Susan Polk has been charged with first degree murder for the stabbing death of her psychologist husband of 20 years— the gruesome end of a long painful family saga.
Just this week, the trial of the people versus Susan Mae Polk got underway in a northern California courthouse.
Bruce Gertsman is a reporter for the Contra Costa times. He’s been covering the Susan Polk case for months.
Bruce Gertsman, reporter for the Contra Costa Times: I think it will be shocking at certain points. Right now it looks like the jury might have a really hard time. Cause there are both sides: self-defense, premeditated murder.
Exposed will be the family’s embarrassing secrets— its conflicting accounts and polar opposites. Is Susan Polk a delusional murderess or abused wife acting in self defense?
The prosecutor told us he would not comment for this story, choosing instead to make his case before the jury. And in his opening statement Tuesday, the prosecutor said Susan was a cold, calculated, callous murderer, so upset over losing the estate and custody of her youngest son that she killed Felix in a rage and then tried to cover up the crime.
Throughout the week, witnesses took the stand to help bolster the state’s claim that Susan was guilty of murder in the first degree. And in a few weeks it will be the defense’s turn.
Gertsman: Susan Polk’s own story is very compelling. And they’ve also got, possibly, some medical records that are going to show that Felix might not have been psychologically stable. Those two things put together might be able to really convince the jury that she acted in self-defense.
Remember, Felix, the mental health professional, had claimed his wife was delusional. But was she crazy? Or was it him?
Felix Polk's mental health problems
Susan’s attorney, Daniel Horowitz obtained records which reveal that Felix attempted suicide decades earlier while he was in the Navy, spent months in a psychiatric ward, and was diagnosed as having a psychotic disorder.
Felix, claimed the defense, had been taking anti-anxiety medicine for years. But his autopsy revealed that at his death, he had stopped taking his medication.
Horowitz: There is no question that he was delusional from the 1955, before Susan was born when he was hospitalized for chronic mental illness to when he died when he had psychiatric drugs in his medicine cabinet. There is no question that this man was delusional.
Morrison: And yet he was able to have a successful practice. He had colleagues who believed in him. He was a respected man in the community. Now—what you’re describing and that doesn’t jive with those facts.
Daniel Horowitz, Susan Polk's lawyer: Well, it does in a way. Because we know that both things were true. He was very, very delusional. He was rageful. But he also was a pillar of the community.
Was it really self-defense?
But Susan and her lawyer will have to overcome some troubling evidence: Did she in fact threaten Felix’s life in the weeks leading up to his death?
And after, we know she didn’t call 911. She said it herself: She simply cleaned herself up and went to bed. And then why did she lie to police when they first questioned her? How will she respond to an autopsy report showing Felix suffered blunt force trauma to the head and 27 different wounds.
Horowitz: Those wounds that she inflicted on him were not intended to be killing wounds.
Morrison: Which one of the 27 wounds was not intended to be a killing wound?
Horowitz: That 27 wound myth has to be put to rest right away in that courtroom. There were five and only five significant stab wounds.
Morrison: Let me see, she just stabbed him once, twice, three times, four times, five times.
Morrison: Fatal stab wounds. Five of them.
Horowitz: Well, don’t say fatal until you’ve seen the medical evidence. And it’s not like she stabbed him in a passive sense. Meaning that he was passive, and she was stabbing him. He’s coming at her. She has the knife. And she’s saying, “Get away. Get away.”
One more heartbreak for the family
But if for a family such a trial sounds as tough as things could get, there is one more disaster.
At the courthouse, the boys, once so close, are pitted against one another. And the youngest son Gabriel, the baby of the family, is his mother’s chief accuser.
Gertsman: When the jury sees one son testifying against his mother, that’s going to be pretty powerful.
It was then 15-year-old Gabriel, remember, who found his dead father, who told a 911 dispatcher his mother had just killed his father. He was the boy who told police he’d heard Susan Polk talk openly about killing his father.
Morrison: How does that feel for a mother?
Susan Polk: To have one’s own child, you know, supporting the prosecution, that’s an awful experience.
But it’s not just Gabriel, now 18 years old, who stands against her, it’s his 22-year-old brother Adam as well. In fact the two of them have filed a wrongful death suit against her, their own mom. Gabriel is living with a friend of the family in the area and Adam is finishing college in Los Angeles. And Adam, like Gabriel, declined to be interviewed for this story. Only Eli spoke. Eli was holding fort in the family compound, his mother’s lone defender.
Morrison: Does it feel strange staying there?
Eli Polk: Um, well it has always been my home. That’s just kind of how I looked at it...
They were close once, as close as brothers could be. And now they’re on opposite sides of an ocean of hurt. His own baby brother Gabriel was an estranged opponent.
Morrison: He’s prepared to see your mother go and spend the rest of her life in jail.
Eli Polk: Yes, that’s where Gabriel’s at right now. Unfortunately, yes.
Keith Morrison: How does it make you feel to see them taking one side or the other like that?
Helen Bolling, mother of Susan Polk: Well, I’m afraid I have a very negative feeling about that.
Morrison: You’re pretty angry at those boys, aren’t you?
Bolling: Yes, I am. Yes, I am, because they’ve forgotten about—how much time and love, and storytelling, and all of the good things, but it’s—because they’re young, and it will come back to them.
For now, Susan Polk sits in a courtroom and listens as a prosecutor builds his case against her. She says she will take the stand in her own defense.
Her husband, of course, can’t present his own opinion, though his friend Barry Morris has been chipping away on his behalf.
Barry Morris, neighbor: There’s no way in God’s green earth that this was self-defense, not a chance.
In the end, a jury will decide who’s story to believe. And these young men, collateral damage of a poisoned marriage, will have to learn to live with the consequences.
Morrison: You told me earlier that you love your father, that you’ve always loved your father. Do you hate him too?
Eli Polk: No. I think it’s sad. I think it’s really sad what happened and who my father was, and how he got to be that way. I think it’s very sad. But, no, I don’t hate him.
With his father is gone, his brother’s estranged, Eli Polk is looking at the very real possibility of losing his mother too.
Morrison: Are you prepared to see her spend the rest of her life in jail?
Eli Polk: No, I’m not.
Morrison: She might, you know.
Eli Polk: It’s a possibility. I believe she’ll be acquitted. I have to believe she’ll be acquitted, but I’m preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
But it’s broken now... they’re all broken, no matter what happens. They were broken on that awful night at the pool house, when Susan Polk saw with that sickening clarity that life as she knew it was over.
Not just for her husband, but for her. The last 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 that— I’ll never desert him.