Investigation Discovery’s True Conviction explores real stories of how homicide cases are solved on the street and won in the courtroom. The show spotlights the cooperation between detectives and prosecutors, breaking down court cases like the ones featured on episodic cop shows like Law and Order. The series is hosted by Homicide Bureau Attorney Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, who spent 21 years as a prosecutor with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. In one of the largest and busiest DA Offices in the country, Nicolazzi held a Homicide Conviction record of 35 wins and 0 losses, although one of her signature convictions, John Giuca, was reversed on appeal in February. On the series, she is as formidable an advocate for the unjustly accused as she is an adversary to criminals.
On the episode “The Witching Hour,” the show explored the case of 26-year-old law student Tracey Schoettlin. She disappeared after her shift as a waitress in Birmingham, Ala. Her body was found, naked except for knee-high stockings, under a bridge near the River Run shopping center by the Cahaba River in Jefferson County. She had been beaten, sexually mutilated, and stabbed 19 times.
A few days later, a witness told investigators he saw Schoettlin at a convenience store on Highland Avenue on the night she disappeared. He also said he saw an unidentified man sat in a car outside. The case went cold for four months, until a man named Tommy Bradley of Center Point approached investigators with what he said were “visions from God” about the killer. According to the court papers, investigators said Bradley knew things only the killer could know.
According to Bradley’s visions the killer went after “girls he thought were attractive enough to go out with even if he had to kill ’em before,” the confessions read. “He would kill simply for the fact that he’s done it before and he realizes that he can do it and that he can get away with that thought inside of himself that he has killed someone.”
Bradley also knew that the killer burned Schoettlin’s driver’s license, or “he might have melted it with a cigarette lighter … Because he thought that it was a clue to who she was. He thought it would be a clue to who she was and it would enable them quicker to find him.” Bradley was arrested and charged with capital murder. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic, the state found him competent to stand trial.
According to the court papers, Bradley said the killer knew Schoettlin read the book The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. He described how the killer came on the woman at a disabled automobile, cranked her car, brought her to get oil and offered to take her home. Bradley told investigators the killer beat and sexually abused her. Bradley said the victim tried to run and when the killer realized the victim was performing sexual acts only to save her life, he began stabbing her. Bradley told police the killer shouted “you ugly beast.” He said, even though Schoettlin appeared to be dead after the third stab, the killer continued to stab Schoettlin eight to fourteen more times to make sure that she was dead. He then mutilated her internally with a knife with a big wooden handle or a comb and performed “witchcraft” on her.
Bradley knew the killer had a knife in a designer-type pouch, and claimed the victim knew “she was going to be killed,” said it “was inevitable” and that “the victim had authorized herself to be killed because she had wilfully sinned.”
According to the True Conviction episode, Bradley was driving around with some tarot cards, what “looked to be a Ouija board,” and a box of glitter. The prosecutor told Nicolazzi the office connected a single piece of glitter found on Tracey’s leg to Bradley’s practice of witchcraft. Glitter is not a dead giveaway to witchcraft, but it is more prevalent than the average viewer might know.
“I put a little in potions and curios. I use it to add the appropriate color to spells mostly and to amplify energy,” Ana Divina, a priestess and ordained minister who “practices High Magick and “often uses glitter in ceremonies and rituals” confirms to Den of Geek. She explains that “black glitter can be used to curse when mixed with black pepper. I turn white candles and tea candles into any color with glitter. I sprinkle it in my novenas as offerings to the godesses. For instance, anytime I work with Frigg, the wife of Odin, the father in Nordic mythology, I use gold glitter as an offering.”
The lay prosecution might not have been too far off with their assertions. “Sounds like he was using glitter as an offering to summon a spirit who liked glitter,” Divina theorizes. “He used the Ouija board to communicate with said spirit or channel,” Divina explains. “It’s portable, easy to carry. Maybe he took her life force to give it to the spirit he summoned.”
“Her murderer believed himself to be the negative archetype of the witch in the same way that Richard Ramirez, the Vampire of Sacramento, believed himself to be the negative archetype of the vampire,” posits Marie Bargas, the Hollywood Witch. “The props substantiated the archetype but psychologically the archetype was a mask for a deeper pathology.”
The defense argued that Bradley was insane and investigators used religion to manipulate him. Bradley’s defense included the expert testimony of psychologist Dr. Keith Harary to establish the visions were authentic. Harary characterized the “visions” as “extended perceptions” The doctor testified to cases he worked on where precise details were given without access to criminal investigations.
The jury deliberated four hours before finding Bradly guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison. Bradley lost court appeals and serves his term at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer. He was the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center which resulted in a 300 percent increase in mental health staffing at state prisons in Alabama.
Nicolazzi, who served on the faculty of Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Program, breaks down the case with the prosecution and defense and comes to the same conclusion. The former DA tried over 50 felony cases to verdict, including the Fairfield College murder of football player Mark Fisher; the murder of Hunter College student Ramona Moore, the targeting and murder of Michael Sandy, the shooting death of New York City Police Officer Russel Timoshenko, and the murder of ABC news radio personality George Weber. She spoke with Den of Geek at Investigation Discover’s IDCon.
