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Idiot’s Agatha Christie Murder Plot Is Foiled. Seventh Circuit Is Not Impressed.

Black and white image of hardboiled detective
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on July 21, 2020 8:15 AM

Agatha Christie's 1961 bestseller The Pale Horse centers around supposed witches who can kill from a distance. Spoiler alert: Rather than black magic, a nefarious group of ne'er-do-wells are in fact using thallium, a chemical element that was once used as a tasteless, odorless rat poisoning, to murder. The ingenious plan is foiled only through our plucky heroes, historian Mark Easterbrook and famed detective novelist Ariadne Oliver (who is based on Christie herself). Because thallium poisoning was hard to detect in 1961, the evildoers almost got away with it. Almost.

Not as Clever As You Think it Is

While Agatha Christie remains relevant (Amazon Prime recently adapted The Pale Horse into a miniseriesour ability to detect thallium poisoning has, to the detriment of would-be murderer Adetokunbo Fayemi, grown significantly. When Fayemi's wife was discovered with thallium poisoning, prosecutors quickly charged Fayemi with attempted murder. He was convicted and is currently serving a 27-year sentence. Fortunately, his wife survived to testify against him at trial.

At trial, Fayemi's defense was that he purchased thallium to use as rat poisoning. He alleged that his wife was careless with her supply. However, the jury was unconvinced by this argument, perhaps because he showed no signs of toxicity, which doesn't square with an unintentional contamination, and because he both owned other poisons and threatened to use them against his wife if she left him. Also, he wrote a book about how to poison people. Hercule Poirot was able to take the day off for this one.

The Best Defense Is . . . Not That

Fayemi's lone appeal to the Seventh Circuit was that his trial lawyer violated his Sixth Amendment right by telling the jury Fayemi would appear on the stand for his own defense. However, this strategy was nixed after the judge ruled that prior convictions and his poison murder manual could be introduced as evidence. They decided against Fayemi testifying, despite the earlier promise to the jury. This, alleged Fayemi, amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel.

No, it didn't, wrote Judge Frank Easterbrook (who is, alas, unrelated to the fictional Mark Easterbrook in The Pale Horse). Whether Fayemi's counsel provided ineffective assistance or not, Fayemi did not prove that the jury was prejudiced by the attorney's opening statement. Rather, “it is inconceivable that one sentence . . . could have affected this verdict" when the evidence was “overwhelming" and then some.

No word on whether the prison library has some old Agatha Christie paperbacks for Fayemi.

Related Resources

Let's Not Overthink Coors Light (FindLaw's U.S. Seventh Circuit)

Man Pardoned of Double Murder Has Civil Suit Revived (FindLaw's U.S. Seventh Circuit)

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