Three days were not enough to resolve the Mark Howard strangulation murder trial. In March 2016, Howard, 55, allegedly choked Jeanette Scholten to death in her motel room at the Chatt Inn.
When police arrived at the scene, they found a chaotic room, filled with half-finished beer cans, cords and haphazardly created ropes, as well as a feces-covered corpse. Once police established a homicide had taken place, they collected evidence and sent it to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in order for it to be analyzed.
TBI forensic scientist Marla Newport inspected the evidence in Nashville. She tested the cords, clothes, and bottles from the scene of the crime. Of particular importance were the cords, which she swabbed for possible DNA from both Ms. Scholten and Howard.
“I swabbed the ends (of the cord), looking for DNA of the person who may have bond the person,” said the TBI agent, “The ends of the cord….matched Jeanette Scholten. It was a mixture of two individuals, and one matched Jeanette Scholten.”
Ms. Newport looked at the bottles and beer cans found strewn around the room, and she found DNA on them too. She found Mark Howard’s DNA on the beer can along with Ms. Scholten’s DNA. She also found an unknown person’s DNA on a Brisk tea bottle, which was never identified.
Ms. Newport also analyzed different vaginal and oral swabs for semen, and no bodily fluid was found. The TBI did not test for DNA, as no rape kit was ever submitted. At the time in 2016, if a rape kit was not submitted, then a DNA test was not administered to look for evidence. There was also semen found on a dress that was submitted to evidence, but it was never discovered who it belonged to. The TBI agent said semen could last on clothing for years.
Dr. Steven Cogswell, assistant medical examiner, was in charge of figuring out how Ms. Scholten died minutes after the police found her body. To the chagrin of many parties, he told the court that it was nigh impossible to know exactly when the victim passed away.
“She had already started in the early stages of decomposition,” said Dr. Cogswell, “Unlike on TV, where they are able to figure out the time of death down to the second, in the real world it’s more of an estimate.”
After taking a look at the body, and seeing no noticeable damage aside from some minor bruises and impression marks on the wrists, Dr. Cogswell did an internal autopsy. His report showed he considered strangulation was the cause of death after this deeper look.
“In the deeper neck muscles I found hemorrhaging, which lie right next to the larynx,” said the assistant medical examiner, “The superior horn made of cartilage (in the neck) was broken, and it occurred during her life. Only these two muscles and the thyroid cartilage were damaged. Most commonly, this is indicative of manual strangulation.”
He also found Xanax, marijuana, THC, and cocaine in the blood tests. He found hemorrhages in the victim’s eyes, which he said was indicative of strangulation. Dr. Cogswell then said the fecal matter could be considered consistent with strangulation, as people sometimes empty their bowels during the act.
Dr. Cogswell told the court the diarrhea would “flush out” the victim’s system, which would also get rid of any semen in the victim’s anus. He also addressed the wound on Ms. Scholten’s head. He continually stressed the fact that the time of death could not ever be truly known.
“It’s something the court needs to know, but it’s something we can’t know,” said the witness. “There’s no mathematical formula that we can use to figure out time of death.”
Lucas Fuller, the lead investigator on the case, oversaw and corroborated many of the things previous witnesses had stated. He walked the court back through the events of the case, from his arrival at the crime scene to him tracking Howard’s phone number from a phone at the scene to a Howard Facebook page.
The jury then went through a re-enactment of sorts of the texts found between Ms. Scholten and Howard. Starting with messages from weeks before the alleged murder, a theme quickly formed. Howard appeared to pine after Ms. Scholten, whose texts between the two discussed either unrequited love or drug deals.
“We can still be single, but we can still have two or three intimate moments a week together,” said one Howard text, while another said, “You felt a connection. You’re a cold heartless (expletive).”
“Come by and chill for a while, let’s get (expletive) up and kick it for a while,” said a few of Scholten texts, while another said, “I’m not looking for a relationship, Mark. I’ve told you time and time again.”
Howard vacillated between trying to win the victim’s affections, and offering her drugs. During the last exchange between the two, Howard was heading to her motel in order to give her drugs. The last text Howard sent to Ms. Scholten before the video showed him going into her room was “Open door.”
The next day, he sent several texts to other people such as “I got a fly (expletive) jacket and got some nice (expletive) for 40,” and then texted Ms. Scholten’s phone, saying “U Okay?”
After police apprehended Howard, he talked with officers as he was being driven to the police station. He denied being involved in the murder, and offered to help police find the actual murder.
“I don’t even know why they’re taking me down here, unless they’re going to give me a deal or something,” said Howard in the audio recording. “I know something about this situation and I can help lead you to the person you need to focus on. Straight up, I can lead them to you.”
While the attorneys and JudgeDon Poole hoped to finish the trial by the end of the day, that was not to be. The defense’s witnesses, jury instructions, and closing arguments will conclude on Friday.