Guilty again

Peter Zielinski takes the stand in his re-trial for the alleged murder of his wife.

Editor’s note: This version of the story is expanded from the version that appeared in the print edition of Sept. 6, 2019, paper.

For the second time in six years Peter Zielinski sat in the Marion County Circuit Court and heard the words “We the jury…do find the defendant on the charge of murder, guilty.” Zielinski was charged with the murder in 2011 of his wife, Lisa.

Zielinski was stoic as he sat between his two attorneys, Matthew Tracey and Aaron Jeffers. Their hope for a lesser charge or acquittal were dashed as the judge continued to read the rest of the jury’s verdict to the packed courtroom.

“Was the defendant acting under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance when he intentionally caused the death of Lisa Zielinski? No.”

After eight days of testimony, Zielinski is once again facing a life sentence for the murder. He was slated to appear for sentencing on Thursday, Sept. 5.

Zielinski was previously tried for murder in 2013 during which the presiding Judge Dale Penn, siding with the state’s attorney’s, excluded psychological testimony relating to the defendant’s mental health. 

Due to this exclusion, Zielinski, who originally pled not guilty, changed his plea to guilty with the condition that he could appeal the judge’s decision. It resulted in a sentence of 25 years to life in prison with a possibility of parole. 

Zielinski’s appeal was granted in 2017 and his sentence overturned, the case was sent back to the circuit court. Zielinski had hoped to be able to mount a defense for his actions based on the mental health diagnosis he received. Oregon law allows for an extreme emotional disturbance (EED) defense. Zielinski’s attorneys were required by law to notify the prosecution that this would be their tactic. 

Deputy district attorneys Brendan Murphy and Katie Suver were prepared for the new defense position. The prosecution brought forth witness after witness to detail Zielinski’s relationship with Lisa. Witnesses called to testify described his controlling behavior. 

Corey Smith, once one of Zielinski’s closest friends, testified that the defendant’s attitude was “my way or no way” that he “liked to win, he didn’t want to lose” whether it was a game or an argument. 

His church attendance, job history, financial struggles and past lovers were brought forth to demonstrate Zielinski’s self-involvement and lack of concern for others. 

There was a heightened sense of drama as testimony took place, marked by witness outbursts as well as tears.

During cross examination, the victim’s mother, Rhonda Tupper, took the defense attorney questioning her to task when asked about contradicting statements she made to the police about the possibility that Zielinski might have PTSD the day after her daughter Lisa was killed.

Tupper replied to defense questions, “I was grieving my daughter.”

According to the police report taken that day, Tupper had told the police that she suspected that Zielinski might have PTSD and that he suffered from headaches, unexplained illnesses and violent nightmares.

Lisa Zielinski’s sister, Debra Geddes stated that she heard the defendant tell Lisa on two separate occasions, in 2003 and then again in 2005, that if the victim tried to leave him he would kill her. She detailed several occasions that the defendant would control when and how often his wife could visit with her family.

On cross examination, Geddes was questioned about the second death threat that was not reported to the police at the time of the murder. She, too, reminded the defense attorney that she had been grieving at the time of the murder.

The attorney asked her if she were biased with regard to Zielinski. She asked him what he meant and he responded, “Do you like Mr. Zielinski?”

“No” she said. “He was mean to my sister and he killed her.”

Two heartwrenching moments during the trial came when the prosecution played video-taped interviews with the defendant’s children which were made the day of Lisa’s murder. His oldest child Hunter, a daughter from a prior relationship, was 11 years old at the time she was interviewed by the Keizer police. 

His daughter with Lisa, Payton, was 5 years old when she was interviewed at Liberty House. At the time, neither child knew that Lisa was dead. While Payton had been home at the time of Lisa’s death she was not aware of it. Hunter was staying with her mother that week.

Det. Emanie Bravo of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office testified that she assisted with the investigation and was involved with Payton’s interview. 

Bravo began sobbing as she told the jury how Payton kept asking over and over again, “Why did she have to die? Why did she have to go to heaven?”

Lay ministers, divorce attorneys, former friends, ex-girlfriends and coworkers were all brought forward to establish that Zielinski had in fact been obsessed with keeping his wife from leaving him at all costs. The prosecution sought to establish that, up until the months before the murder, Zielinski appeared stable and had no apparent issues with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Zielinski’s co-worker at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, Cheri Hawkins-Weltz, testified that he had sought her and another employee out to ask for advice and unburden himself. 

