Published July 03. 2009 4:00AM
It took the Stonington police seven years to obtain a warrant to arrest Charles F. Buck for murder.
Now it's up to the New London state's attorney's office to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Buck killed his wife, Leslie, on May 4, 2002.
The state passed its first major hurdle on Thursday when Judge Susan B. Handy found probable cause to try Buck for murder. Handy had fashioned the decision after presiding over this spring's evidentiary hearing on the strange circumstances of the Stonington schoolteacher's death.
Buck's attorney, Hubert J. Santos, immediately entered a not-guilty plea on his client's behalf and said he would take the case to trial, calling it "very defensible."
The 62-year-old Buck, who was charged in January with his wife's murder, had opted for a probable-cause hearing in which the state had to prove it had enough evidence to try him. Citing case law, Handy said it is not one fact, but the accumulation of facts, that establishes guilt. Referencing the circumstantial nature of the case, she said "there is no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence as far as probative value is concerned."
The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner could not determine the manner of Mrs. Buck's death after she was found at the bottom of a staircase in the Bucks' Masons Island Road home in Mystic. A murder weapon was not recovered and physical evidence was sparse.
The Stonington police built their case around Buck's obsession with a young bartender on whom he had showered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts. They said Buck, an electrician, had clubbed his wife with a heavy length of electrical wire, causing her to fall and suffer a fatal head injury.
Buck sat quietly with his attorneys Thursday while Handy read her decision from the bench. The judge went over the testimony of the 17 witnesses from the probable cause hearing and referenced other evidence that had been submitted, including recordings of conversations between Buck and bartender Carol Perez (now Carol Stephens). Perez had cooperated with the police investigation.
Hearing the decision, former colleagues of Leslie Buck from the Deans Mill School congratulated the prosecutors, Lawrence J. Tytla and Paul J. Narducci, and hugged the Stonington detectives who had worked the case.
Santos, the defense attorney, would not comment on the judge's finding or say whether he would seek a change of venue. Attorneys sometimes seek a change of location if a case receives a lot of local media attention. Print and television reporters from throughout the state were in the courtroom for the judge's decision.
Santos asked Handy to reduce Buck's bond from $2.5 million to $1 million, saying his client does not represent a flight risk. He said Buck was a suspect for more than seven years before his arrest and never fled.
"The case is a very defensible case," Santos said. "The last thing we would want is someone who did not commit the crime locked up for a very long time."
Handy denied the request and set Aug. 6 as Buck's next court date. Buck remains incarcerated at the Walker Reception Center in Suffield.
Tytla, the prosecutor, said it is unclear whether the state would attempt to negotiate a plea deal with Buck. The state typically offers to resolve a case short of trial in exchange for a guilty plea, but in some cases the defendant decides not to entertain a plea offer.
Santos said he is lining up experts who would testify that, in their opinion, Leslie Buck was not murdered. During the probable cause hearing, he had suggested that the popular teacher, who had been kidnapped two days before her death, was weakened from that incident and suffered a heart attack that caused her fatal fall.
A trial would not likely occur any time soon. Tytla said there would be a lot of intermediate issues to deal with concerning discovery and witnesses.
"I suspect there are going to be a bunch of trial-related issues," he said.
In one of the taped conversations between Buck and Perez, Buck said he would rather be dead than spend the rest of his life in prison.
"That's where the cops are trying to put me," he said. "Either that or strapped to a gurney with a needle in my arm."
The state has not charged Buck with a capital crime, but if found guilty he could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.