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POLK
Dan Rosenstrauch  /  AP
Susan Polk walks into court on the first day of her murder trial Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, 2005, in Martinez, Calif. Polk is accused of murder in the death of her 70-year-old husband.
NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/19/2007 8:27:53 PM ET 2007-05-20T00:27:53

A report on the Susan Polk case aired on Dateline on July 2006. A follow-up updated report was broadcast on May 19, 2007.

Her name is Susan Polk. She is, within the curious celebrity world of the famously accused, among the most articulate, elegant.

But more than a few people wondered, when she sat awaiting trial—is she really delusional?  A little off?  Or the perfectly sane victim of the whole sad business?

As for killing her husband, however, everybody agreed from the start... that happened.

Susan Polk: I thought, "Oh my God, he’s dead, I’ve killed him, I’ve got his blood on my hands, how am I gonna tell my children what happened? They will never see me the same again."

His name was Felix Polk. Perhaps even more articulate, more cultured than his wife until he met his fate on October 13, 2002.

Barry Morris: If you had told me five years ago that I’d be sitting here, and Susan would be in jail and Felix would be dead, I wouldn’t have believed it.

By now, Barry Morris is more than just a former neighbor of the Polks. If Felix Polk can be said to speak from beyond the grave, it is through his old friend Barry.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: What kind of a man was he?

Morris: Very urbane, worldly. He liked classical music and very bright, good sense of humor.

Felix Polk was apparently kind and an accomplished psychologist, therapist and a counselor. Why would his own wife, the mother of his three children, kill him?

The answer’s not so simple of course, it never is. But it lies somewhere here in the shadows of these bucolic hills just east of the San Francisco bay. Behind the facade of a privileged, seemingly perfect life is the disturbing tale of a dysfunctional family with dark and ultimately violent secrets.

That one of them is dead, we know.  But still the question: Exactly what happened here... and why?

Seeds were planted long ago
Back in the 1970s, a young Susan Polk, then Susan Bolling, was growing up in suburbs of Oakland, California. Her parents were divorcing, and her mother Helen said Susan found comfort in books.

Morrison: As she grew up did she read a lot?

Helen Bolling, Susan Polk’s mother: Oh man, she said that books were her friends.  By the time she was fourteen she’d read Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy— you name it.

Morrison: Gave herself a classical education?

Bolling: Yes, yes.

But where it came to Susan’s assigned school work, it was a different matter. Her teachers worried.  She was troubled somehow.

Helen wondered if Susan was trying to shut out the emotional turmoil of her parents divorce. She had no idea, of course, that the question would come back to haunt her in time.

As time progressed,  Susan  matured into a beautiful young woman. She graduated college, and at 25, got married to Frank Felix Polk. It seemed an odd pairing: He was double her age, a Holocaust survivor from an affluent Austrian family who had left a wife and grown children for Susan.

But they were, apparently, deliriously happy. And almost no one knew that they were already hiding a secret.

Susan Polk: I remember at the time on my wedding night, thinking, “Do I really want to do this?  No, I  really don’t.”  And I just didn’t have the guts to be a runaway bride.  You know, I simply didn’t have the guts.

And, as you will soon discover, there was a disturbing reason for her uncertainty.

A good family to the outside world
At the time, as far as the outside world knew, the couple seemed to be doing just fine. Felix’s career flourished.  He was a respected child psychologist with an active private practice and by the late 1980s, he was teaching and lecturing.

Susan meantime, was busy at home, raising three boys.

Bolling: She was a devoted mother, she loved her children.

Adam was the eldest, Gabriel, the youngest. And in the middle, Eli, spoke to “Dateline” as a young man.

Morrison: How did you boys get along?

Eli Polk, Polks' second son: We got along great. I mean, loving brothers you know.  We all had a really perfect relationship together.

Over the years, the family took trips around the world. They drove fancy cars and the boys went to private schools.

Eli Polk: Me and Gabriel were best friends in the truest sense of the phrase.

