What I Saw at the Trial of My Best Friend’s Murder

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I’d known about the pictures of Ashley’s body for years. People who’d seen them told me I should avert my eyes if I ever encountered them. But the prosecutor in the trial for her alleged murderer last week wanted the jury to see. He wanted them to bear witness, in graphic detail, to each of the 47 stab wounds she endured. And so, 18 years after her death, I finally saw the pictures, too.

My childhood best friend Ashley Ellerin was murdered in 2001 at the age of 22. Her alleged killer wasn’t arrested until 2008, and it’s taken more than a decade for him to be brought to trial. Michael Gargiulo has been charged by the state of California with murdering three women, including Ashley, and the brutal assault of a fourth. (In 2011, he was also charged with a 1993 murder from his Illinois hometown.) Last week, I sat as an observer in a Los Angeles courtroom, watching it all unfold.

During opening statements, the prosecutor began with a slideshow of each victim displayed on a screen mounted above the witness box. Eighteen-year-old Tricia Paccacio came first, found murdered on her front steps just a week before she was leaving for college. Next was Ashley, and after her, a 32-year-old mother-of-four from El Salvador named Maria Bruno who was killed in 2005 in the new apartment she was renting after separating from her abusive husband. Last was Michelle Murphy, a 26-year-old Santa Monica woman who fought off her attacker and survived in 2008.

First he showed the smiling “before” portraits: Tricia with an early ’90s perm in a school photo; Ashley in a tank top for what looked to be a modeling test shoot; Maria, dark-haired and eyes shining in a studio portrait, and Michelle, tan and smirking in a V-neck tee. Then came the images from the scenes of the crimes: limbs splayed, blood stains, heads tipped back, and white teeth glinting. And then there were close-up shots of each woman’s body at the morgue or hospital, with call outs marking each of their wounds.

But when I looked around the room, which was half-filled with media and court officials, and at the jury expecting some display of shock, I saw only blank faces. It was as if the parade of bodily assault had had a numbing effect. I didn’t feel numb at all. I felt outraged. And weary. In the 18 years since Ashley’s death, it’s been increasingly difficult to see her turned into a silent victim. To read about her life misreported in the media, and to hear her trauma narrated by male detectives and lawyers when she no longer has the opportunity to speak for herself. To see her reduced to a body.

In life, Ashley was anything but silent. She could be biting, and obstinate, and hilarious, and I imagine she’d probably would have had more than a little feedback to anyone attempting to tell her story, myself included. Which is why it felt practically exhilarating to return to the courtroom on Monday and watch the testimony on day two. That’s when the defendant’s surviving victim, Michelle Murphy, took the stand, recounting with remarkable composure her attack and its aftermath. On a spring night in 2008, Michelle woke up to find a man kneeling on top of her in bed. “Why are you doing this?” she recalled shouting at her assailant as he stabbed her repeatedly. He offered no response.

At just 5-foot-1, Michelle kicked her attacker off of her and he cut his own hand in the struggle. The blood evidence he left at the scene proved to be the key that finally led to his arrest.

On the stand, she spoke of the surgery and physical therapy she endured, and how one of her fingers still doesn’t straighten. The man she had been dating for two months at the time of her attack is now her husband. Michelle had friends supporting her in the front row. She had the chance for her life to continue. And she was there, telling her own story.

Carolyn Murnick is the author of The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder.

What I Saw at the Trial of My Best Friend’s Murder