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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  December 25, 2020 9:00pm-10:00pm PST

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there are a lot of people who care. maybe i can help somebody. at least i want to. i think some sort of lightness has to come out from all of his darkness. >> i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. this is "dateline." >> did you shoot your parents? >> no. >> either one of them? >> no. >> you're not a murderer? >> i'm not a murderer. >> madison holton, high school senior, accused killer. >> i literally got chills. this is a huge deal. >> the father had come home and found a lot of drug paraphernalia. >> they were having issues with him. it was hurting her heart to have this happen. >> distraught parents, a rebellious teen. a family meeting explodes into violence. >> that situation goes from calm to murder in 11 minutes? >> yeah. >> i mean, it's a homicide.
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>> i didn't hurt either one of my parents. >> i dont think anyone's jumping up and down about having to put a 17-year-old boy in jail. >> this was a lot bigger and a lot deeper than what initially we thought. >> they thought they picked some weak-minded kid. they didn't know who they were playing with. >> hello, and welcome to "dateline." madison holton was a restless teenager itching for independence. but his parents were worried he was headed for trouble. they gave him an ultimatum. but in the blink of an eye, two people were dead. police thought it was an open and shut case. but a chance meeting in church would lead to a jaw-dropping conclusion. here's josh mankiewicz with "11 minutes." >> reporter: the long road of
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parenthood, always watching as your kids grasp at life. you cheer from the stands. >> get him, madison. >> reporter: do your best to keep them safe. hoping they make it through this world in one piece. >> look, daddy, look. >> reporter: madison holton was born a handful. his parents, april and michael, could barely keep up. >> madison was always the helpful kid. >> reporter: tonya was madison's mom's best friend. she says madison was always sweet and a little different. >> i remember we had a birdhouse that my mom had brought over and she was going to put it in my backyard. the other kids run, go, play, have fun, you know. oh, mom needs help? whatever. >> reporter: not available? >> not available. madison's like, hey, do you want me to help you do it? >> reporter: school was a
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battlefield. madison was picked on. the scrawny kid. and a bit of a loner. >> he was always doing his own little thing. >> reporter: everything changed by madison's senior year of high school. he sprouted to almost six feet. and had less time for dad and mom. >> madison was very social. he had a lot of friends. >> reporter: hannah traylor and madison grew up in the tiny town of eclectic, alabama. >> he was always, like, the class clown. like, really goofy, trying to make everybody laugh. like, you know, always -- like, he might get in trouble for talking too much in class. >> reporter: as madison crossed over into the land of teen-dom, his parents found themselves without a map. >> during senior year, people are turning 18. they're about to graduate high school. you know, he was just like any of the other kids that thought, like, "oh, i'm about to gain freedom, and i'm just gonna, like, push my boundaries a little bit." >> madison had started hanging out with a group of friends. but i feel like, too, that group
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of friends kind of opened a door to marijuana and partying and all that stuff. >> reporter: they opened a door and madison walked through it? >> yeah. >> reporter: april worried about where this road might take her son. so she begged her brother chris, a police officer, to talk some sense into madison. >> i sat down with him and i had a long talk with him. and i said, "look, this is not the lifestyle you want to choose." >> reporter: at the same time, madison was going through his teenage rebellion, his parents april and michael were separating. they were united in their message to madison, mess up again and you'll go to jail. he had one chance left. and on september 11th, 2016, he blew it. while his dad was at work madison threw a house party. >> someone else called michael and said, "my kid came home from your house under the influence of something. and i wanna know why." so michael's embarrassed at that point. michael calls april and says,
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"you need to get to my house. we gotta deal with this." >> reporter: chris has a twin brother, mike, who thought madison's dad had good reason to be embarrassed. michael holton had a reputation to protect in eclectic. >> he was the former mayor, the former fire chief, very well known. how dare you embarrass me in this community? so, i'm sure he was pissed. i don't blame him. i'd be pissed, too, if my child had thrown a party. >> reporter: when michael holton walked into the house he found the remnants of a teenage party. homemade bongs were scattered throughout the house. a box that smelled suspicious. that was it. >> and what he did, he called the sheriff's office. and we sent a deputy up there. >> reporter: bill franklin is sheriff of elmore county. and the deputy sent to the house that day happened to be his son. when deputy franklin arrived, michael had something to say. >> mr. holton actually greeted him in the yard and told him,
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"hey, when you come in, you're going to see my son is handcuffed." and he said, "i'm trying to discipline my son." >> reporter: sheriff franklin says he's seen parents discipline their kids in all sorts of ways. >> i don't think that his intent was to harm or hurt the kid. he was -- he was merely trying to see what he could do to try to get his attention. >> reporter: to me putting a kid in handcuffs says either, "i'm disciplining you and i'm serious about this." or, "i'm afraid of you." possible that that's what was going on there? >> could have been. could have been. >> reporter: the deputy reported april was in the living room. madison sullen on the couch, his hands cuffed behind his back. michael asked the deputy how, as parents, they could get the juvenile courts involved. >> he was very -- i would say inquisitive about what could he do to -- paperwork-wise to get his child in front of a judge so he could talk to the judge about the problems that he was experiencing with the child.