In the fall of 2000, they moved into an expensive compound in the Oakland Hills, into a big house with a pool-side cottage.  It was more house than they could afford, really, on Felix’s income.

But Orinda, as the leafy hamlet was called, had been a place to aspire to. And the Polk family blended in.

Morris: They seemed like a happy couple.  They were the normal, ferrying the kids around and going to kids’ basketball and football and baseball, soccer games, that kind of stuff.

But behind closed doors, said Eli, things weren’t what they seemed. His mom and dad were not getting along— and his dad, a mental health professional, was accusing his mom of being kind of crazy.

Eli Polk: He also used to say things like, “You’re a sick puppy, Susan.  And someone should put you away.”

By the time the boys were teenagers, the family was coming unglued, spiraling dangerously out of control. Yet no one on the outside, it seemed, had a clue.

Morrison: Is it possible he was an abusive husband secretly?

Morris: Look, anything’s possible.  I saw no evidence of that.  I mean, I—

Morrison: Over years and years?

Morris: Right. You know, what happens behind closed doors can stay behind closed doors, but usually stuff leaks out.  And I never saw any kind of leakage of that kind of conduct.

But it was only a matter of time before the doors of this family would burst wide open.

Morrison: You were living in a war zone.

Eli Polk: Yes, I was. 

Here in the quiet, moneyed exurbia of the Oakland Hills, a seemingly perfect family was coming unglued. By the year 2000, Felix and Susan Polk’s 20 year marriage was disintegrating.

And the boys, caught in the middle, witnessed it all, says Eli— the long, slow escalation of the war of the Polks.

Felix, much older than his wife, trying to stay in control and Susan, in her rages, threatening to leave.

Felix, in front of the boys would called his wife crazy and delusional. And this went on for years, says Eli.

Eli Polk, Polks' second son: We would confront her.  And she would say, “No, no, that’s not how it is.”  And we would, you know, get frustrated and start yelling at her and—say, “Well, maybe you are crazy.”  And stuff like that. 

But outside the walls of the Polk family compound, the facade held. But after nearly 20 years of marriage, Susan had already made a private decision of her own.

Susan Polk: I had approached divorce before, but it was clear to me that I could not live out—I could not continue for the rest of my life with this man. 

The tension was miserable— all but unbearable, says Eli. He, the middle son, felt the searing anger, unable to understand it, and felt compelled somehow to keep the peace.

Eli Polk: I’m in middle school, and I don’t know what’s going on.  And at that point, I wanted to find out what was going on.  I put myself in the middle of that situation.

Morrison: Trying to be a peacemaker. 

Eli Polk: Yes. 

Morrison: In the war of the Roses. 

Eli Polk: Exactly, at first.  And I came to find that, you know, they needed a divorce. 

Morrison: Pretty hard thing for a 13-year-old to figure out. 

Eli Polk: Yeah, well I mean, it took me a few years to come to the realization that “Hey, these people can’t be together.”

But they did stay together. And things got worse. In January 2001, a very troubled Susan Polk attempted suicide.

Morrison: What did you do?

Susan Polk: Well, I took a bottle of aspirin in a moment of despair.

Morrison: I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that situation and just decide you’re going to drink that bottle of pills.

Susan Polk: You can’t?

Morrison: No, I can’t.

Susan Polk: You can’t imagine? It  just felt there was, you know, no way out. And so it seemed like a solution.  And then afterwards I was just delighted to be alive.

Susan survived, but the marriage did not. Several months after her suicide attempt, the couple finally separated. It seemed merciful. Susan filed for divorce.

For a while, they tried to occupy the same property— she in the main house, Felix in the pool house. But now there were more issues— Who would get the family compound? Who would have custody of Gabriel, the youngest, then just 14?

Fighting continues
Impending divorce didn’t end the war—it ramped it up. As they fought, each threatened, more than once, to kill the other.

Susan Polk: His attitude was that the marriage was forever and I could never leave him.  And that if I did, he said he would go after me.

Morrison: Go after you?

Susan Polk: He would go after me.

Morrison: That’s the way he put it?