Hawkins-Weltz stated that after Christmas 2010 she noticed that he was talking to more of his female co-workers about his personal problems. Hawkins-Weltz said Zielinski appeared to be “targeting women who were soft-hearted, easy listeners and comforting” to talk to. She eventually had to address the situation because the defendant appeared to be getting more and more upset and that he was upsetting the women he was talking to as well.

“He said Lisa said she wanted out. He was crying,” Hawkins-Weltz said.

One question that prosecutors often posed to witnesses had to do with Lisa’s sleeping arrangements in their home. For approximately two years prior to her death, the victim slept on the couch in the living room. Matovich and Hawkins-Weltz both stated they were aware of this.

Matovich testified that the defendant told her that Lisa “had a bad habit of falling asleep on the coach. He would wake-up and make her come to bed.”

Emails and text messages fueled much of the case. It was Lisa’s emails and texts to her co-worker and lover, Jeff Morgan, that were discovered by the defendant and deemed by the prosecution the motive for Zielinski killing his wife. 

Testimony by Benjamin Howden, a certified forensic examiner and lead detective on the case, delved into how the department secured these texts and emails that were presented as evidence. Howden read a series of emails and text messages sent between the defendant and Lisa Zielinski. Many of these messages were described by the prosecution as attempts to harass, manipulate or control the victim.

In one email from the victim to the defendant that was read in court, Lisa states that she never told him about an auto accident she was in because she is afraid he would lose his temper.

In an email written to Glenda Anderson, a Stephen minister with St. Edward Catholic Church, Zielinski tells her just days before killing his wife,“I fear there is nothing to lose.”

Witness speculation several times caused minor tempests resulting in the courtroom resulting in Judge Susan Tripp sending the jury out of the courtroom while she addressed the prosecutors and defense counsel regarding their witnesses. After one such occasion, Tripp addressed the jury saying “speculation has no place in this courtroom.”

The defense counsel objected several times and asked for a mistrial twice over testimony that included the witness sharing their own thoughts, feelings or reservations about the defendant’s actions or behavior prior to killing Lisa. At one point, he called a witness’s testimony “outrageous” while the prosecution countered that she was concerned that the “court was sanitizing the witness testimony.”

One such instance was a civil disturbance that resulted in a Keizer Police officer going to the Zielinski home. No charges were pressed though the officer remembered the call. Also not allowed was Michelle Smith’s testimony that Lisa Zielinski had told her about the call.  

Morgan testified Lisa had told him she was scared of the defendant and he was verbally abusive. But, he added, Lisa said she was not concerned for her safety. During cross examination, Morgan stated Lisa told him about Zielinski grabbing her around the throat while they were in bed asleep and that this was caused by war nightmare. He said that she told him she played a “role” in public in regard to her marriage to Zielinski because he could be psychotic.  

The prosecution also played the video-taped Keizer Police interview with Zielinski. The jury saw the defendant on tape just hours after he murdered his wife. He appeared to be in a heightened emotional state. His recitation of events is erratic and interspersed with details of the previous few weeks; Lisa’s affair, her private emails and text messages that he had read without her permission, their ongoing confrontations, his conversations with a priest, a lay minister, a divorce attorney and the marriage therapist. He is cold and asks repeatedly for his coat and a blanket.

“She looks at me with rage in her eyes,” Zielinski said on the video. Eventually, he walks the officer through his morning. The defendant tells the officer how he was in the shower and got out, that Lisa came into the bathroom and asked if she was in his way. 

There is a pause and the detective tells Zielinski, “You have to finish your story.”

He tried to hug her but she pushed him away and told him to get out of the bathroom. “You’re done in here,” Lisa told him.

Zielinski says he left the bathroom, that he was going to get a drink of water but instead turned toward a closet.

“I don’t know what I did. I don’t know how I did it. I’m screaming in my mind ‘No, No, No,’ but I can’t stop,” Zielinski said.

“What do you keep in your closet?” the officer asks.

“I didn’t need anything out of the closet,” the defendant said in the video. “I reach out and …”

“Grab what?” the officer asks. “You got to say the words, Pete. What did you grab? What do you see yourself doing?”

“I can’t,” Zielinski responds. 

“Pete, you know what you did. What did you reach for in the closet? You’ve got to say it. We know what happened,” the detective said.

“I love her so much,” Zielinski replies. 

“I know you loved her. Something snapped. You have to tell the story.”

“I reached for the gun,” the defendant said. He never states that he shot, but brings his hand up shaped like a gun he pulls his finger back and says, “Bang, bang.”

