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A Fairfax County judge scheduled for June 3 a finding and possible sentencing hearing for Caralee Cottle, the woman accused of murder in the Feb. 15, 2010 death of Dirk Smiler, a well-known member of the area goth scene. Judge Michael F. Devine issued the ruling after a day of hearing evidence, often grisly, that forced Smiler’s family and many friends to relive the 37-year-old Annandale resident’s death.
On Monday Cottle’s attorneys negotiated an “Alford plea,” a legal maneuver that allows a defendant to avoid admitting guilt but recognizes the evidence in question would be enough to convict. (City Paper was not at yesterday’s hearing; read Tom Jackman‘s coverage for The Washington Post here.) Today Cottle sat quietly dressed in head-to-toe black as her lead attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, presented nearly three hours of evidence including physical descriptions of how Cottle and Smiler were allegedly positioned at the moment of the shooting, crime scene photographs that showed the “blowback” of Smiler’s blood and brain matter, and police interviews of witnesses who saw Cottle run naked and blood-soaked up the stairs from Smiler’s basement bedroom. Several of those witnesses were in the courtroom today, along with nearly two dozen members of the area goth scene.
Greenspun, who yesterday pushed to reduce the charges against Cottle to involuntary manslaughter, posited that Smiler was physically capable of pulling the trigger himself citing Smiler’s height and armspan in relation to the Mauser 8-millimeter rifle used in the shooting. Devine questioned the suggestion, asking Greenspun if he was trying to prove the death was self-inflicted. Greenspun said he was just describing a physical possibility based on statements by ballistic analysts and medical examiners familiar with the case.
The defense’s evidence continued with a series of photos that at first focused on Smiler’s home and collection of swords and renaissance artifacts—”I don’t really know what goth is,” Greenspun remarked—but soon turned to images of Smiler’s corpse and of bruises and scratches on Cottle’s body.
Cottle’s third set of evidence were recorded police interviews of people who heard the shooting and saw Cottle run upstairs, screaming in the immediate aftermath. Bryan Bruner‘s interview was played first.
“Everything was kind of quiet until we heard the shot,” Bruner, Smiler’s housemate who earlier the evening of the killing borrowed money from Cottle to buy insulin to treat his diabetes, told the police. “Things were kind of shaking in my head. Cara said, ‘Somebody help me.’ She didn’t say anything specific other than ‘Dirk has been shot.’ My brain ceased to function normally.”
Greenspun asserted that another roommate, Stephan Balázs, had asked Smiler to keep the rifle, a World War II-era antique, unloaded. Balázs’ statement to the police retold an argument Smiler and Cottle had had earlier in the evening when she found text messages from another woman on Smiler’s phone. “Cara just flat-out busted him in a lie,” Balázs said on the tape. He then told his account of the shooting: “You don’t think a gun’s going off in a house. [Cottle] didn’t think the gun was loaded. She said they were fucking around with a gun and obviously there was a bullet in the chamber. Fuck, dude, and I had so much shit going through my head.”
Throughout the hearing today Smiler and Cottle were described as having an “open relationship” in which they would, as Balázs said on the police tapes, “bring home a girl to share.” The text message that sparked the argument before Smiler’s death was said to be from a third partner who Cottle accused Smiler of sleeping with on the side.
“Dirk and Cara enjoyed sex,” Chablis Owens, another of Smiler’s housemates, said in her police interview. “I think that’s what killed him because she came upstairs naked and covered in blood. I never gave much thought to Dirk and Cara arguing. There were no sounds of arguing—quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet, and then BAM!—that’s a fucking gunshot!” Owens also described to police Cottle’s panicked behavior after Smiler was shot. “She lays on the floor, still covered in brains and blood and just screams for five minutes. She said, ‘Help me. Help me. He put the gun up to his head. Something about [Cottle] wouldn’t pull the trigger.'”
Of all the tapes played Owens’ was most definitive in considering Smiler’s death accidental: “To be perfectly honest I think it was a fuck-up or accident because there’s no way Cara would do it.”
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Mark Sullivan provided a more violent depiction of Cottle, noting her past as a Marine and a sometimes turbulent relationship with Smiler.
“She knew weapons,” Sullivan said. The prosecutor continued by suggesting their earlier fight was more than a bit of yelling. The housemates, Sullivan said, had witnessed Cottle punch Smiler in the face after seeing the text message. “Not a slap, a full punch.”
The prosecution and Cottle’s team quarreled over Smiler’s height and handedness, particularly when debating the physical plausibility of a self-inflicted gunshot. Greenspun said Smiler was left-handed and stood 5-feet-10-inches; Sullivan claimed Smiler was right-handed and 5-feet-8-inches, the difference in height, he said, due to Smiler’s head expanding from the bullet’s entrance.
Photographs introduced by the prosecution were more graphic than those by the defense. Sullivan presented the judge a set of images depicting “wagon wheels” of blood on the walls of Smiler’s bedroom and chunks of brain matter projected across the room by the explosive force of the close-range shot. Sullivan argued here that the suicide possibility was ruled out by citing the responding detectives’ determination that it would be “physically impossible to shoot yourself and get the same splatter.”
Sullivan also read back statements Smiler’s roommates gave to investigators last year. He said that Cottle told Bryan Bruner, “Help me, help me. I shot [Smiler] and I’m going to go to jail.” The prosecutor also expanded on the nature of Smiler and Cottle’s relationship, saying that in addition to being open, it was also quite carnal. Cottle told detectives that Smiler had choked her during sex, Sullivan said. He also argued that Chablis Owens and others would testify in a trial that Cottle “enjoyed pain during sex” and that she told friends that she would say “harder, harder, spank me harder” during intercourse with Smiler.
Devine, the judge, closed by scheduling the June 3 hearing, during which he will issue a finding on Cottle’s negotiated plea of involuntary manslaughter. Greenspun’s next move is to argue for a suspended imposition of sentence (assuming Devine accepts the plea), which under the ruling of a recent Virginia Supreme Court ruling would allow the judge to suspend a first-time offender like Cottle’s case with the incentive that good behavior over a set period of time could lead to an outright dismissal in the future. In Virginia manslaughter carries a penalty of anywhere from probation to 10 years in prison; the commonwealth’s non-binding sentencing guidelines suggest up to six months in jail for a first-time offender like Cottle.