By the time Lizette Cuesta was found, the 19-year-old woman didn’t have much longer to live. She had been stabbed more than two dozen times, but managed to crawl about 100 yards to the side of a remote California road, where she was spotted by a passing driver, according to police.
In those dying moments on February 12, 2018, Cuesta eked out a few last words, naming the two people she said were responsible, Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office tells A&E Real Crime.
“She tells the first responders—the firefighters and the highway patrol—who stabbed her,” Kelly says. “She said who she was with and what happened to her.”
She died shortly after at a hospital. By the next day, the two assailants Cuesta identified were under arrest in her killing.
Cracking a murder case more commonly draws on forensic evidence and eyewitnesses, but as with Cuesta, occasionally victims themselves—either before they die or after—are playing a role in helping find their suspected killers.”It’s very rare,” Kelly says. “I’ve worked well over 100 murders in my career and I can think of two or three.”
Cuesta’s case was one, he says, and her final few words proved invaluable. Cops believe she had gotten into a car with two people she knew and was taken to a remote spot in Livermore, about an hour east of San Francisco. It was there she was stabbed multiple times and left for dead.
The teenager’s dying declaration “definitely was a gift to law enforcement,” Kelly says. “It would have taken us days” to first even identify her, let alone figure out possible culprits, he says. Equally important was that the head start afforded investigators the opportunity to move in quickly. “We believe evidence would have been destroyed by the suspects,” he says.
Instead, within 12 hours, police executed a search warrant and arrested the couple who Cuesta allegedly said attacked her. Daniel Gross, 19, and Melissa Leonardo, 25 have been charged with murder. They are scheduled to enter pleas on March 16.
While this and so-called “beyond the grave” evidence is undeniably powerful, its reliability remains an ongoing debate in the legal community, says Ronald Sullivan, faculty director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute and a Harvard Law School professor.
One side believes, “Nobody, when they’re about to meet their maker, is going to let a lie pass their lips,” he says, while others think victims could have plenty of reasons to fib. “They may want to blame somebody,” he says. “People can be vindictive, even on death’s door.”
Still, Sullivan acknowledges that such statements are quite convincing. “Juries love it,” he says. “It’s Perry Mason stuff.”
Also compelling, albeit a more common scenario, are murder victims who help identify their alleged killer with scientific proof. Police say that was the case with Google employee Vanessa Marcotte, 27, whose strangled body was found on August 7, 2016 after she didn’t return home from a jog near her mother’s home in Princeton, Massachusetts.
Police initially were stumped about who could have murdered Marcotte. But investigators say she left them a clue they held on to, and which months later helped lead to an arrest: DNA they obtained during her autopsy from underneath her fingernails.
Investigators say the genetic material was a match with delivery driver Angelo Colon-Ortiz, 31, who was charged with her death in June 2017 after investigators said they determined that Marcotte had fought with her attacker, likely leaving him with scratches and scrapes and her with skin fragments under her nails.
“There’s also one other person I’d like to thank in this case, and that would be Vanessa Marcotte,” Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. told reporters when Colon-Ortiz was apprehended. “It was through her determined fight and her efforts that we obtained the DNA of her killer.”
Colon-Ortiz has pleaded not guilty to the charges and the DA’s office declined further comment, citing the pending trial.
Authorities say another woman, Julie Jensen, also gave them a vital clue from beyond the grave.
The Wisconsin mom was found dead December 3, 1998 after she had raised an alarm about her husband, Mark Jensen. Her 14-year-marriage, which had become tumultuous and marked by suspicions and reports of affairs on both sides, had deteriorated to point where Julie, 40, became concerned for her safety. At one point, she found her husband’s shopping list, which included syringes and suspicious drugs, and noticed that he had visited websites about poisoning.
A few days before Thanksgiving 1998, she wrote a letter and sealed it in an envelope that she gave her neighbors, telling them to give it to police if need be.
“If anything happens to me, he would be my first suspect,” she wrote of her husband. She would never commit suicide and leave her two sons, she continued, adding, “I am suspicious of Mark’s suspicious behaviors and fear for my early demise.”
Two and half weeks later, Jensen’s body was discovered inside her Pleasant Prairie home; prosecutors argued that Mark Jensen slipped antifreeze into his wife’s drink and then suffocated her while his attorney contended that she had killed herself.
After years of legal wrangling over whether the letter was admissible in court, Mark Jensen was convicted in 2008 of murder. Prosecutor Robert Jambois tells A&E Real Crime that Julie’s letter was key.
“The letter was a very important part of this case,” he says. “She didn’t want to die, but if she did, she wanted us to know who did it.”
Mark Jensen’s lawyer, public defender Craig Albee, says the murder conviction was overturned by a federal court in 2013 on the basis that the letter should not have been admitted into evidence, but reinstated by state court in September 2017. He says he is now appealing Jensen’s conviction and asking that a new trial be held, arguing that he doesn’t believe the letter should have been legally allowed in court.
If a new trial is granted, then again, the prosecution will fight to include Julie’s letter, which not only fingered her killer, but served as a farewell message to her boys, who were 8 and 3 at the time.
“She wanted her sons to know that she would never willingly leave them and that she loved them,” Jambois says. “I really felt I had an obligation to the community and to her loved ones to make sure her voice was heard.”