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>> reporter: so maybe straighten him out in his view. >> that's right. that's right. >> reporter: call it tough love if you want. to the sheriff, michael and april just seemed to be grasping for a solution. >> they pretty much reached their wits' end, one of those things. >> reporter: but these were not people who were in the midst of some huge fight. >> no, no. not at all. >> reporter: the deputy left michael and april with instructions about how to get a copy of the police report the next day, a monday. >> he leaves and supposedly everything's okay. >> reporter: and then 11 minutes later, there's a 911 call. >> that's correct. >> reporter: now law enforcement was rushing back to michael holton's house. gunshots had been fired. only three people had been in that home and now one of them was dead. another lay dying. what had happened in just 11 minutes? coming up -- >> we notice trauma, what
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appeared to be blood trauma. >> a marriage on the rocks. >> what did you see? >> she would just share little stories. >> and bodies in the bedroom. >> we discovered what appeared to be an entry wound to the back of his head. >> you go ahead with the homicide investigation. >> when "dateline" continues. es
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>> reporter: michael holton's front lawn was a disaster scene with everyone trying to make sense of what had happened. inside two people lay on the bedroom floor -- a pistol between them. all arriving deputies knew for sure was that the situation had escalated in almost no time at all. >> about 4:48 our deputy leaves. 4:59 we receive another 911 call. >> reporter: so whatever happens, it happens in 11 minutes. >> that's right. >> reporter: captain chris ogden was an investigator on the case. >> madison left his residence and reported to his neighbor that his parents were involved in a physical altercation. >> reporter: madison told investigators it all started as soon as the deputy who'd been there about the house party left. >> after his parents came back in after speaking with the deputy, they went into the bedroom and became involved in a physical fight. >> does madison say what the fight was about? or what sparked the fight? >> i believe the assumption was obviously it had to do with madison.
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>> reporter: on the phone with 911, the neighbor said it was an attempted murder-suicide. michael holton was dead by the time deputies arrived. madison's mom was unconscious but breathing. so investigators' first thought was mr. holton shot his wife and then himself. >> from what we had been told, you would think that he actually shot her, mr. holton. and then would have turned the gun and shot himself. that's what one would tend to believe. >> reporter: april's injuries suggested she'd been shot through her hand first as if she'd put it up to protect herself. and then as she turned her face away from the gun, she was shot in the head. michael's injuries appeared self-inflicted. >> we noticed trauma, what appeared to be blood trauma in his mouth, the first formulated thought is, well, he probably shot himself in the mouth. >> reporter: earlier they'd
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seemed like two parents on the same page about their teenaged son. what had happened to this couple in only 11 minutes? april and michael got together in high school. they married after graduation and pretty quickly became the parents of three kids. >> she was all about her kids all the time. always kind of thought she was, like, this do-it-all kind of mom. >> reporter: made it seem effortless? >> but i knew it wasn't. but yeah, she did. you know, she was -- always looked good. she always, you know, put her best foot forward. >> reporter: michael holton's friend tony remembers him as a fixture in eclectic. >> you couldn't go around town without him being recognized. >> reporter: he had worked his way up from paramedic to fire chief, and then mayor. >> everyone knew him, knew him as a leader. >> he was always very nice, very funny, very, you know, very easygoing. >> reporter: he and april seemed happy? >> yeah. yeah, they did seem happy for a long time.
