Over the year of 2002 I wrote pieces about her plight for three different local periodicals. To read the one I wrote for STYLE Weekly click here. The longest of those articles was the feature published by FiftyPlus. It is below:
On March 5, 1992 Beverly Anne Monroe began to lose her hold on the strands of the life she had known. That morning her boyfriend/companion of more than a decade, Roger Zygmunt de la Burde, 60, was found dead in the library of his house, situated in Powhatan County, on 220 acres along the James River. De la Burde had been shot once in the head; his own handgun was at his side on a couch. County officials acted on the assumption they were dealing with a suicide. Yet, later that same year, Beverly Monroe found herself listening to testimony in support of the charge that she had committed a cold-blooded murder.
The prosecutor, Jack Lewis, told the jury that Monroe had admitted to David Riley, a state police special investigator, she was in the room when the gun went off. Monroe vigorously challenged that assertion, proclaiming her innocence. The defendant left the courtroom facing twenty-two years of incarceration.
After losing appeals in state courts, on April 5, 2002, Monroe was released from prison by order of U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams. In vacating her conviction, Judge Williams wrote, "This case is a monument to prosecutorial indiscretions and mishandling."
Upon hearing the news she would leave Pocahontas Correctional Unit that day Monroe returned to the stark building in which she had lived, to fetch her belongings.
"In both dorms they [the prisoners] were all pressed against the bars, cheering, screaming to congratulate me," says Monroe. "It wasn’t about me, it was about hope."
The original trial wiped out Beverly Monroe’s savings; eventually all she had was liquidated.
"[Then] We sold the house in order to pay for the habeas process," says Katie Monroe, Beverly Monroe’s daughter who is an attorney.
Now 37, in 1996 Katie Monroe set her own career aside, at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to work exclusively toward her mother’s release. As she labored with appeals she also established a non-profit group to raise funds and network. And, she put up a web site (www.freebeverly.com) to help disseminate and collect information.
"All in all, this has cost over $500,000, says Katie Monroe."
Beverly Monroe, 64, now lives in Katie Monroe’s cheerful yellow house on a quiet street in Richmond’s Bellevue neighborhood. That setting provides an opportunity for Monroe to pursue her lifelong interest in outdoor activities as she tends the backyard garden there. In prison the presence of wildflowers had lifted her spirits. Weeds capable of growing anywhere, even along the perimeter of razor-wired topped fences, were an inspiration.
Beverly Monroe asserts, as well, that dandelions have nutritional value.
As she received short rations of fruit and vegetables, and she wasn’t keen on the balogna that was readily available, dandelions mattered. "But you don’t eat them for the taste," Monroe says, nodding her head slightly for emphasis.
Beverly Monroe’s chief pleasure, these days, is sharing time with her daughter’s son, Asher, who is four. She’s been teaching him to hit a tennis ball, also how to spell and write.
"There are days I take care of Asher and we play cowboys with stick horses," says the proud grandmother, her blue eyes sparkling.
A book on the fascinating Monroe case, "The Count and the Confession," by John Taylor, hit bookstores earlier this year. Both NBC Dateline and a TNT cable television documentary have examined the mysteries of the case. Each of these studies has revealed that Special Agent Riley played an especially aggressive role in converting a situation originally viewed as a suicide into a murder investigation.
Judge Willliams called Riley’s tactics, "deceitful, manipulative, and inappropriate," while finding that the Commonwealth Attorney improperly withheld "exculpatory evidence" - information it had in hand that could favor the defense. His sense of outrage that the prosecutor consistently broke with proper form is plain in the 67 pages of his decision.
Attorney General Jerry Kilgore promptly appealed the Williams decision to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of three judges. Briefs have been filed from both sides. On December 3 oral arguments from Monroe’s pro bono legal team - led by Steve Northrup - and the AG’s representatives will begin.
"It feels to me like sheer vindictiveness to keep her in prison," says Northrup. "I don’t understand it."
As for why the commonwealth has moved to set aside Judge Williams’ ruling, Randy Davis, Kilgore’s Deputy Director of Communications says, "It is our duty to protect the citizens of Virginia and continue to pursue violent crime cases. Ten years ago, a jury of her peers from Powhatan County unanimously agreed that Beverly Monroe was guilty of the first degree murder of her lover, Roger de la Burde, and the use of a firearm in the commission of that murder. That conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the Supreme Court of Virginia. Since her conviction, 19 judges or justices have reviewed her case. 18 of them, all but one, have concluded she received a fair trial. We have an obligation to the citizens of this Commonwealth to seek judicial review of the ruling of that one judge who has concluded that her trial was not fair."