After he shot Lisa, Zielinski put the gun back up on the shelf in his closet. He got dressed, got his daughter Payton so that he can take her another home for home for her carpool. Payton went to the bedroom door and said goodbye to her mother, and was told by Zielinski her mommy is running late for work. They drive to the carpooling house and Zielinski leaves Payton there. After he left, Zielinski called his mother, his friend Corey Smith and then he went to the Keizer Police Department where he used a phone in the lobby to call for an ambulance. He was taken into custody shortly thereafter.

At one point during the police interview, Zielinski knocks on the door and tells the officer that he needs to get dressed and go to work. Later, he appears confused when he is told he can’t go pick his daughter up from school.  

The prosecution ended their case with autopsy photos, images meant to stay in the minds of the jury members long after the state had rested their case and the defense started theirs. 

Retired medical examiner Dr. Larry Lewman discussed Lisa Zielinski’s autopsy. According to Lewman, Lisa died by gunshot wound to the brain. It was determined, he said, to be a homicide.

“She didn’t shoot herself,” he said.

He began with a photo of an x-ray which showed bullet fragments and a shell jacket still lodged in the skull of the victim. He explained that she had skull fractures on the right side of the head extensive fractures to the base of the skull. She was shot from an intermediate distance which he explained meant that the gun had been only six inches from her head.

Lisa also had powder burns on the right side of the head, hemorrhage above the eyes and fractures inside.

There was no high velocity blood splatter, no gun powder on her hands and she had no defensive injuries. Lewman explained that defensive injuries are injuries that occur to the hands when the victim throws them up to protect themselves. There were no other injuries.

“No one could have survived the injury. She was for all practical purposes dead” though the heart can beat and the body can breathe for awhile after, he said.

The defense began their case on the morning of Aug. 26, after the medical examiner wrapped up his testimony. There was a heightened sense of agitation in the courtroom because Zielinski was set to testify in his defense in the coming days.  

Zielinski’s mother Karen Stewart took the stand. Stewart has been diagnosed with dementia and was unable to remember specifics. When asked if she noticed any changes in her son after he had returned home from the military she was vague.

“Yes, it’s hard to explain. There were times when he was a little off, he didn’t seem to be happy,” Stewart said.

She also had little memory of the events that had taken place prior to and after Lisa’s death. While she stated that she could remember the defendant calling her the day he killed the victim, she could not remember the contents of the call. She said she knew she had to go to Keizer because he needed her and something was wrong.

“I just knew that I needed to be there with him,” she said.

Zielinski’s brother Dean and his sister, Joanne, both testified that he had returned from the military a different person. 

“He was more reserved, on guard and ultra-aware of his surroundings,” said Joanne Zielinski.

“He wasn’t the same Pete. He came back a different person,” said Dean Zielinski who described his brother as a happy, fun person who liked to joke around before he left for the Marine Corps.

Zielinski’s attorney Matthew Tracey also called several Marine Corps veterans who had served with Zielinski during Operation Desert Shield, the first Gulf War. They recounted nightmarish conditions that included their company being carpet bombed by friendly fire, the panic that ensued when a fellow soldier was buried alive in his fighting hole and the smell of burned civilian bodies. One memory that each veteran shared was the perpetual state of fear they all lived in as radio operators. Their antennas, which could reach up to 10 feet above their packs, made them a prime target for the enemy. They testified that taking out a communications operator would effectively cut the company off from the rest of their battalion leaving them “sitting ducks.”

Testimony continued until the defense called friend and colleague, Kathryn Pickett, to the witness stand. Pickett, a co-worker from the Kroc Center, began her testimony describing her friendship with the defendant stating that she had known him for many years. She had visited the defendant a total of 26 times while he was in jail, Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy said.

“He was a very happy person who loved to serve. He always greeted people with a smile. He had a servant heart,” she told the defense attorney. 

“The day before the accident he came to me. We were close. He came to confide in me. He needed to talk to somebody about Lisa’s affair. He was afraid of losing his family. We didn’t normally talk about deep intimate things,” Pickett said.

Murphy immediately jumped on these comments during his cross examination. 

“Accident?” he asks, “This the word you used.” He picked up the gun Zielinski used to kill Lisa and slammed it down on the edge of the witness stand. “Do you know what this is? Can you accidentally put a bullet from the magazine into the chamber?”

“I was trying to be nice,” Pickett said. “I thought that was what this trial is about.” 

