TOLEDO, Ohio – The body of a nun found strangled and stabbed to death in a hospital chapel appeared to have been displayed in a ritualistic fashion, her arms and legs straight and no sign of blood, a fellow nun testified Monday at the murder trial of a priest accused of the 1980 killing.
"People don't usually die very straight," said Sister Phyllis Ann Gerold, who president of Mercy Hospital when Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was killed.
Gerold, testifying at the murder trial of Rev. Gerald Robinson, said she was eating breakfast when she heard screaming from the hospital chapel on the day before Easter. Inside, she found two or three other Roman Catholic nuns and Pahl's body.
"The horror of it," Gerold told the court Monday when asked her first impression. "I think it was the weirdness of it and that she needed to be saved and then the afterthought is, `Why the ritualistic kind of layout of a dead body,' once I learned she was dead."
Pahl was stabbed 31 times, including nine wounds in the shape of an upside down cross, authorities said.
Prosecutors have said some of the wounds exactly match the diamond-shaped blade of a letter opener found in Robinson's room.
Police suspected that the nun's death was some kind of ritual slaying because of evidence found in the chapel and because the nun's body was posed as if she had been sexually assaulted, even though investigators say she wasn't.
Using a mannequin in the courtroom Monday, the prosecutor asked Gerold to describe how she found the victim.
He arranged the arms as she explained and asked about the position of the head.
"All I remember is the swelling of the face and there was no blood," she said.
The prosecutor, apologizing, also asked if the victim's genital area was exposed. Gerold responded yes. Asked if the victim's breasts were exposed, she responded: "I don't remember that. It may have been a white cloth over that. I can't remember that."
Defense attorney Alan Konop has said there have been inconsistencies in statements made by witnesses over the past two decades, and he expects that will leave doubt in the minds of the jurors about who committed the crime.
Investigators reopened the murder case in 2003 after the prosecutor's office received a letter about a woman's claims that she was molested by priests for years as a child. Among the names she mentioned was Robinson. Police were unable to substantiate her allegations of sexual abuse.
Pahl, 71, and Robinson had regular contact arranging daily chapel Masses at the hospital where they both worked, Gerold said. Robinson presided at her funeral.
Robinson, now 68 and free on bail, could get life in prison if convicted. The death penalty was not in effect in Ohio at the time of the slaying.