Katie Monroe says, "The only court to have considered the totality of the prosecutor’s misconduct was the U.S. District Court, which vacated Beverly’s conviction. The majority of the evidence of misconduct was discovered later, after the police and prosecutors were ordered by that court to turn over their files. Neither the Virginia Court of Appeals nor the Virginia Supreme Court considered the impact of what wasn’t seen by the jury. The Attorney General’s reliance on an alleged technicality, to try to reinstate a conviction that was won through prosecutor misconduct, is a disservice to Virginians."
Asked what the appeal is costing taxpayers, Davis responds, "It will cost the same as any other appeal in which we're involved."
The daughter of Dallas and Anne Duncan, Beverly Duncan was born in 1938 in Marion, North Carolina. She and her three brothers grew up on a farm in Leeds, South Carolina. In addition to farm chores her father worked for the U.S. Postal Service and her mother was a telegraph operator.
In her teens Beverly Duncan played on the high school basketball team and was named as the prettiest girl in her class. In 1959 she graduated from Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina. Then she earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Florida. During her two years in Gainesville she met and married Stuart Monroe, who was working toward his doctorate in chemistry.
After living in Wilmington, Delaware for 3 years the Monroes moved to Ashland, Virginia in 1965; Stuart taught chemistry at Randolph-Macon College, Beverly Monroe stayed at home with her three children while they were young.
In 1970 Dallas Duncan walked into the woods near his home. With a borrowed gun he ended his life. This haunting specter of her father’s suicide returned to play a role in Monroe’s dealing with de la Burde’s violent death.
In 1979 she returned to the workplace; Beverly Monroe accepted a job as a patent researcher at Philip Morris. In 1981 the Monroe’s marriage fell apart, ending in divorce. Beginning again, she built a house in Chesterfield County.
At Philip Morris Monroe got to know Roger de la Burde. Eventually they became romantically involved. At the time de la Burde was married. And, as Monroe would eventually learn, he tended to lead a hopelessly complicated life.
Roger de la Burde, a count by his telling, grew up in Poland and came to America in the mid-fifties. Although his scientific work at for Philip Morris was impressive - work from which nine patents flowed - he eventually had a bitter dispute with the company that kept lawyers on both sides of it busy.
"I do know there were times he felt afraid, or even paranoid," says Monroe. "He bought the gun around the time he filed the suit against Philip Morris in about 1987-88, out of some perceived fear. Roger was terribly depressed about the way that was going. He wished he'd never started it."
To gain leverage on the tobacco giant de la Burde is said to have seized some company documents he believed were related to hidden health issues about cigarettes. Shortly after his death that material was carted away by Philip Morris agents, never to surface again.
In published reports after his death de la Burde was remembered by some for his energy and charm. Others saw him as a swindler in business, a fraud in general, and a womanizer. Researchers from all angles seem to agree that his claim to noble ancestry was bogus, as were aspects of his vaunted African art collection.
Katie Monore and her sister, Shannon Monroe, still speak of their fondness for him. Yet, there was a dark and somewhat hidden side to Roger de la Burde. For one thing, he had been taking Librium to help him cope with his anxieties and mood swings and Monroe was completely unaware of that.
Significantly, this information, furnished to the police shortly after his death by his ex-wife, a doctor, was withheld from the defense. This, while the prosecutor built a case on the theory that de la Burde, in spite of his flaws, was an upbeat guy who wouldn’t do himself in.
Beverly Monroe declines opportunities to comment on Burde’s mounting troubles concerning business dealings in real estate or art. She also remains convinced, as do others who were close to him, that he took his life in a fit of depression.
As there was little in the way of physical evidence presented, the hinge on which Beverly Monroe’s fate swung in her trial was what she said to David Riley in their conversations - what she said, and why she said it.
To believe Riley’s account and interpretation one must see him as a canny bloodhound that smelled a crime where others had missed it. In a series of meetings set up by Riley, in the weeks after de la Burde’s death, he urged Monroe to accept that a trauma-induced amnesia could have been blocking her memory of that evening; suggesting to her that she was probably present when Burde pulled the trigger. Meanwhile, he didn’t reveal to her that she was being considered as the only real suspect in a murder investigation.
Monroe says she was convinced that Riley, as a professional who knew about such things, was trying to help her. Consequently, she didn’t think to consult an attorney as she discussed trying to recover her supposedly lost memory with Riley. By entertaining the stealth sleuth’s theory of why her grief was so paralyzing in the weeks after de al Burde’s death, Beverly Monroe, herself, unwittingly opened the prison door.
