PHOENIX — A federal appeals court has denied an Arizona death row inmate’s appeal of his conviction in the killing of his wife in Pinal County, overturning a lower court’s ruling that the man received ineffective legal representation.
The ruling Thursday by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says Michael Apelt’s defense was deficient but that Arizona courts’ findings that the deficiency didn’t harm Apelt’s defense weren’t unreasonable.
Apelt and his brother, Rudi, were convicted of killing Michael’s U.S.-born wife, Cindy Monkman, in 1988 in Pinal County in hopes of cashing in on a $400,000 insurance policy. Rudi is serving a life term. The brothers are German nationals.
Kathy Monkman Higham, the victim’s sister, said she was relieved to hear the Ninth Circuit denied Apelt’s appeal. It almost felt like a belated Christmas present, she added.
In May Rudi Alfredo Apelt, 57, appeared before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency seeking parole for the first-degree murder charge he was found guilty of in 1990.
He only recently became eligible for parole after his sentence was revised in 2009. He and Michael were originally sentenced to death for killing Monkman.
The 30-year-old’s body was discovered on Dec. 24, 1988, in a desert area around Apache Junction. She had been stabbed multiple times and bruises marked her body. Monkman’s throat was slashed so deeply that her head was nearly severed, according to court documents.
Two months before her death, Monkman married Michael Apelt after meeting him only a couple of weeks earlier at a bar.
The holiday season is typically a difficult time for Monkman’s family, her sister said. But this year now feels a little better knowing Apelt’s appeal was denied.
Higham said this recent court decision has made her feel like Apelt may actually be sentenced to death. It’s a prospect she hasn’t confronted in a long time so she’s still digesting that thought.
Even if Apelt is put to death, Higham has no interest in witnessing the execution.
“I never want to see that man again in my life,” the sister told PinalCentral.
In court documents, the Apelt brothers are described as con artists who spin tales of wealth and intrigue in order to steal money from unsuspecting women.
They told people they were computer experts, bankers or surf board manufacturers. The brothers went on shopping sprees, buying expensive cars and watches, even though Michael was depending on Monkman’s modest income.
Shortly after their marriage, Monkman applied for a life insurance policy. The couple found out on Dec. 22 they were approved for a $400,000 policy — two days later, Monkman’s dead body was discovered.
The police found out about the policy and pinpointed Michael as a possible suspect. The brothers attempted to deter attention away from themselves by paying a homeless man $20 to record a fake confession.
According to court documents, the Apelts flew to Los Angeles and paid a man to recite a message onto Monkman’s answering machine, suggesting he killed Monkman and was coming after the Apelts next.
The bogus threat only made police more suspicious of the brothers. Investigators began watching the brothers at their apartment. The Apelts reported three men came to their door one day and threatened them, but the police knew this didn’t happen.
The brothers and Michael’s ex-girlfriend were brought in for questioning. After some interrogating, the ex-girlfriend eventually confessed to knowing who killed Monkman. She reported how the brothers tried covering their tracks after the murder by attempting to change the tread on their car tires.
The ex-girlfriend also claimed that after Monkman’s funeral, Michael told her his wife “signed her death warrant when she signed the insurance papers.”
The Apelt brothers were charged with first-degree murder and booked into the Pinal County jail in January 1989. They were both found guilty and sentenced to death.
Rudi’s sentence was later overturned after a judge concluded he was mentally disabled, making him ineligible for the death penalty. Michael Apelt still has the opportunity to appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Higham is in the process of writing a book about her sister and hopes to have it published in the coming year.