened that night between them. If that’s not sudden passion, I don’t know what is.”
Yet the letter of the law didn’t hold up to the horror of the photos, of Andersson’s blandly handsome face hammered to mush. And as the jury foreman later told the Houston Chronicle, there were simply too many blows for the jury to accept the claim of self-defense.
In his 23-year career as a criminal defense lawyer, Jack had never had a client receive the maximum penalty (nor had he ever had a jury arrive at a verdict in as little as two hours). He couldn’t understand it. “I really thought I’d won the case,” he told me. Whether it was the media storm or the peculiarly beguiling client or simply the lure of the biggest gamble of his career, he’d somehow lost his usual feel for the game. “I’ve never been this wrong before.”