Death penalty trial begins in 1987 Lake Worth murder

Note: Because of inaccurate information in an online criminal records database, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Clark was previously convicted of the rape of a child under the age of 14 in Mississippi.

It was Martha Jo Bailey’s first day on the job at the Denny’s on U.S. 1 in Lantana, hardly a good time for a friend to call the restaurant and tell her that her little sister, 27-year-old Dana Fader, was missing.

“I said ‘I can’t do this right now,’” Bailey told a Palm Beach County jury Monday, the first day of a death penalty trial for 50-year-old Rodney Clark.

About 15 minutes after that first call, Bailey said her supervisor called her into his office and told her she needed to go home right away. No one had to tell her that something had happened to her sister, she said. She already knew.

It was June 20,1987, just hours after she and Fader, who were both going through rough times, decided to get dressed up and go out for the night to forget about it all. Bailey would soon find that the precious items she loaned her sister in attempt to make her feel good — a tan suede handkerchief-hemmed dress, black ankle boots and a leopard print scarf — had become elements of a crime scene in the backseat of the Ford Fairmount that Bailey had given her little sister, a mother of three, to drive.

Her sister’s case, which grew cold until investigators in 2012 matched Clark’s DNA to semen found on the dress Fader was wearing when she was found raped and strangled in the car, has now become the first local test of new state laws involving the death penalty in the wake of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed the state’s old death penalty laws unconstitutional.

Bailey looked across a Palm Beach County courtroom Monday at Clark and explained to jurors that she’d never seen him before investigators linked him to her sister’s death. But prosecutors say the DNA evidence and a partial palm print left on Fader’s car are proof that he’s guilty of the crime and should be put to death for it.

“Rodney Clark is the stranger that took Dana Fader away that night,” Assistant State Attorney Aleathea McRoberts told jurors at the start of the trial Monday. “He’s the one that did unspeakable things to her.”

It was 25 years before the forensic evidence brought investigators to Clark, who was living in Jackson, Miss. as a convicted sex offender. He had pleaded guilty to the rape of an 18-year-old woman there in 1988, when he was 20, according to Jackson court records.

In opening statements, McRoberts told jurors that Clark at first denied having lived in Florida outside of a stint in Job Corps in Jacksonville when he was 17. He later said he remembered living in the area at the time of Fader’s death but denied ever seeing her.

“‘I don’t know her, but she’s pretty.’ That’s what he told the detectives,” McRoberts told jurors Monday.

McRoberts and fellow prosecutor Reid Scott list the DNA, the palm print and what medical examiners determined could be a bite mark on Fader’s left breast as important pieces of evidence in the case.

Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey, on the other hand, said most of the alleged DNA evidence is too muddled to implicate Clark, and that even the palm print tied to Clark was from outside the car, which Ramsey characterized as “a vehicle that was routinely parked outside.”

There is no evidence because he did not do this, and there is no evidence because Mr. Clark is innocent,” Ramsey said.

Clark’s case was supposed to go to trial earlier this year but became ensnared in what has been a protracted legal battle over Florida’s death penalty.

Since the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, legislators have made changes to the laws, including requiring a unanimous 12-0 jury vote in order to impose a death sentence and giving juries ultimate sentencing power. Previously Florida juries could vote for a death sentence by a simple majority and merely made a recommendation of life or death to a judge who ultimately imposed a sentence.

Circuit Judge Charles Burton began jury selection in Clark’s case more than a week ago and swore in a panel of 12 jurors and two alternates on Friday. Clark’s trial is expected to last two weeks.

Testimony is expected to continue today with crime scene investigators and medical examiners. Ramsey and Haughwout objected late Monday to prosecutors’ decision to have a current medical examiner Dr. Reinhard Motte testify as opposed to Dr. Frederick Hobin, the doctor who performed Fader’s autopsy in 1987.

Scott told Burton that Palm Beach County Sheriff’s officials had told him Hobin was deceased, and he told Ramsey as much before the trial.

But Ramsey said a Google search uncovered Hobin alive and well — and under fire, according to published reports, for his handling of an unrelated 2010 investigation into the death of the wife of a St. John’s County Sheriff’s deputy.

McRoberts said that Motte has examined all of Hobin’s records and is qualified to offer his opinion based on his evaluation. Burton will make a ruling on the matter today.

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