WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — The death of a woman shot by her former father-in-law at a Delaware courthouse in 2013 was the result of cyberstalking by the gunman's widow and two children, a federal jury said Friday in convicting the three defendants on all counts in a nationally unprecedented verdict.
After a monthlong trial, jurors found David Matusiewicz; his mother, Lenore; and his sister, Amy Gonzalez, guilty of conspiracy and cyberstalking that resulted in the death of David's ex-wife, Christine Belford. Lenore and David Matusiewicz also were convicted of interstate stalking resulting in death.
"It is an unprecedented verdict. It is the first of its kind in the country," said Charles Oberly III, U.S. Attorney for Delaware, who was recused from the case.
Justice Department officials say there has been no previous case that resulted in a person being convicted of cyberstalking resulting in death, which carries a possible life sentence. Scott Hinckley, an assistant special agent in charge with the Baltimore office of the FBI, described Friday's conviction as a victory for Belford and the three daughters she had with David Matusiewicz.
The defendants showed no visible emotion when the verdicts were read, though Gonzalez, 43, began weeping while holding her hands in prayerlike fashion against her forehead as the jury left the room. All three will remain in custody pending sentencing, set for Oct. 15.
Defense attorneys indicated they will appeal.
"I think it's a terrible travesty," said Tom Kula, the brother of 70-year-old Lenore Matusiewicz.
Belford, 39, and a friend, Laura "Beth" Mulford, 47, were killed by David's father Thomas Matusiewicz as they arrived for a child support hearing in February 2013. Matusiewicz, a 68-year-old Navy veteran and former New Jersey police officer, then exchanged gunfire with police before killing himself.
The defendants denied knowing that Thomas Matusiewicz planned to kill Belford.
The child support hearing was part of a long and bitter court battle between Belford and David Matusiewicz, 48, over their daughters. David Matusiewicz, a former optometrist, went to federal prison and later lost his parental rights after he and his mother kidnapped the children and took them to Central America in 2007, purportedly because of concerns about abuse and neglect by Belford.
Prosecutors alleged that, after the kidnapping, David Matusiewicz conspired with his parents and sister over several years to spy on, torment and stalk his ex-wife, and that the family repeatedly and falsely accused Belford in emails, letters, phone calls and Internet postings of abusing and neglecting the couple's daughters.
The prosecution's evidence included a red notebook found in the car driven to the courthouse by Thomas and David Matusiewicz. Prosecutors described it as a "stalking playbook" that contained a "hit list" of people who took part in court proceedings involving Belford and David Matusiewicz.
"This case represented an escalation of conduct by the Matusiewicz family against Christine Belford and her children over a number of years," the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie McCall, said Friday. "That conduct absolutely suffocated Christine Belford. She fought back, she actively resisted them, and for that she was killed."
A core element of the stalking campaign, according to prosecutors, was the allegation that Belford had sexually abused the couple's oldest daughter — a claim prosecutors say was deliberately false and which was refuted by the girl, now 13, in closed-door testimony. A federal judge also found that claim not credible when he sentenced David Matusiewicz in 2009 for kidnapping and bank fraud, as did a state Family Court judge who terminated David's parental rights in 2011.
Prosecutors argued that the sexual abuse claim was concocted after the kidnapping as an excuse for the girls being abducted, but three witnesses testified that the Matusiewicz family had expressed concerns about possible abuse by Belford as early as 2006, well before the kidnapping. Defense attorneys also noted that Gonzalez and Lenore Matusiewicz passed lie detectors tests in 2011 about the allegations of sex abuse.
Defense attorneys argued that David Matusiewicz, who was inside the courthouse during the shooting, was subsequently targeted for prosecution because he was "persona non grata" after the 2007 kidnapping. They also rejected the notion that the Matusiewicz family conspired to have Belford killed in a crowded courthouse lobby filled with police and security cameras to further their goal of having the children reunited with David.
Prosecutors noted that the defendants did not have to know that Tom Matusiewicz planned to kill Belford in order to be found guilty, but only that Belford's death was "reasonably foreseeable" or a "natural consequence" of their actions.
Oberly, the U.S. Attorney, was recused from the case because, while still a lawyer in private practice, he wrote the state Division of Family Services in 2009 on behalf of Thomas Matusiewicz, urging officials to take steps to protect his granddaughters.