Den of Geek: The premiere episode, “A Match to Murder,” explores the March 2000 murder of 71-year-old Margarita Ruiz and her adult daughter Hope in Florida. It went unsolved for six years but one detective never let it go.
Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi: He always believed there was more on this case, and ultimately he helped solve a case that had gone cold down in Florida where two women, a mother and a daughter, had been killed just randomly in their home and it ended up being the same Defendant who had left Wisconsin after killing his mother, and had, probably to create the alibi, had gone and killed these two women there. So he actually got justice for this family, unrelated to his case whatsoever, which was amazing.
After so many years as a prosecutor, does that change you head when you’re actually on the set and doing investigations?
It doesn’t, and I’ll tell you why. Prosecutors in homicide – which is what I did for 16 years, I was in the DA’s office for 21, prosecutor for 16 – you’re really involved in these cases from beginning to end. As the prosecutor, it isn’t just about how do I get to the conviction, because one, you have to make sure that it’s the right person. That the evidence is correct, that it is gathered correctly, is investigated correctly. So you’re always looking at it from both sides, because I think that’s the only diligent way to do it, and you’re dealing with the victim’s family, so you have that very personal element which I think you need to have, to understand what it is that you’re doing.
It’s not just about pieces of paper and “are the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed” and how is the evidence gathered? It was a very methodical process and should be. It really intersperses all these different angles and you are also looking at it when the Defense brings something to you, you always have to look at it, because what if they’re right? I mean, what a horror if we miss something that’s there.
If the defense brings something to you that changes the way you’re looking at the case, do you send the police back out to find another suspect?
Again, it depends what it is. If it’s something like that, of course, if you have by some chance the wrong person, that’s a given. Of course you shouldn’t continue that prosecution if it leads you down another trail, all the better. But we need to make sure on this job that we get it right. It isn’t just about getting it done, it’s getting it right for everyone. I mean, one, you want that person held accountable that actually committed the crime. You want the family to have closure, but closure that they know that the person or people who actually committed this crime are held accountable. Not just
Do you have any specific memories of a case that you changed your mind on?
No. I have two cases, one that I changed my mind on but it was actually before I was a homicide prosecutor. I was a prosecutor doing felonies and it was an assault case that, on paper, it looked pretty straightforward that they’d gotten to the person, they’d arrested this person for, I think it was a robbery if I remember, with assault attached. But when you looked carefully, it started not to add up, the way that they apprehended this person that was this the person who actually committed the crime?
And I became convinced that it wasn’t, and let the person out and that was the end of it. Now, during my time there, because I think I left for homicide pretty quickly, we never found the person that actually committed that crime, but to me that, the fact that I still remember it to this day, it stands out, that’s part of my job too. It’s part of a prosecutor’s job also.
And then I had a case that I didn’t change my mind on, but the evidence became problematic that this … questions kept popping up during the prosecution of a homicide that it didn’t seem right to keep that person, the Defendant, incarcerated while we researched it and waited for more answers, so I let him out. Which is, you can imagine, not something that happens every day and you worry.
Is there pressure against that?
Well, sure, because what if we believe this person committed the crime, although there was questions. And what if they do something else and it’s on your watch that you let them out? But it didn’t mean it shouldn’t have been done. It needed to be done, and we waited, and that case I think I was waiting for some additional DNA or some new technology to see if it could help answer the questions we had, and it did, and it made me very convinced that it was him. And then we were able to go forward in a prosecution. But that was a risk and maybe unpopular by some standards, but I think that’s part of what we need to do to ensure that we’re doing, the stakes are so high, I think, in this, for everybody. That you need to be sure you’re doing it the right way.
But not to the extent where some will be kept locked until you’re actually sure they’re not guilty.
I think it does happen. I think TV highlights it because it makes for really fascinating stories and interesting TV. I don’t think it happens nearly as often as is portrayed and thank goodness for that. But I think if it happens once, I mean, that’s enough that we should be looking at it.
But I think that the counter-argument and what you’re weighing there is, “Okay, is this person innocent? Well, absolutely we need to get them out yesterday.” But what if they’re not? What if they are guilty and these questions that are popping up, they do need to be fully investigated. Especially once it’s gone to a jury and they have come back with that guilty verdict. These are all systems that rely on our human frailties so mistakes can be made, and you just have to show that you’re doing everything to ensure that they aren’t, and that we can right the wrongs when they’re there. So I think that obviously if you were, know that someone’s innocent, then I think it’s a no-brainer. That person should be let out, period. I mean, then politics shouldn’t matter.
Did you ever cover any mob that run Brooklyn?
Tangentially. The Federal authorities usually handle the mob cases because they’re dealing with organized crime and conspiracy. There are a lot of overt acts that call into Federal jurisdiction. I’ve had a couple of cases that had mob or mob-like figures but they weren’t organized crime per se.
True Conviction runs on Investigation Discovery.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.