By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Photo by Jack GouldAs an Orange County jury prepared on Aug. 14 to announce its verdict in State of California vs. Molina, homicide prosecutor Robin Park inhaled deeply, grabbed the arm of her investigator, and nervously whispered, "Okay."
It seemed the usually hard-charging Park was hoping that a last-minute act of willpower might conjure up a first-degree murder conviction—or perhaps she was steeling herself for the coming prosecutorial disaster.
One thing was clear, however: for nearly two years, Park and the Orange County Sheriff's Department vigorously campaigned against Shantae Molina, a 22-year-old mother they said had "executed" her eight-month-old son in October 1998. Molina was equally vigorous in her own defense: despite the authorities' intense, sometimes questionable tactics to obtain her confession, the Laguna Niguel resident never wavered. She had accidentally shot baby Armani with her stepfather's handgun, she said, as she peered through a den window after hearing what she thought was a burglar outside.
Her three-week trial had proved as controversial as the investigation, even if the local daily media didn't notice. Now, after four days of deliberation, the jury of 10 women and two men was ready to rule. Would they vote for murder in the first or second degrees? Or for a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter?
Their answer: not guilty on all counts.
The verdict was an utter rebuke of Orange County law enforcement. The sheriff's department had used the media —the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register—to paint Molina as a cold-blooded killer, and the DA's office, through Park, had boasted that they had "all the evidence . . . solid evidence" necessary to send the young woman to prison for life.
The jury, however, saw it differently. "There just wasn't evidence," one juror said matter-of-factly. Two other jurors smiled warmly at an elated but weeping Molina and her defense attorneys, Eric Lampel and Jonathan Rivers. Even normally cynical reporters—including the very journalists who had dependably broadcast the prosecution's absurd story of infanticide—were congratulatory.
Park stood red-faced, seemed to nod to no one in particular, turned abruptly, and fled the crowded courtroom in silence. Despite failing to get a single vote for first-degree murder (the charge her office sought), second-degree murder or even involuntary manslaughter, Park told a television reporter in the corridor outside that she "obviously" remained confident in the righteousness of the case.
"Obviously"? Did a dense jury blow it and let a ruthless, baby-killing mother walk free? Or, as Molina asserts in the $25 million pre-lawsuit civil-rights claim she filed immediately following the verdict, did "abusive" prosecutors and "perjurious" sheriff's department detectives rush to judgment and cobble together a sensational, headline-grabbing murder case against an innocent woman?
The district attorney's office portrayed Molina as a conniving killer but never elected to do what might seem obvious: hire a mental-health professional to evaluate Molina. The defense, however, consulted Dr. Martha Rogers, a psychologist who, ironically, has most often testified for the Orange County DA.
On the behalf of the DA, the FBI and federal prosecutors, Rogers has studied thousands of criminals—including murderers. Following an examination of Molina, she determined that the defendant was likely innocent.
But, bowing to Park, Judge William R. Froeberg hamstrung Lampel's examination of the doctor.
"Mothers who murder their babies fall into certain scientific categories,"_said Lampel. "I_thought the jury was entitled to hear in-depth that information from a renowned expert, particularly because it helped exonerate Shantae."
The judge did, however, allow the DA to selectively cite a tiny portion of Rogers' two-inch-thick evaluation report. Park told the jury that Molina had admitted in a written true-false test that she had "not always been honest with herself" and that "when I was young, I sometimes stole things."
To the DA, these admissions were powerful evidence of Molina's guilt. To Rogers, who was barred from telling the jury that Park had taken the questions out of context, Molina's answers demonstrated her honesty.
"The point of those questions is to test someone's veracity," Rogers explained later. "Shantae didn't fail that test, as the DA implied to the jury. She passed it. She answered honestly. Think about it: everybody honest would have to admit that they have not always been honest with themselves and stole when they were children."
Despite a bitter plea by Lampel for Rogers to be allowed to clarify the test results that were twisted by Park, Froeberg refused. He ruled that it would not be proper evidence for the jurors to consider.
a word about the judge
Froeberg allows just one portrait to hang in his courtroom: an angry Clint Eastwood playing a decidedly pro-prosecution character in the movie Hang 'em High.
The comparisons don't end there. The former San Clemente business attorney has close ties to big corporate players. He has served as president of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce. His wife, Rosanne, is a ranking district attorney and one of Park's colleagues.
It's unlikely that Froeberg will ever be a judicial zealot when it comes to protecting the rights of defendants. Two weeks ago, for example, the Fourth District Court of Appeals slapped Froeberg for his actions in another Orange County murder case. They said he had been "fundamentally unfair" to the defendant.