Susan Polk: He put it that way, he also said he’d kill me.

Gabriel declined our request for an interview— but he did talk to the authorities when the awful business happened. And he told them his mother was the one making threats, once musing aloud whether to drug, drown, or shoot Felix.

And friend Barry Morris says by now, Felix was genuinely worried, claiming Susan was unhinged, dangerous.

Barry Morris, neighbor: He told me she was walking’ around at night with a gun in the house. And he would barricade himself in another room. So, I mean, all the signs were there.

Police were called to intervene. On one occasion Susan was arrested for hitting her husband in front of officers.

Morris: Felix calls me up to tell me what happened and wants to know if he should bail her out.  I said, “Felix, this woman just hit you. Do you think that’s a good idea?  I don’t.” Then he called a couple of days later. About not wanting to prosecute. And that was that.  But that’s a typical example of sort of  confusing his own self-interest with his sort of clinical diagnosis of someone who is mentally unbalanced.

Morris says Felix’s academic approach was beginning to worry him.

Morris: As she started getting crazier and crazier, you know, he saw her in psychological terms rather than the danger that she presented to him.

Eventually, Susan moved out of the family compound. So that peace could prevail?  Sadly, no.  In fact, the last dreadful act was about to begin.

In the fall of 2002, a judge in the divorce case granted custody of the youngest son to Felix. He also said Felix could keep the house, and drastically cut her alimony.

And then, about a week before she was to return to the Orinda house to remove her belongings, Barry Morris says Felix got a disturbing phone call from his wife.

Morris: He said that Susan called him, said she was in Montana, and that she’d bought a shotgun and she was coming back to kill him. And I said, “Have you called the police?”  He said, “I told Susan I wouldn’t.” I said, “Felix, you wanna live?”  “Yes.” “Then you call the police. This is note a joke.”

Felix did call police, but by the time Susan arrived late at night on October 13th, the officers were long gone. Susan says she did not have a gun when she encountered Felix reading in the guesthouse next to the pool around 11 o’clock. 

The tension that had been building for years reached its flash point. What really happened that night? And what secret seeds were about to bloom?

The war of the Polks was at its horrifying climax.

By the night of October 13, 2002 it all came to a violent end. In a jailhouse interview, Susan Polk tells her version of the story.

She claims that when she arrived home that night to pick up her things she was unarmed and found Felix in the pool house, he became enraged.

Susan Polk: At a certain point in the conversation, I think that I said some things that triggered rage in him. And at one point, he just said, “I can never let you leave with what you might say about me.” He went after me.

She says she squirted him in the face with pepper spray.

Susan Polk: And it was supposed to be able to stop a grizzly bear, but it didn’t stop him. He dragged me by the hair, threw me on the ground, punched me in the face and he pulled a knife.

Morrison: And you grabbed it away from him?

Susan Polk: He smeared the pepper spray into my face. What I saw,  through the blur and the burning was him stabbing at me.  And I saw the knife go into my pants and so I thought, “He—he stabbed me.”  I thought, “He’s gonna kill me, I’m gonna die here unless I do something right now.” And I just kicked him as hard as I could with the heel of my foot in his groin, and at the same time, I went for his hand.  And his hand loosened just as I kicked him, and I just grabbed the knife out of his hand and I said, “Stop, I have the knife.”  And he didn’t stop.  He just came over me, grabbing at the knife, punched me in the face, and I stabbed him in the side.  And he was trying to grab it out of my hand.  And so I squeezed my hand as tight as I could, and I stabbed him again.  And—I think I stabbed him five times.  At one point I waved it back and forth like this and I said, “Get off, get off, get off, get off.”  And he stood up, and it was over.

Morrison: He said something.

Susan Polk: He said, “Oh my God, I think I’m dead.” 

And that was it.  Frank Felix Polk, Holocaust survivor, psychologist, father was no more.

Morrison: Do you remember what you thought?

Susan Polk: At that moment?

Morrison: Yes?