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and then -- >> reporter: and then that changed. >> yeah. >> reporter: what did you see? >> she would just share little stories. he wasn't nice to her. didn't talk to her like someone you love. >> reporter: tonya says april felt she couldn't do anything right in the marriage. by summer, 2016, she was done. april filed paperwork for a divorce. >> i think she was at peace with her decision. >> reporter: was mike at peace with it? >> no. no, mike was not. >> reporter: too late. april had made her decision. and on september 11th, 2016, april only answered michael's call because the latest family crisis was about madison. >> obviously, madison had thrown a party. and so they had to talk to madison about it. and she was like, "i'm gonna have to go over there." >> reporter: sounds like she didn't want to go over to mike's. >> no.
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she did not want to go. she did not, but she was going to. i mean, she needed to go for madison. >> reporter: so had michael holton just snapped in a fit of sorrow and rage? that's what it looked like to investigators, at first. so when you finally actually move his body -- >> we discovered what appeared like an -- an entry wound to the back of his head. >> reporter: so that's the first false note here? >> that changed the dynamics of the investigation. >> i've been in law enforcement for 39 years. i have never seen somebody try to commit suicide in such a weird, unique manner. if you argue that mr. holton did shoot his wife and then turn the gun on himself, why such a bizarre way to -- to do that. >> reporter: the next morning a state pathologist confirmed michael holton had a close contact wound at the base of his head. and to investigators the angle seemed telling. >> the only way we were able to
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do that is hold a gun upside-down, and place it upside-down, and then angle it. because, remember, the angle is upward. >> reporter: upside-down and using his left hand. the thing about that is, michael holton was right-handed. normally when men commit suicide, they use their dominant hand. >> sure. >> reporter: not their weaker hand. >> that's right. >> reporter: to the sheriff and his investigators, that made suicide improbable. and the pathologist agreed. he classified michael holton's death a homicide. >> he does not believe that that man would have killed himself or would have been able to kill himself in that manner. >> reporter: and so you go forward with a homicide investigation? >> it's not a head-scratcher. you -- you get a piece of paper that says it's homicide. >> reporter: this was now a murder investigation. and if there were three people in that house and two were victims, that simple arithmetic made madison the prime suspect.
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>> what happened in those 11 minutes? the interrogation begins. coming up -- >> i ran to the master bedroom door. my dad was holding her like this. i ran for help to my neighbor's house. >> reporter: madison's dramatic story. will police believe it? >> he didn't seem that upset? >> no, no. he seemed more concerned about, "i'm missing homecoming." >> when "dateline" continues. save for being a new customer. save more for adding drivewise. save even more for driving safely. see how much you can save with allstate. visit or contact your local agent today.
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>> reporter: april holton's twin brothers chris and mike were keeping vigil in the icu. their sister had been shot in the head, and there was little doctors could do. >> you see in the movies with the machine breathing for the person. this is far more surreal than what it seems like in the movies. this is good-bye, and, you know, there is no more hellos, there's no more hugs, there's no more phone calls, there's no more birthday videos. like, this is it. >> it was 11:00 on september the 12th when they pronounced april dead. >> reporter: worst day of your life? >> to date. >> reporter: one person who did not get to say good-bye was april's oldest son. madison was now a murder suspect. he'd been questioned that morning at the sheriff's office.
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after one round of the interrogation, the sheriff asked madison's uncle chris to join them. >> there's a reason he's in here, okay. he's got your best interest at heart. >> at that point, i -- i really -- i -- i didn't know what to think. i didn't know if madison did it. i didn't know if he didn't do it. i wasn't there. i had not seen any evidence. >> reporter: here's what madison says happened after the first deputy left. >> my dad, like, signaled my mom to come into the room. and she did. and he shut the door. >> after about five minutes, you said you heard your mom -- >> scream "help." >> scream "help." okay, and what did you do? >> i jumped up, i ran to the master bedroom door. i kicked it open, and my dad was holding her like this. i was like, "i need to go get help." and then i sprinted screaming "help" to my neighbor's house. >> reporter: madison said he didn't see or hear what happened next, not even the gunshots while he was at his neighbor's house. the sheriff wasn't buying that one bit.