Defense counsel objected to the line of questioning and the jury was sent out. What followed was a series of arguments by the separate counsels on intent and whether Pickett’s statements implied she had knowledge that neither the attorneys nor the jury were privy to. 

“It is an argument between intent and accident,” Murphy said.

“She’s a friend,” Tracey said. “Not an expert.”

“I don’t believe that the defendant has ever admitted to killing the victim,” Murphy replied. “She was commenting on intent during a trial that is all about intent.”

Tripp admonished the witness and brought the jury back to the courtroom.

Murphy showed Pickett a photograph of Lisa’s dead body. He asked her if she has seen the video of Zielinski’s interview with the Keizer police, then he asked her if she had visited Zielinski 26 times since the murder.

Pickett responded that she did not think it had been that many times. Murphy approached the stand with a document listing all of Zielinski’s visitors since his incarnation. He then asked her again if she had visited Zielinski 26 times.

“No, I counted them,” she said. Murphy took the document to her again and asked her to re-count her visits. He then asks her how many times she visited Zielinski. “I counted 19,” she said.

After Monday’s testimony ended and the jury was sent home, Judge Tripp spoke to the defendant about his intention to testify the following day. She reminded him that it was not necessary and that he had the right to decline. Zielinski confirmed that he knew this and still intended to testify.

Zielinski began his testimony Tuesday, Aug. 27, describing his childhood and broken home. According to Zielinski, alcohol abuse was frequent and the children were spanked with a belt. The punishments increased the more his father drank. His attorneys slowly built a picture of trauma and instability, a boy who was often pretending to be happy when he was smiling. 

Tracey followed this with extensive questions about his military training, his combat experiences and the medals he received.

“Did you see incinerated civilian bodies in various states of decay?” Tracey asked his client.

“Yes. The smell of burnt hair … when someone is using a hair dryer and the smell, I think about that. I associate it with that,” Zielinski said.

At one point, Tracey asked if Zielinski was referred for psychological counseling after he was discharged.

“It wasn’t something I was aware of. Acknowledging feelings was frowned upon. The term PTSD was not used. Gulf War Syndrome was used. It was presented as a hoax, something malingerers said and no symptoms were given. I knew I felt different. I never felt I had a place anymore,” Zielinski said. 

After his discharge, Zielinski lived in North Carolina for four years and was briefly married. He then returned to Oregon and moved from job to job and relationship to relationship.  

He described increasing wartime nightmares, hyper-vigilance, an increased startle response, having night sweats, being unable to identify his emotions and feelings and of being withdrawn and outside of society.  

“Fireworks took on a new meaning for me after the war,” Zielinski said. He described one such incident that took place on the 4th of July while living with his former partner, Tami Montague.

The neighbors were setting off fireworks next to his bedroom window while he was sleeping.

I woke up on top of Tami, my hand was pressing against her chest and I was drawing back to hit her,” Zielinski said. He did not hit her, but said that it frightened him.

Tracey led the defendant through the end of his relationship with Montague and into his marriage with Lisa pointing out a commonality of complaints that both women had. Zielinski recounts being told he was distant, withdrawn, remote, standoffish and unfeeling.  

As testimony drew nearer to Lisa’s affair and the murder, Zielinski described his memory loss and their relationship in terms of loss, war, battle, conflict and encounters. He denied being verbally abusive and calling his wife names, incidents which many of the prosecution’s witnesses had testified. Zielinski claims many of these comments, in person as well as in emails, were him being sarcastic and were meant to be amusing or inside jokes.

After a day and half of testimony, Zielinski arrived at the morning of Lisa’s murder.

Zielinski’s face was blank, but there was often a tremble in his voice – the only sign that he was reliving the actions that led him to take his wife’s life. Lisa had just rejected him for the final time. 

“I don’t feel like I am driving my own body. I am just moving. I can’t trust my memory at this point. I take the gun and go back to the bathroom.” The door was closed but he doesn’t remember opening it, he said. 

“I remember seeing Lisa. She turns to me and is frustrated that I am there. I raise the gun. I feel the gun fire in my hand,” but he doesn’t remember pulling the trigger. “I remember Lisa falling to the ground, I look at her lying there and I’m confused and I don’t know what happened. All I remember is wanting her to get up.”

When cross examination began it was apparent that the prosecution was ready to pick Zielinski’s testimony apart and demonstrate that he was only interested in what he wanted.

“How you feel about Lisa being dead,” the prosecution asks. “Wouldn’t you agree that you were hypocritical, manipulative and, on occasion, mean?”