Polk:  (Sighs) I thought about our life together, that’s what I thought about, I did.  I sat down on the stairs next to where he was lying, and I looked at him.  And I thought of our years together and the love that I’d felt for him and our children.  And I thought, “When are the police coming, you know?”

Morrison: You didn’t sit there thinking, “Oh my God, I just killed my husband.”

Susan Polk: Of course I did.

Over the next few days, Susan’s story would come under intense and negative scrutiny.

But right at that moment, she picked herself up, went back to the house, cleaned off the blood, and went to bed.

Morrison: Why didn’t you call 911?

Susan Polk: I thought that if I did, my life was over. They were not gonna listen to me, and they were not gonna care.

All the next day, as the hours ticked by, she says, she lived in a kind of suspended animation. Knowing that the instant she reported what happened, her life would essentially be over.

Then nearly 24 hours after Felix’s gruesome death, the couple’s 15-year-old son, Gabriel, who had been living with Felix, discovered his father’s lifeless body on the floor of the poolside cottage.

Morris: So, okay.  Maybe she was scared.  Maybe that’s why she didn’t call the police right away after it happened.  But then she set it up so Gabe would find the body?  I mean, what kinda mother does that? 

Morrison: Why did you let Gabriel find him?

Susan Polk: Why did I let Gabriel find him?  I think that’s a quote I’ve heard from Barry Morris, that I let Gabriel find his body. I don’t think I let Gabriel find his body, I wouldn’t put it that way.  I—

Morrison: You allowed it to happen.

Susan Polk:  I locked the doors.  I first thought I’d call them later, you know, that I’d call the police. And then I thought, “I want to tell Gabriel first what happened, and then I’ll call them.” And then I kept putting off telling Gabriel.

She put it off too long. 

Dispatcher (Gabriel's 911 call): 911. Police or Fire?

Gabriel Polk: Uh, murder...Uh, I think my mom shot my dad.

Dispatcher: You think your mom shot your dad?

Gabriel: Yeah.

Morris: And then when the police did arrive and they did ask her what was going on, and there’s a two-hour videotape of her denying knowledge of anything, how it happened, that he was dead, how he died, so on and so forth.

Susan Polk (interrogation video): I did not kill my husband.

Detective: Did you put somebody up to it?

Susan Polk: Of course not. I would not kill my husband. I can’t pay the bills.

To police, what happened seemed perfectly obvious: There was evidence of a struggle. Susan had cuts and scratches on her body. Felix had been dead for a while. His body was covered with cuts, 27 wounds, 15 stab wounds, half a dozen of which penetrated his flesh.  On his head evidence of blunt force trauma. And clutched in his hand were strands of her hair.

And yet Susan continued to insist, for two days after the killing that she had nothing to do with the death of her husband.

Morris: Well, she lost a grip on reality as everyone else sees it.  She’s got her own reality, and everything comes from that.

Detectives were no more convinced than was Morris that Susan was telling the truth. She was arrested, taken to jail, and charged with murder. The motives seemed to be many: losing the house, losing the money, losing custody of young Gabriel. All of these things, police believed, pushed an already unstable woman over the edge. But is that really how it was? Maybe not.

Eli Polk: He didn’t have to do what he did to us.  He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to hit my mom, hit us.  It was unnecessary.

Morrison: And that wound up leading to his death.

Eli Polk: Well, it wound up leading to his explosion where he attacked my mom, and she defended herself.  Yes.

Susan pleaded not guilty, claimed it was not murder, but self-defense. Felix attacked her, she claimed. An attack that culminated years of abuse— abuse that began with a shocking story, a family secret that dated back to 1972.

And now trapped, in prison, accused of murder, Susan Polk was about to reveal a scandal locked up for decades behind doors closed tight against the prying eyes of outsiders.  And what a scandal this could turn out to be...

As Susan Polk sat in jail accused of murdering her psychologist husband Felix, allegations about her sanity swirled around her. But she would none of it.

She rejected legal advice to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, fired the lawyers who suggested it, and decided, she would represent herself.

The secret she now intended to tell, she believed, would not only convince a jury of her innocence, it would expose her dead husband as a criminal.