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>> will you agree with me that there was a gunshot fired? >> i mean, that -- as of what i've been told, yes. >> but you never heard that? >> no, sir. >> reporter: investigators thought madison didn't seem like a kid who was sad about what had happened to his mother and father. >> do you feel like any of this is on you? >> i -- i don't know. i didn't hurt either of my parents. >> the doctor down there says they didn't shoot themselves. >> i don't care what the doctor says, i didn't shoot my parents. >> reporter: and madison's own uncle -- an officer himself -- knew the significance of this moment. >> this will be the only time that if your story is any different than what you told me -- listen to me. if it's any different, okay? now is the time to tell them. let's say you walked in there and your dad's got your mama by the throat. and you did what you thought you had to do. >> reporter: so maybe madison shot his dad to protect his mom? that sounds almost like you're
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offering him a story that you know fits the evidence and is also exculpatory. >> well, at that point though i had not seen any evidence. at that point i had only seen my sister. i had seen that her hand was wrapped in gauze, which tells me that something happened to her hand. and -- and at some point, i think somebody told me she was shot through the hand, through the head, which is a defensive position. >> reporter: back in the interrogation room, madison stuck to his version of events. >> i already told y'all everything that i know. i've told y'all everything that i know. >> reporter: as the interrogation was wrapping up and the sheriff and chris were walking out, madison made a gesture in their direction. to the sheriff that middle finger came out of nowhere. and later investigators reported madison was talking about homecoming on the way to take a blood sample. >> he seemed more concerned about, "i'm missing homecoming," the school, and things of that nature.
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>> reporter: he didn't seem that upset? >> no. no. >> reporter: and here's a call that was recorded from jail a few days later. >> like, what have all the girls said about it? that is what i am wondering. like, the people i slept with, what do they think about it right now? like, oh, damn, i [ bleep ] a murderer. >> reporter: that kind of talk didn't prove anything, but it did strike investigators as odd, as they continued gathering evidence. they decided to test some elements of madison's story. madison had said he didn't hear the gunshots. so law enforcement did an experiment. and they recorded it. [ gunshot ] >> we took the same weapon and the same grained ammo to do these tests. >> reporter: madison's story is that he ran from his dad's house to a neighbor, 200 feet away, and that he didn't hear the shots on his way or once he arrived. investigators listened closely.
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here's what that test sounded like standing at the neighbor's front door. [ gunshot ] to investigators that made madison a liar, a troubled kid who had exploded into violence. you think madison saw his parents getting ready to begin a process that might have resulted in him being locked up? and he got angry, and he decided to kill them? >> i don't know what his mindset was there. but could that have, you know, triggered him? sure, it could have. >> reporter: by the end of the week, 17-year-old madison holton was charged with murdering his mom and dad. >> holton's bond is now set at -- >> i don't go out here and beat a drum 'cause we were able to put a 17-year-old boy in jail. but pretty much, josh, if it looks, walks, talks, feels, and smells like a duck, we're pretty much gonna treat it like a duck. >> reporter: madison says he was no one's sitting duck.
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>> my opinion is they picked a fight. they thought they picked out some weak-minded kid. they didn't know who they were playing with. >> reporter: you're tougher than they thought you were? >> oh, yeah. coming up -- >> i just want a polygraph test. i asked like three or four times for a polygraph. >> generally guilty people do not ask for polygraphs. >> madison stands by his story. and supporters stand by him. >> he didn't do it. it's not possible. >> i knew, like, he wasn't capable of that. >> when "dateline" continues. in. people cough in the country, at sea, and downtown. but don't worry, julie... robitussin shuts coughs down. i guess i look pretty... ridiculous. [ chuckles ] no one looks ridiculous, bob.
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>> breaking news from nashville. the fbi is leading an investigation into a massive explosion early christmas morning. police say there could be human remains in the debris field.
