Blank to die for murder

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 11, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / April 11, 2000

EDGARD – A jury took less than 45 minutes Monday to sentence Daniel Blank to death for the slaying of LaPlace housewife Joan Brock on May 14, 1997.

Saturday, it took the same jury seven hours to find Blank guilty of the same murder.

Wearing the same wrinkled, blue work shirt, tan pants and tennis shoes that he wore throughout the six-day trial, Blank showed no emotion as both decisions were read to him.

On the other hand, during the reading of the death penalty decision, several of the jurors were weeping.

“I feel better now,” said Douglas Brock, widower of Joan Brock, as he walked out of the St. John the Baptist Parish courthouse in Edgard. “Ireally do feel better.”Brock’s murder is one of six attributed to Blank in a 10-month killing spree in 1996 and 1997. He allegedly broke into people’s houses to stealmoney to feed a video poker gambling habit. During the burglaries, sixpeople died.

Blank has already been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Lillian Philippe, 71 of Gonzales.

It took 40th Judicial District Judge Sterling Snowdy and attorneys 26 days to pick an impartial jury in Avoyelles Parish. Snowdy has orderedthe jury selection in Marksville because he wanted to get a jury that was not tainted by the publicity surrounding all the homicides.

The prosecution, led by St. John Parish Assistant District Attorney GeorgeAnn Graugnard, presented the jury with more than 25 pieces of evidence and 13 witnesses to prove the state’s case against Blank.

The centerpiece of the prosecution’s attack was a four-hour videotape of Blank’s confession.

Contained in the tape, a sometimes-sobbing, sometimes-cool Blank told detectives Todd Hymel of the St. John Sheriff’s Office and Mike Toney ofthe Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office how he climbed over the fence of the Brock residence in the Riverlands subdivision and hid for several hours in the backyard waiting for the Brocks to leave that morning.

When he thought the house was empty, Blank then tried several doors to gain entry into the house. Finding the back door unlocked, he entered andwent straight to the bedroom where he knew the Brocks kept a safe.

As he was dragging the safe out of the house, he heard a sound, walked outside and surprised Joan Brock in the back yard. She screamed and inresponse, Blank stabbed her four times with a butcher knife he found in her kitchen.

Blank then tried to drag Brock’s body into the house, but couldn’t manage it. He then rolled the safe out to his car in the garage, put the safe in thecar, found the car keys in the kitchen and fled. Blank took over $30,000and jewelry from the safe.

“She was a nice woman,” said a sobbing Blank in the videotape. “I hadnothing against her. She was a sweet woman.”Blank, who was looking for money to feed his gambling habit, had worked for Douglas Brock as a mechanic several years before the murder. He feltthat Brock had double-crossed him out of back pay, and he knew that there was money in the house.

Blank’s defense attorney, Glen Cortello tried to persuade the jury that Blank could not have lifted the 260-pound safe by himself. However, in adramatic demonstration, Detective Hymel, dressed in a white jumpsuit lifted the safe easily and placed it on a small cart.

Later, in her closing statements, Graugnard said that Blank could also have easily levered the safe into the car by placing it against the back seat and lifting up.

The defense’s only witness was FBI polygraph expert David Sparks, who interviewed Blank before he made his confession to Hymel and Toney.

Cortello argued that Sparks had coached Blank in the details of the murder prior to the videotaped confession. Sparks admitted to telling Blank thetime and date of the murder, and a description of the Brock house.

Sparks added he told Blank where the body was discovered and the position of the body. He also told Blank what had been stolen from the house andthat the safe had not been recovered.

On cross-examination, Graugnard showed that Sparks had not told Blank other important details about the case, such as the amount of money and the jewelry in the safe, where the car keys were, or how weeds and cigarette ashes were found in Brock’s car after it was recovered. DouglasBrock had testified that he had just cleaned the car before the murder and that no one in his family smoked.

During his taped confession, Blank gave specific instructions to the detectives where to find the safe he had dumped into a bayou about a mile from Sorrento. He also drew a detailed map of the Brock house withdescriptions of his actions. In the backyard, near the house, he wrote:”Here is where I killed her with a large knife.”In closing arguments Graugnard told the jury that there was specific intent when Blank killed Brock.

“When he heard her and saw her shadow, why didn’t he just leave through the front door?” Graungnard asked the jury. “No, there was specific intent.He was not going to leave that house without the money. He want out backand surprised Joan Brock. He hacked her four times with a 20-inchweapon.”Cortello’s closing centered on the confession, insisting that the confession had been coerced from Blank, and that Hymel had “hypnotized” Blank into confessing.

“There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to connect my client to the crime except for the statement,” said Cortello.

On rebuttal, Graugnard told the jury “not to be fooled by the smoke.” Blankmade his confession voluntarily without any pressure from detectives.

During the penalty phase of the trial, several psychiatrists were brought in to testify that Blank does have a mild learning disability and brain dysfunction, but neither of the doctors said that these two factors would impair Blank from committing the crime, or from knowing the difference between right and wrong. They said that there was no evidence of anypsychosis.

During the penalty phase after conviction, the Brock family testified that the loss of Joan Brock had a devastating effect on their family.

The jury was also told at that point about the other five homicides attributed to Blank, which shocked most of the jury since Snowdy had ordered that no mention of the other crimes could be mentioned during the evidentiary phase of the trial.

Blank still faces trial for the first-degree murders of Victor Rossi of St.

Amant; Barbara Bourgeois of Paulina; and Sam and Louella Arcuri of LaPlace.

After sentence was passed, Joan Brock’s daughters were asked if the sentence of death had helped their state of mind.

Stephanie Brock Sanchez said, “We feel a little better about things.””But it will never be the same,” added Stacey Brock Sardenga. “We don’thave a mother anymore.”

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