Morrison: How did you two meet?

Susan Polk: Well, that is a question that I wasn’t able to answer—truthfully to people for a very long time, and it was embarrassing—

Morrison: Kind of a secret you carried around?

Susan Polk: Yes, it was.  My husband was my psychotherapist and I met him when I was 15.

Morrison: How old were you?

Susan Polk: I was 15.

And thus, said Susan, entered the poison that would destroy everything. 15. A girl with issues about school, her mother sent her to see a therapist she’d heard good things about. His name? Felix Polk. At the time Felix was 40 and married with two children.

Helen Bolling, Susan Polk’s mother: He gave me confidence that he could do the right thing for Susan.

In the early going, it seemed that this therapy was working out just fine.

Bolling: I brought her and she responded—almost instantaneous—very favorably.  And I was overjoyed.

But as their sessions continued, Susan revealed something very disturbing...

Bolling: She said something about sitting on his lap.  And I kind of—

Morrison: Sitting on his lap?

Bolling: Yes. That’s right.  That’s right.  See, you got it the same way I got it.  I said, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right.”  But then I said, “Well, maybe that’s the way they do it now.”  See, I had an answer for everything.  But I did wonder.

What really went on during those sessions?   We can’t ask Felix, of course.  But Susan, sitting here in prison, claimed what happened was more than just inappropriate. All these years later, it seems to her the dark heart of her life.

Susan Polk: What I recall is that my husband asked me if I would consent to be hypnotized. I would walk in, he’d give me a cup of tea, next thing I’d know I’d look at the clock and the hour was gone and I couldn’t remember what had happened.  And for many years, I just didn’t think about it.

Morrison: This happened for years?

Susan Polk: Yes. Well— I started seeing him when I was 15, I never stopped.

He was her first, she says, and her only. Who, all the while, controlled her, led her to what felt to a girl like love.

By the time Susan was 25 years old, Felix was 50. He left his wife and kids and the two got married. According to friends, Felix would do anything for Susan. According to Susan, Felix nominated from the beginning.

Susan Polk: He expected me to be a very feminine person.  And feminine for him meant submissive, that you know—that I wouldn’t oppose his will in virtually anything.

Eli says as he and his brothers grew up, his father exerted the same kind of control over them.

Eli Polk: I mean my father was crazed.

Morrison: Crazed?

Eli Polk: Crazed.

Morrison: He’d hit you?

Eli Polk: Yes.

Morrison: Did he hit your brothers?

Eli Polk: Yes, he did.

Keith Morrison: A lot?

Eli Polk: A fair amount. 

Keith Morrison: Did he hit your mother?

Eli Polk: Yes, he did. I saw him hit her—the black eyes, dragging her by the hair up the stairs to their room. What people need to understand is it was a constant physical threat.

When the boys were teenagers, Susan said she wanted out.

Susan Polk: And he said, “You better think about the consequences.  You better think about the consequences to the children.”  And that just paralyzed me with fear.

Bolling: He was afraid that if they broke up, she would talk about what had happened between him and her.

Morrison: The inappropriate relationship—

Bolling: Right.

Morrison: And that that could cost him his license?

Bolling: Exactly.

And after Susan filed for divorce, she claims Felix was the one coming unhinged and lashing out.

Susan Polk: I mean, he would do this constant verbal and physical kind of—you know—intimidation and assault.  And if the kids joined it at all in support of me, like “Dad—you know—we want to live with mom,”  that kind of thing then he would say, “If you line up with your mom, you’re dead.”

Morrison: Was that going on in your house?

Eli Polk: I think my dad definitely tried to break my mom. I really do.  He did try to break my mom.

Eli is 21 now.  He supported his mother in the divorce.  He supports her now. It’s her story he believes.

Eli Polk: I believe he became violent with her.  I believe he exploded that night and attacked my mother. 

Morrison: It’s a plausible story to you? 

Eli Polk: It’s not just a plausible story.  I’m sure it’s what happened.  I mean, he had done so many times before, though this time I believe he wanted to kill her.