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three were hospitalized and 41 businesses were damaged in the blast. police released this photo of the vehicle. a curfew is now in effect until sunday afternoon. live updates all night. but right now, back to "dateline." welcome back to "dateline." i'm natalie morales. madison told police he ran for help while his parents argued. but investigators formed their own theory instead. we sat down with the teen to hear what he said did and did not happen. here again is "11 minutes." >> reporter: there is no more
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high school confidential. when a senior is charged with double murder, that is on every iphone in class. >> i'm on snapchat all the time. so -- and i'm scrollin' through snapchat. and then you see his mug shot pop up on daily mail, and you click through, and then he's next to kim kardashian. that in itself was absolutely crazy, for me, for my classmates, like, all of us. and i knew, like, he wasn't capable of that. but, you know, a lot of people had opposite opinions, like, "oh, well, they wouldn't have put him in jail if they didn't have evidence to lead towards him," or, "he wouldn't be stayin' in there so long if there wasn't something pointing towards him." >> reporter: the sheriff believed that when madison realized his parents were about to take him to juvenile court, he killed them, and then lied about it to investigators. the sheriff also believed some time in jail might encourage madison to come clean. >> there's a lot of people that come to jail, and there's a lot of people that profess their innocence, and they've been found guilty, or later they will pretty much profess their guilt on actually what they did. >> reporter: that, however, did
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not happen, not as the teenager sat in the county lock-up. and not when he sat down to talk with us. did you shoot your parents? >> no. >> reporter: either one of them? >> no. >> reporter: you ever of your hands on that gun that day? >> no. >> reporter: you hear any gunshots when you were on your way over to the neighbors? >> no, i didn't. >> reporter: under advice of counsel madison wouldn't talk specifics about the day of the shootings. he did tell us his story of how his family started to fall apart. >> whenever things started to fall down, it just got worse and worse. >> reporter: could you tell there was tension in the house? >> yeah. sometimes i could. sometimes i couldn't. sometimes they would be giving the -- each other the silent treatment. sometimes they would be arguing in front of us. but most of the time it was more of, like, behind closed doors. >> reporter: he says the holton house became an unpleasant place to live. >> i wanted to go do my own thing. and that included partying and smoking pot and stuff like that.
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so, i mean, i couldn't do it at home when my parents were around. so i decided to go other places. >> reporter: after his parents separated, madison lived with his dad, and was present when his father discovered april had a new boyfriend. >> he, like, freaked out. and then he called her and he was like, going off on her about it. >> reporter: saying what? >> it was, like, "i need you. like, i can't live without you," stuff like that. and whenever we got back home, i'd never seen my dad cry before. but he was bawling. >> reporter: madison was remembering all of this sitting in jail. months and months contemplating the past. you wrote people letters? >> yeah. >> reporter: apologizing in some cases for things you'd done? >> yeah. >> dear hannah, i know it's kind of weird, getting a letter from me right now. i opened it up, and i just remember, like, i literally got chills. because it was stamped, elmore county jail in a red stamp.
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and so like i'm reading this letter and you know, like, in the letter, he like apologizes for something that happened, like, back in ninth grade. just because he wanted to, like, apologize to everybody that he had wronged. i guess like he was reflecting on a lot of stuff. every person i've written, i've told the exact same thing. i'm not a murderer. i don't know if you believe me or not, but i'm not. i couldn't kill anybody. and then, like, in the end, he put a bible verse. so, like, that just showed me, like -- in the midst of, like, this situation that you're in, like, you're trying to encourage other people. so it was really crazy to see that. >> i would just think about the light at the end of the tunnel, you know. my favorite bible verse, jeremiah 29:11, is like, "for i know the plans i have for you, declares the lord, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." >> reporter: you still thought you had a future? >> i knew i had a future. >> reporter: madison's present, though, was the four walls of a cell. time in jail did not motivate him to confess to crimes he says he didn't commit. his story never changed from the one he told the night his parents were shot.