Later, when the commonwealth’s forensic experts testified that de la Burde hadn’t pulled the trigger, the door slammed shut.
Monroe’s motive, the prosecutor told the jury, was jealousy over de al Burde’s other girlfriend, Krystyna Drewnowska, a 40-year-old professor at the Medical College of Virginia, who was pregnant with his child.
Doubting Riley, one might see him as a man who became determined to produce a result that jibed with his first impression as he looked over Polaroids of de la Burde’s body and the position of the gun.
However, what Riley saw as a clue may well have been a bum steer. No one treated the library as a crime scene on March 5, 1992. As the county’s officials examined what they thought to be a suicide, physical evidence was lost. Two Marlboro cigarette butts in an ashtray were thrown away.
Yet, since de la Burde smoked Players and Monroe didn’t smoke, one is left to wonder who may have visited him after Monroe says she left to go home, following their last dinner together.
And, too, the county’s personnel wasn’t overly concerned when the estate’s caretaker, Joe Hairfield - the man who found Burde dead - told deputies that morning he had inadvertently moved the gun as he examined Burde’s body.
As well, Monroe’s forensic experts, who have studied the evidence collected in 1992 since the conviction, insist the commonwealth’s homicide theory is inconsistent with the residues found on Burde’s body, including the presence of primer residue - an invisible chemical that flies out of the back of a gun - found on Burde’s right hand.
"I’m going to rebuild my life, we’ve been robbed of it," says Beverly Monroe. "I know it won’t be easy."
Once this ordeal has run its course she wants to continue working in conjunction with others on "wrongful convictions." Without knowing how she will earn a living, she hopes to connect with an established group, or perhaps start her own.
"This has been a ten-year education, I don’t want to waste it," say Monroe.
As she reaches to gather the strands of a new life, Monroe sees her future focus as a matter of righting wrongs. Her sense of solidarity with those who’ve been sprung from prison by post-trial revelations is strong.
"If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody," says Asher’s stick-horse sidekick.
* * *
[Actual Testimony Sidebar]
September 17, 1999: Regarding his tactics during meetings with Monore, Riley’s testimony during a discovery session ordered by Judge Williams was:
"You repeat the theme or modify it slightly, you bob and you weave and commiserate ... And I was very close to her, and ... I wouldn't lose eye contact with her ... I said, we need to work this thing out. And then it didn’t seem like she was willing to accept remembering that she was present or openly remember that maybe she had -- would think of some variation of that such as blocking it from the memory or shock type situation and sometimes it does happen. People are involved in very traumatic situations, the shock is so bad that they really don’t remember the actual event. It’s more like a dream.... I gave her an example of my own father who actually did commit suicide. And I lied to her ... about the fact that I was so shocked that I had blocked it from my memory ... but I was acting with her and doing a darn good job, okay.
"Anyway, she accepted the shock theme. And the thing that really got her to accept it was it was so clear to her that I believed it. It was so clear to me that she believed that I believed people could be shocked to the point where they could block things from their memory. And when I gave her the example of my ... my father’s suicide, that was what seemed to put the cork in it. And so she sort of -- it was sort of like she was in a trance."
December 4, 2001: Beverly Monroe’s testimony about the same at an evidentiary hearing was:
"[Riley] said I know - I know what’s happened. I’ve seen it so many times. He said you have to let me help you with this thing .… But it was going so fast and he was sort of right over me like this and right in my face and it was so loud and nonstop .… He knew I had to have been there. He said this is what he knew had to have happened … and this is what was causing me to have such terrible grief and this was causing me not to be able to remember and that I would never get over it. And that’s truly how I felt; that I would never get over it.
"Riley sounded so knowledgeable and so concerned and so believable … and I had just disintegrated inside from letting this happen to both my father and to Roger. … [Riley] kept trying to put images in my mind by verbalizing what "must have happened" … like my "being asleep on the couch." … He just kept pressing, saying I had to remember .… He was the person in authority and must be right, and I was sure there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t remember."
Note: Due to space concerns, or perhaps other considerations, The Actual Testimony Sidebar was not run as part of the feature in 2002. So the readers of FiftyPlus didn’t get to see it.
Beverly Monroe was exonerated in 2003 and remains free. That’s something for which I’m sure she remains grateful. Since that turbulent time she and her daughter, Katie, have both become a tireless advocates for the wrongfully convicted. To this day, I’ll bet Beverly can still remember the bitter taste of those dandelions.