That’s why Susan was determined to claim she killed her husband in self defense and equally determined to represent herself in court.

Until less than a month before the trial was to begin last fall, Polk agreed to allow attorney Daniel Horowitz to take over the case.

He’s a defense attorney who’d gained some notoriety in recent years as a TV legal pundit. As the trial began, Horowitz promised acquittal. He promised bombshells.

But certainly not the kind of bombshell that was about to explode. And this story is going to get even more bizarre.

As it began, the eager defense attorney, Dan Horowitz professed his client’s innocence.

Daniel Horowiz, lawyer: I believe that she’s innocent and that she defended herself.

Did no one feel the dark premonition? 

There was bad news that stopped everything. Pamela Vitale, Horowitz’s wife of ten years was found bludgeoned to death inside a trailer next to this massive dream home the couple was building.

Initially investigators wondered if her killing had anything to do with the Susan Polk case.

The road outside Horowitz’s house sprouted a crop of hungry reporters.  Did police consider Horowitz a suspect?

About a week later, a young neighbor was charged with killing Pamela Vitale. He pled not guilty.

And Horowitz was left in relative peace to grieve—but not by everyone.

Susan Polk: I was appalled, of course.  I was shocked.

The murder forced a mistrial in the Polk case, but as a new trial was about to begin, as a still grieving Dan Horowitz was preparing for it....

Susan Polk (in court): I am concerned that Dan was involved in her murder.  And I will stand by that.

And so she fired him—just as she had fired all 3 of the lawyers who had come before.

Dan Horowitz was cleared by police, but not by Susan Polk. She decided to be her own lawyer.

Carol Pogash, author and journalist: She thought no one could do as good a job as she could.

Carol Pogash is a journalist who lives in the Orinda hills near the Polk’s home, and has covered the case from the very beginning.  She’s written a book about the case, "Seduced By Madness" due out early this June.

Pogash: She was convinced that this was her only chance to speak out.  And she was going to say what she had to say.  And she wouldn’t give in.

And especially to a prosecutor Susan Polk seemed to despise.

Pogash: Susan Polk really hated Paul Sequeira.  And at times Paul Sequeira, the D.A. really hated Susan Polk. 

Paul Sequeira, prosecutor: She would say I was a baby.  She said I was a liar. 

Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, but the drama inside was more bizarre than any fiction.

Polk accused the prosecutor and judge of conspiring against her. She objected hundreds and hundreds of times, demanding, almost daily, a mistrial.

Sequeira: Probably the most memorable thing she said about the judge was the judge was trying to explain to her the law saying, “You’re arguing apples and oranges.”

And she says, “Oh judge that’s your problem.  This is a murder trial and you think it’s about fruit.” 

But sometimes, admits Prosecutor Sequeira, she was a brilliant courtroom lawyer—despite having no training whatsoever in the law.

Sequeira: There is cross-exam that she didthat was unbelievable that were as good as any veteran defense lawyer I’ve ever seen.

The prosecutor’s case was simple. Susan Polk, he said, afraid she’d lose her rights to the family estate, and custody of her youngest son Gabriel, killed Felix in a rage and then tried to cover up the crime.

He presented gory crime scene photos, dozens of them.

Here, said the prosecutor, were pictures of a man brutally killed, compared to a police photo of a woman whose face barely disturbed.

            Pogash: And there were just small red marks around her eyes.

Then in sharp contrast to Susan’s claim that she only stabbed Felix a handful of times, the coroner testified that there were 27 wounds in all: 5 of them deep stab wounds, and evidence of a hard blow to Felix’s head.

Pogash: That told you so much about what had happened that night.

And then, the prosecutor asked, why did Susan fail to call 911? Why did she clean herself up? Allow her son to find the body?  And then lie to the police for 2 days?

Susan Polk interrogation

Susan Polk: I would not kill my husband, I cannot pay the bills.

Sequeira: It’s always tough to sell self defense when the first time you’re confronted by law enforcement you say, “I wasn’t there and I had nothing to do with it and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Disturbing evidence, but nothing compared to the testimony her sons were about to give in court.