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>> i think i asked, like, three or four times for a polygraph. i just want to be set up for a polygraph test, honestly. >> all right. >> like, as soon as y'all can do it, i want a polygraph test. >> reporter: generally, guilty people do not ask for polygraphs. >> yeah, i mean, it's a lie detector test. i mean, yeah, some people can find a flaw in that. some people can beat it even when they are lying. but, i mean, i was 17 years old. i mean, i didn't know nothing about it. i just know it was a lie detector test. >> reporter: that polygraph never happened. and madison remained a teenager facing two murder raps. law enforcement was lined up against him. his mom's family felt differently. they saw madison behind bars as just another tragedy. >> i told him on day one, the only role he played in this case was the fact that he threw a house party. but you don't put somebody in prison for life for throwing a house party.
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>> reporter: mike hadn't even known madison well before all of this. >> before everything happened, i never really even had, like, more than, like, a five-minute conversation with him. but whenever i got to the jail, i mean, we'd just sit there and talk on the phone till the time ran up on the phone. >> reporter: and he was pretty solidly in your corner? >> oh, yeah. without a doubt. >> reporter: and mike was going to make sure his nephew didn't spend his life locked up. he had worked as a police officer. and was now hunting for anything that might prove madison's innocence. >> he didn't do it. it's not possible. coming up -- >> no dna, no blood on madison. >> if madison had committed this crime, he would have some blood on him. >> a former fbi agent joins the case. >> this is the same make and model of gun?
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>> the same make. it's a 380 cobra. >> with some intriguing detective work about the shooting, when "dateline" continues. ntinues. we're carvana, the company who invented car vending machines and buying a car 100% online. now we've created a brand-new way for you to sell your car. whether it's a year old or a few years old. we wanna buy your car. so go to carvana and enter your license plate answer a few questions. and our techno wizardry calculates your car's value and gives you a real offer in seconds. when you're ready, we'll come to you, pay you on the spot and pick up your car, that's it.
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self in the mirror.
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>> reporter: two life sentences is a long time for anyone. when you're 17, it's unthinkable. behind bars, madison holton prayed for the light at the end of the tunnel, and in december, 2017 -- >> my wife and i were able to
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eventually bond him out of jail. >> reporter: after, like, about a year -- >> a year and three or four months. >> reporter: where'd you get the money for madison's bond? >> my wife and i took out a loan, and we're still paying for it. >> after 15 months and 7 days, the guard said, "today's your lucky day, pack it up." >> reporter: madison was out, but far from free. now he was prepping for a murder trial with the help of his twin uncles. his uncle mike discovered information critical to madison's defense when he went through madison's dad's autopsy report. >> michael holton was under the influence of heavy narcotics. >> reporter: michael holton had a cocktail of tramadol, oxycodone, and hydrocodone in his system at the time of his death. was pretty much everybody in your family aware that michael had a drug problem? >> they were. it was something nobody wanted to talk about. >> reporter: and it's an embarrassment. >> right. i mean, he was, at one point, he was the mayor of eclectic, the fire chief.
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he was the best paramedic i knew. his drug problem got away from him and just down the hill he went. >> reporter: chris speculated that on the day of the shootings, michael was using the latest problem with their son as a way to win april back. >> it's an opportunity for michael to say, "look, you know, if the two of us were together, this probably wouldn't have happened." >> reporter: she says it's too late for that conversation, i'm moving on. >> yeah. that ship has sailed, and i think at that point, michael just snapped. i think michael killed april and then killed himself. i think michael couldn't face the world knowing he killed his wife, and the only option left for him was to end his own life. >> reporter: mike learned madison's dad might have thought about suicide in the past. it was right there in the pages of his diary. to april he wrote, "i just can't go on knowing you are with somebody else," and "it was
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either me or the both of us." >> you read it, and it clearly indicates a person who is not in their right state of mind. >> reporter: madison's uncles shared their discoveries with his court-appointed attorney, and they worried. the family didn't have money for fancy experts or the things they would need to make a strong case. as his uncles stressed, madison went to church, and that's where everything changed in the form of greg biggs. >> on sunday afternoon, we had a prayer meeting. so to get your prayer partner, the pastor put our names in a hat and started drawing our names out, so drew my name out and he drew madison's name out. >> reporter: did you know madison? >> i had no idea, but i got to meet him that day, and he was a nice kid. it was only a few days later his uncle chris tells me, "well, you know, he's indicted for murder"" i'm going, "what, madison?" >> reporter: greg is a former fbi agent and state's attorney. he knew his way around a case file, and offered to help.
