When a key witness in the Serial Shooters case died last week, police and prosecutors were tight-lipped about whether it would hurt their case against the two Mesa men accused of the killings.
Now, legal experts, including a former Maricopa County prosecutor, say the death of Ron Horton, who died unexpectedly Jan. 26, will almost certainly injure the case, but will not kill it.
Horton provided a big break leading to the arrests of his friend, Sam Dieteman, and acquaintance, Dale Hausner. He was presumably going to testify against them in an upcoming trial.
"It would be nice to have him around to lay the foundation and give the context from the beginning," said former county prosecutor Bill Montgomery, now a victims-rights advocate. "But it won't be fatal."
Horton died in Mesa from an infection he picked up after injuring his arm, according to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office, which ruled the death an accident.
Horton's family members could not be reached for comment. Lawyers for Hausner and Dieteman did not return calls. Officials from the county attorney's office issued a short statement saying the case "will move forward as planned."
Horton's death means everything he saw or learned before the arrests will probably be buried with him, according to interviews with multiple defense lawyers and former prosecutors.
It comes down to the rights defendants have in criminal court, said professor Ralph Spritzer, a former federal prosecutor now teaching at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.
If someone is accused of a crime, Spritzer said, the law says the person has the right to question all witnesses in the trial.
Sometimes, testimony from a dead witness can be used if he was questioned by both sides before he died.
"But if he just dies and he's never been on the stand and never been cross-examined, then you're out of luck," Spritzer said.
Maricopa County Superior Court shows no record of Horton testifying at a hearing or deposition.
Hausner and Dieteman are accused of a months-long shooting spree in 2005 and 2006 that left seven people dead and 17 wounded. Horton helped police catch the men after Dieteman reportedly made a bar-stool confession over drinks one night.
The outlook, though, is not all bad for prosecutors. While Horton's testimony could have helped convince a jury, the county has a lot more evidence to use.
For one, investigators put a secret recording device in the suspects' Mesa apartment and taped their conversations. After their arrests, investigators seized their guns and interviewed both men. Surviving victims of the attacks also are available.
"If that one individual was a linchpin for the case, it would be problematic," Montgomery said. "But with all the other information and all the other things available to the county attorney ... my guess is that it would not be a problem."
Former Florida prosecutor and longtime Valley defense attorney Michael Black said it's rare for a case to be derailed by a death.
"I've probably been involved in 10 jury trials where a witness died during the trial," Black said. "And I don't think that it ever resulted in a case being dismissed."
What prosecutors in the case should worry most about, Black said, is the possibility the recorded conversations between Dieteman and Hausner, in which they are said to have discussed the killings, will be thrown out on a technicality.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas gave emergency approval to bug the suspects' apartment without first getting a search warrant, a move that the defense argues was illegal.
Judge Roland Steinle has ordered Thomas to testify about why he did it, but Thomas has refused. If the recordings are thrown out, Black said, "I think the whole case is going to tumble."