Eli, we’ve already heard from: his story of father dominated violence is what Susan is counting on to win her freedom.

But what would the others say about the embarrassing family secrets?

What about the baby... about Gabriel? Who, since his father was killed, has refused even to see his mother and was now sitting just feet away from her in court.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: They hadn’t seen each other in years.

Sequeira: They hadn’t.  It was—

Morrison: And you brought him into court.  It was like throwing them both into a dangerous, emotional bear pit.

Sequeira: It was.

Morrison: How does that feel for a mother?

Susan Polk: To have one’s own child, you know, supporting the prosecution, that’s—that’s an awful experience. 

It was then 15-year-old Gabriel remember, who found his dead father and called 911 -- the boy who told police he’d openly heard his mother threaten to kill his father. He would tell all that to the jury, and more...

Morrison: Was he upset at the prospect of testifying against his mother?

Sequeira: He wasn’t. Ithink he felt like he owed it to his father to tell the truth and to say exactly what happened.

The truth, said Gabriel, was that his mom was delusional, that she was the abusive parent, and that she murdered his loving and caring father.

Susan sat through it all.  And then came what may have been the most wrenching moment of all.  Susan was about to cross-examine her own sons...

Pogash: And she very carefully got up from her seat, walked over with her podium to question him.  And she started to weep. And she took a moment. And then she asked the judge, “Can I call him Gabriel?” 

She questioned Gabriel for four excruciating days. And he sat there and accused her repeatedly of murder.

And then her eldest son Adam took the stand.

It was, if anything, worse.

Pogash: As his father’s son, he went there determined to see that his mother was convicted of murder.  Because, he believed she had killed his father in cold blood.

She was crazy, said Adam, and evil. And the phrase he threw at her, silly and angry at the same time, seemed to come from somewhere deep in their mutual past...

Morrison: Bonkers, "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs"?

Sequeira: "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs."  That was one of the most amazing lines of the trial.

Morrison: How did she react?

Sequeira: She just shook her head.  And she would ask questions like, “Adam when did you learn to lie so well?”

But there was another son, remember, there was Eli.  And the war of the Polks was about to resume back in court.   Over the jury box, that group of people doing their civic duty thought they had taken about as much as they could. They had not.

The prosecutor had just painted Susan Polk as a delusional murderess... Was she? Or was the prosecutor suffering delusions?

Remember, she was acting as her own lawyer.  Sometimes, brilliantly.

To counter the coroner’s testimony that Felix had 27 wounds, Susan put her own expert forensic pathologist on the stand.  And he told the jury it wasn’t murder at all. Felix, he said, had a heart condition and died of a heart attack after starting the assault himself.

Carol Pogash: The forensic pathologists are really critical to a murder case, you know, how did someone die.  And these guys really didn’t agree at all.

And then, Eli, her middle son and lone defender, the one who had stood with her all along...

Paul Sequeira: I really think he was trying to be her protector. And his father was gone and all he had was his mother left.  And I don’t think he wanted to lose her too.

Eli told the jury of seeing his father assault his mother physically and verbally. There was no doubt, said Eli, that his mother was forced to defend her life that fateful night in the pool house.

But on cross-examination, the prosecutor quizzed Eli about a letter he’d written to his mother while she was in jail, awaiting trial.

Pogash: And in it he said, “I must testify for you, I will do anything for you, I would die for you.” 

Sequeira: And I said, “If you’d die for her you’d lie for her.” “If the devotion is that great and you’re that close then you would do anything to save your mother.”

It was painful, said jurors, to watch the battle of the sons.

Juror: They each had their good and bad points, each of the boys.

Lisa, juror: And the truth was somewhere in the middle.  We all felt that way.

Susan Polk needed a Hail Mary pass. She needed to save her case.

And so she announced to the court,  “I now call... myself.”

And she set about telling the jury the whole sordid story. From its troubling beginnings, about her relationship with Felix as a 15-year-old girl to that dreadful last night in the pool house.