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he says the impressions deputies formed during the investigation were off-base. >> but his parents have just been killed, and he's, what, talking about homecoming? >> i don't think you can put -- get yourself in the mind of 17-year-old to make him out to be a ted bundy when he's just a kid. i mean, i did a lot of stupid things when i was 17. i kissed a dead dog on a road on a dare when i was 17. so kids are kids. >> reporter: and that was just madison being a kid? >> just madison being a kid, saying stupid things. >> reporter: and if law enforcement didn't catch madison in tears? madison said he had a good reason, and said as much in the interrogation. >> i can't even cry because it hurts so bad, because it just keeps replaying in my head. >> reporter: greg says the physical evidence supports madison's story that his parents had been fighting.
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april had michael's dna under her fingernails. michael had scratches on his face. and if madison had shot them during the fight, where was the proof of that? >> no dna, no blood on madison, not on his clothes, not on his hands, so all the evidence points toward exactly what madison said, "mom and dad were in the bedroom." >> reporter: if madison had committed this crime, if he'd shot both his parents at pretty close range -- >> right. >> reporter: -- he'd have some blood on him. >> he'd have some forensic evidence on him to demonstrate that he had fired a gun at a very close range. >> reporter: law enforcement was never able to lift a full print from the gun, and the only dna they found was april's on the trigger. and what about that head wound? the one a pathologist said made michael's death look like a homicide? >> i've consulted with a forensic pathologist, who said he looked at the wound, and he said that it is more probable that it is suicide than
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homicide. >> reporter: if investigators thought it was difficult for michael to shoot himself at that odd angle, defense attorney biggs demonstrated for us how easy it could be, using an unloaded gun, identical to the one found at the scene. this is the same make and model of gun? >> the same make. it's a .380 cobra. not impossible, is it? >> reporter: greg said he didn't even need the forensics to show madison was innocent. common sense, he claimed, said it all. remember, madison's dad had handcuffed him behind his back. and when deputies arrived after the shootings, they found madison still in those handcuffs. >> my hands were like this on my back last night. i couldn't move them. >> reporter: the sheriff's theory, madison had been able to take the cuffs off using a handcuff key investigators found
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in the living room. >> our primary investigator is in his mid-30s, our chief investigator is in his late 40s. they were both able, in about 12 to 15 seconds, stand up, slip it below their feet, get in front of them, take a handcuff key that's been placed right in front of them, and get out of the handcuffs. >> reporter: wait, wait, wait. that's what you think madison did? you think he took his handcuffs off, and shot his parents, and then put the handcuffs back on? >> yes. yes, i think that's what happened. >> reporter: did you slip out of the handcuffs? >> no. >> reporter: and commit murder and then put the handcuffs back on? >> no. >> reporter: would you know how to do that? >> no, it was the first time i had ever been put in handcuffs. >> reporter: the state was moving ahead. a date for madison's double murder trial was set. they seem pretty determined. >> yeah. they seemed pretty determined, but i was pretty determined myself.
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coming up -- >> this is the start of a war, you know? >> everything's at stake. >> i was like, if this goes downhill, i'll have two life sentences and be in prison for the rest of my life. >> some jaw-dropping news that no one expected. >> did you have your suspicions about what was coming? >> no. >> when "dateline" continues. hey! yeah!? i switched to geico and got more! more savings on car insurance!? they helped with homeowners, too!