On re-direct, defense counsel attempted to demonstrate that Zielinski was trying to make the changes that Lisa had asked him to make. The attorney reminded the jury through testimony that Zielinski had given up a full time job because she asked him to stay home with the children so she could work. Zielinski was asked to read entries from Lisa’s secret diary that called him a good husband and father and blamed herself for many of their problems.

After Zielinski testified, the defense began bringing their expert witnesses to the stand. 

Sociologist William Brown took the stand. Brown conducts research on military culture and its impact on veterans returning to civilian life. Brown stated that his research includes the frequency of incarceration among discharged veterans. Brown interviewed Zielinski for his study.

“In the civilian world, everyone is equal. In the military world, the enemy is less than human. It makes it easier to kill them. The ultimate goal is to kill the enemy,” Brown stated. He went on to describe a culture that celebrates death and killing which is the opposite of civilian world values. Brown testified that once veterans, especially combat veterans, leave this culture they feel displaced and rejected in the civilian world. This “sense of other” increases if they have seen combat and killed anyone.

“’What kind of person am I?’ This creates conflict within the veteran’s mind,” Brown said.

They are taught to think of “the mission” and that their goal is to complete the mission no matter what. Brown indicated that this way of thinking often follows the veteran into their civilian life. Their training includes being taught to not think, feel or discuss their emotions. Feelings are seen as a weakness.

Brown’s testimony was followed by that of Alex Duncan, a clinical and forensic psychologist originally contracted by the district attorney’s office to evaluate Zielinski. Duncan testified that, when he met with the district attorney’s office in 2012, he had concerns about the defendant’s mental state. It was his opinion that there was evidence that Zielinski had experienced trauma and that he was exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.

Duncan explained that at the time that both he and Richard Hulteng, a psychologist contracted by the defense, wrote their separate reports that the criteria for diagnosing PTSD was different than it is today.

Hulteng stated in his report that while the defendant was “exposed to traumatic events while in combat during the First Gulf War the diagnostic criteria for post traumatic stress disorder do not appear to be met.”

Duncan also indicated that trauma symptoms, if not dealt with, become more pronounced over time. He told the jury that individuals with trauma related disorders often self-medicate with alcohol to cope with the stress, flashbacks and nightmares. When any coping mechanism, good or bad, is removed it often leads to an increase in stress and more symptoms.

“The defendant exhibited significant symptoms of stress affecting his emotions as well as his short-term and long-term memory,” Duncan said.

The defense called their final witness Robert Stanulis, a forensic and clinical psychologist with a specialization in neurobiology. He is Brown’s research partner.

Stanulis addressed the jury directly when questioned. He smiled as he explained the ins and outs of his research which looks at incarceration rates of veterans with PTSD and he explained that medical research has shown that traumatic events physically alter the brain.

The witness also testified that he had interviewed the defendant at least four times for a total of at least 10 hours and had reviewed all the reports, interviews, videos and documentation regarding Zielinski and his case.

“We look at the military culture and how it changes behavior, collateral behavioral changes,” Stanulis said “and how we talk about symbols, language and values.”

When asked about Zielinski specifically Stanulis indicated that after “looking at all the information, in context, and what happened at the time Lisa was killed” that there appeared to be a pattern. That Zeilinski appeared to have become dissociative.

Dissociative behavior, according to Wikipedia, “is a condition that involves disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity or perception. Dissociative amnesia, formerly referred to as psychogenic amnesia, is the temporary loss of recall memory, specifically episodic memory, due to a traumatic or stressful event.”

“For Zielinski, it was a fog, a dream, it slowed down and he was out of control and that extreme stress can overload the system and lead to a loss of control,” Stanulis said.

Suver began her cross examination asking if it was possible that Zielinski was malingering, or faking, his symptoms.

Stanulis stated that it was his informed opinion that the defendant was not faking his symptoms. He stated that he had diagnosed Zielinski with PTSD based on his own interviews with the defendant and the supporting evaluations made by Duncan and Hulteng. He stated that he based his conclusion that the defendant was dissociative on when he killed Lisa from interviews, evaluations and the video recording of the defendant’s interview by police.

Suver accused Stanulis of having a bias in favor of veterans. She then proceeded to bring up several other cases in which Stanulis had testified for the defense. In each case, the offenders were veterans who had been diagnosed by Stanulis as having PTSD.

Once Suver was finished with her cross examination Tracey stepped up to redirect the witness’s testimony.

When asked why he represented veterans, Stanulis stated that it was because he was hired by their attorney’s to give expert testimony.