And she was at times, brilliant, as if she were a seasoned lawyer. But she went on, for five excruciating days. And then...

Pogash: She went off the deep end.  And she would say, “I was a medium.  And I didn’t wanna be, but I predicted 9/11, and—“

Morrison: I predicted 9/11?

Pogash: Right.  You know, she felt responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people.  And she wasn’t kidding.

Morrison: She said this in open court?

Pogash: Yeah.

Morrison: And still trying to get people to believe that she’s not delusional.

Pogash: Right. But, you know, everyone had to also keep in mind that she could be delusional, but she could also be right.  Maybe she did kill in self defense.

But, would the jury think so?

On a Tuesday morning, after sitting through 14 grueling weeks of a family tragedy played out in the courtroom like theater, the six women and six men on the jury were finally getting the case.

Juror: There was trouble for some of the jurors to get their feelings out of it.  There was.

The case, for some, took an emotional toll. For others, it was surreal...

Juror: I mean every time I would go into the jury room I couldn’t believe that this was real.  Because the whole—the whole situation was so wild.

As the jury sifted through the evidence, Adam and Gabriel Polk did an interview on Court TV hoping to resurrect their father’s character, whom they said had been publicly dragged through the mud since his death.

Adam Polk (Court TV interview): And really the fact of the matter is that 99% of what went on in court in terms of the muckraking that my mom engaged was basically false.

Although both sons declined to be interviewed for this story, they told anchor Catherine Crier what they hoped the jury would say.

Catherine Crier:  What should happen to her? Gabe?

Gabriel Polk: Tough question. Ideally she should get some sort of help. So the outcome either becomes jail or out on the street and between the two, I choose jail.

Eli, for his part, was silent, unable to voice support for Susan, but for a completely different reason.  Eli was sitting helpless— in the very same jail as his mother— for a recent unrelated assault conviction, the latest of a string of troubles for Eli.

Meanwhile,  days ticked by, and the prosecutor began to suspect he had a hung jury on his hands.

Sequeira: But as we approached Friday, I started to be getting a little nervous that there was some disagreement which I think there was probably.

And then finally, the fourth day of deliberations, a Friday morning,  the jury had reached a verdict. Susan was brought into the courtroom and very much alone.

Pogash: There was no family there for her.  Her sons, Adam and Gabe were there in the front row.  But, they weren’t there to support her, they were there to see her convicted of murder. Susan’s mother and brother left before the verdict.  She really wanted them there.  She begged them to stay.  But, they left.

The clerk read the verdict:  First degree murder—not guilty.

Sequeira: And I heard it and my heart kinda jumped a little bit.  And I said, “Oh my God.”

Pogash: And it sort of took everyone’s breath away. Because it’s like saying that she’s not guilty?  And, Susan Polk wasn’t sure either. 

And then the clerk continued. Second degree murder: guilty.

The jury was not convinced the killing was premeditated, but they didn’t buy her claim of self-defense either.

Susan turned to her trial assistant and said, “My life is over.”

Juror: I don’t think Susan Polk is a violent vicious person, but she murdered her husband.  She’s got to pay the price for it.

But was she delusional? Was she, as her eldest son called her, “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs”?

Lisa: She had been telling us for three and a half months that she is not delusional.  And there is certainly no evidence that she’s delusional.

Earlier this year, Susan Polk was sentenced to serve 16 years to life in prison. Her effort to defend herself failed so spectacularly. She’s filed a notice of appeal.

Adam and Gabriel are working to rehabilitate their father’s memory. They filed and settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Susan, though she never admitted liability.

Eli, her troubled champion is now freed from jail and said his life is empty without his mother.

During our interview with Susan last year, the final question was for all her boys. But she was thinking, just that moment, about her baby, her accuser, her Gabriel.

Susan Polk:  It’s my job as a mother and my duty to love him forever.  As long as I’m alive, I will love him.  And there’s other kinds of closeness.  (crying) You know, there’s an emotional closeness and I think there’s a mental closeness. I’ll never desert him.

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