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welcome back. madison holton was heading to trial for the double murder of his parents. investigators were prepared to testify that he slipped out of handcuffs, shot them, then cuffed himself again before running for help. the defense says that michael holton was the real killer. but a startling twist would leave both sides stunned. here's the conclusion of "11 minutes." >> reporter: murder has a way of splitting a small town in two. that's what happened in eclectic, alabama, after the killing of april and michael holton. each side felt they knew what had happened on that september afternoon in 2016. to county sheriff bill franklin it was clear -- madison holton killed his parents after their
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threats to take him to court. >> i hadn't missed a minute's sleep at night because we were able to charge that kid. >> reporter: just as sheriff's investigators said madison could have gotten out of his handcuffs and committed a double murder, the lack of blood on him was also easy to explain. >> it was a small caliber weapon, and a small caliber weapon doesn't cause a whole lot of initial damage to a person. >> reporter: so it's conceivable that madison was involved in that shooting and didn't get any blood on him? >> that's correct. >> reporter: even if michael was physically able to shoot himself, he'd hardly seemed suicidal to the sheriff's son, who was that first deputy on the scene. >> the conversation that he'd had with the deputy -- i don't think anyone would agree that the man, well, is gonna go in there and he's fixing to kill his wife and kill himself. he was very clear-minded. >> reporter: did your deputy, in that initial encounter with mr. holton, describe him or think of him as being under the influence of any kind of drug? >> none whatsoever. >> reporter: and he didn't seem excessively angry? >> no. no.
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>> reporter: the showdown was set for october 22nd, 2018. the first day of madison's murder trial. >> this is the start of the war, you know. >> reporter: madison, who'd always been so convinced he would be found not guilty, was worried. he'd found a new girlfriend while out on bond and told her this. >> if this goes downhill, i'll have two life sentences and be in prison for the rest of my life. and i was like, "it's okay. like, if you don't want to be with me anymore, you can go." that was pretty tough, having to tell her that, you know. >> reporter: in court, attorneys were about to start the last phase of jury selection, when suddenly the mood in the room seemed to shift. >> people running all over the courthouse, back and forth. >> reporter: the sheriff was there, too, waiting for proceedings to begin. did you have your suspicions about what was coming? >> no. >> reporter: what was coming was a stunning announcement from the district attorney. >> we don't have proof beyond a
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reasonable doubt. >> reporter: after two years of investigating, prosecutors had decided they didn't have enough. >> we are ethically obligated at this point to dismiss those charges. >> reporter: if this had been a battle, then the d.a. had just retreated. the murder charges were dismissed. just like that. in a press conference the d.a. explained -- the pathologist, who'd already ruled michael's death a homicide was not prepared to say on the stand that he was 100% sure. >> the most they could say is that it is more likely than not a homicide, which is not beyond a reasonable doubt. >> reporter: and so the answers eclectic was waiting for never came. >> the son was -- was released not too long ago. and that's about all i know about -- about the case. >> reporter: tony prefers to think about his friend michael in happier times. >> i want to remember michael
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the way he was, you know, smiling, having a beer, kicking back with our guitars, and just playing music. >> reporter: tonya says she thought of april every day throughout madison's ordeal. >> finding out that madison was released and that it was done, i feel like she's finally at peace, she can be at peace. 'cause for her babies to be in turmoil, that's not something that would be acceptable for her. >> reporter: for the sheriff the murder case is far from over. you think madison is getting away with murder? >> it's an open case. as long as i'm sheriff, that is an open case. >> reporter: you could re-file against madison. >> absolutely. >> reporter: which is why madison doesn't want to discuss the specifics of the case. he's not cleared. he's just not charged. >> from everything i've been through, i have no doubt in my mind that the sheriff will try to put me back in jail. i don't know why he has such a grudge against me. >> reporter: well, he thinks you're guilty of murder.
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>> let him think that. he's gonna think wrong for the rest of his life. >> reporter: madison is hoping to live out the rest of his life as a free man. he finished high school, and has joined the army to help pay for college. he's even considering becoming a criminal attorney. you're ready to go back in a courtroom? >> oh, yeah. >> reporter: maybe not wearing handcuffs. >> yeah. i want to find that kid who's put in the odd predicament that i was put in, who doesn't know what to do, that doesn't know how to act, and fight for them. it's not about the money for me. yeah, lawyers make good money. it's not about the money. it's about that one life out there that could be saved. >> reporter: they are dreams madison shares with his mother when he goes to visit her grave. she's buried right next to his dad. you're visiting her grave, but he's five feet away or less? >> like, i've forgiven him for what he's done, but i can't come to the point where i'll visit his grave like i do my mom's.
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>> reporter: what do you say to your mom when you go? >> i'm sorry, and i love her. that's all for this edition


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