Convicted murderer seeks new trial
James Ludlow's attorney says unanalyzed bullets discredit only eyewitness
More than 12 years after the murder of a Lawrence builder, the man convicted of the shooting says newly analyzed evidence shows the only eyewitness to the killing lied to jurors.
Based on a trail of evidence that includes bullet fragments that were never analyzed and a mysteriously lost and found bullet slug that didn’t surface until a year after his trial, James Ludlow, 36, is asking for a new trial.
Ludlow has been in prison the past decade for the Nov. 22, 1992, shooting death of Tracy Robbins at Robbins’ home south of Lawrence. The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1994.
But only recently did Ludlow’s family put together enough money to hire a private attorney to argue that Ludlow had ineffective court-appointed attorneys during the trial and on appeal.
In a hearing set for Dec. 22, the attorney, David J. Brown of Lawrence, will ask Douglas County District Court Judge Jack Murphy to give Ludlow a new trial.
The main issue is that the only eyewitness called by the state — Robbins’ girlfriend, exotic dancer Valerie Hartley — testified only one gun was fired that night inside the home.
Brown says that can’t be right.
“If the (trial) attorney had properly investigated and examined the evidence that was known at that time, he would have realized that there were two guns used here,” Brown said. “He would have attacked the credibility of the only eyewitness to this crime, and my client would never have been convicted.”
Robbins was a well-known contractor who recently had divorced and taken in Ludlow and his girlfriend after Ludlow was kicked out of his apartment. Robbins was not drinking the night of the shooting, but Ludlow was.
He claimed he didn’t remember any of the night’s events because he drank beer and more than a dozen shots of Southern Comfort earlier in the night at the Pool Room.
The case against Ludlow, therefore, relied largely on Hartley’s word.
Left for dead
She testified that when they returned to Robbins’ home in Oakwood Estates about two miles south of Lawrence off U.S. Highway 59, Ludlow roused from an alcohol-induced stupor. As she and Robbins stood in the kitchen joking about unloading the dishwasher, she said, Ludlow picked up Robbins’ 30.06 hunting rifle and, without warning, fired it into Robbins’ back.
Hartley testified Ludlow then shot her in the buttocks with the rifle, fired again and barely missed her head, then left her for dead. When she got up and ran out of the home, she said, he fired at her again.
Prosecutors argued Ludlow shot the two so he could steal a car and cash as a way to get to his girlfriend, who recently had moved from Lawrence to South Dakota.
Prosecutors never offered any evidence to show what caliber bullet killed Robbins, Brown argued in a written motion, and an autopsy said only that the weapon was “presumed” to be the 30.06 rifle.
Brown wrote that Ludlow’s previous attorneys failed to look into key evidence that makes it “impossible for Ms. Hartley’s testimony to be correct.”
More than a year after the trial, Douglas County Sheriff’s Lt. Don Crowe alerted prosecutors that he’d recently found a bullet slug that was “apparently misplaced in evidence shortly after it was seized from the wall” of Robbins’ home, according to a memo written at the time.
Gary Baker, the surgeon who treated Hartley after the shooting, thinks her wound came from a smaller-caliber weapon, according to a court document.
No bullet casings, slugs or fragments found at the scene were tested until 14 months after the trial ended, Brown wrote in a motion. Some tests were inconclusive because bullet fragments were too small.
Brown said it’s clear at a glance that at least one of the slugs taken from the scene was fired from a smaller-caliber weapon.
“The significance of remains of two different caliber bullets being found at the scene of the crime should be readily apparent,” Brown wrote. “Two guns, rather than one, were fired the night of the murder.”
Hartley could not be located for comment and Brown does not plan to call her as a witness at next month’s hearing.
Crowe, who retired earlier this year as a lieutenant with the sheriff’s office, said he couldn’t discuss the matter because the case was ongoing. Sheriff Rick Trapp — who at the time prosecuted the case as an assistant district attorney — also said he couldn’t comment.
The other prosecutor who handled the case was Christine Kenney, who is ending her second term as district attorney. Her office is charged with arguing next month that Ludlow did receive a fair trial.
“Our position is and will be that the evidence in the case was strong,” she said. “There’s no question in my mind that the defendant was the one that pulled the trigger that not only killed Tracy Robbins but wounded Valerie Hartley that night.”
Ludlow will be brought back to Douglas County from Lansing for the hearing.
His trial attorney, Harry Warren, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Members of Robbins’ family said they did not want to comment.