Shantae Molina is Innocent

Now we begin the search for the guilty

"My innocent client's life is in the balance, and this DA blatantly commits prosecutorial misconduct," said Lampel, who has filed a state bar complaint against Park. "It was outrageous. My jaw dropped when she did it."

Lampel immediately filed a motion that the case should be dismissed based on the DA's move. Facing an error that could upend the trial, an angry Froeberg chastised Park outside the presence of the jury. He might have gone further, declaring a mistrial, ending the trial immediately, and freeing Molina.

Instead, in one of this strange trial's strangest moments, he brought the jury back and ordered jurors to "disregard" statements by "counsel" regarding the contact wound—never clarifying whether he meant defense or prosecution.

By then, it seemed the damage might be done: how to make a jury un-hear what it plainly heard?

Ditto for the media. The Register and the Times had already run stories that quoted Park incorrectly asserting that Molina had fired the gun against her baby's head. Neither paper mentioned that Park was reprimanded nor that there was no evidence of a contact wound.

Rust Sleeps

Jimmy Ernest Turner looks like a middle-aged good old boy. On the witness stand, the sheriff's department firearms expert smiled warmly. He looked directly at the jury. He paused after questions, as if thinking about how best to explain a complicated subject to children. All in all, he presented himself as an unbiased scientist just doing his job.

With Guest's evidence barred from the trial, Turner might have been Park's most powerful prosecutorial weapon. And her most choreographed: questioned first by Park and then by the defense, Turner described the semi-automatic .25-caliber Beretta pistol used in the shooting.

That should have been the end of it, but California law allows what is called "redirect," a second questioning of the witness by the prosecutor.

Almost dancing with Park during redirect, Turner made the most startling accusation of the trial:

DA [casually]: Was there anything unusual about the gun?

Turner [smiling]: Yes, there was rust inside the muzzle.

DA [interested]: Is that significant?

Thomas [turning to jury, still smiling]: At some point between [it] being fired and me getting it, [the gun] came into contact with water.

A delighted Park thanked Turner and sat down, victorious. A cheering squad of 15 from the DA's office looked elated by what seemed a remarkable last-minute revelation.

The dramatic implication seemed to be that Molina had tried to wash evidence—human remains, perhaps—out of the barrel of the Beretta—hardly the action of an innocent woman.

But just as the once-solid evidence of a contact wound evaporated, so would the rust allegation. Under a final examination from defense attorney Rivers, Turner was forced to admit several critical, evidence-tainting blunders. Although it was the No. 1 murder case in the county at the time and dominated the media, Turner claims he discovered the rust—a potentially major piece of evidence in a homicide—but failed to save any of it for analysis or review by the defense. Nor did the sheriff's department employee notify his superiors. Nor did he mention the evidence in any of the three official reports he typed on the case. Nor had the first deputies on the scene noticed or reported moisture in the gun.

Then, after his alleged discovery of rust in the barrel, the 20-year veteran says he test-fired the weapon "more than 20 times."

Wouldn't firing the gun 20 times eliminate the rust you claimed to find? asked Rivers.

Turner cocked his head to the left and then to the right. He inched up in the witness chair and quickly glanced over to the jury. All eyes were on him. The arms of his blue suit jacket had climbed up near his elbows. His smile and friendly demeanor—so present during questioning by the prosecutor—disappeared.

Right, he said quietly.

And you didn't bother to send any of the rust to the trace-evidence lab for analysis?

No, Turner said solemnly.

Before Rivers excused him, the crime-lab expert conceded that the Beretta had been stored by the sheriff's department in an unsealed, hole-punched cardboard box.

"The whole rust thing was so absurd," Molina said. "Just like the rest of their case."

Naked Photos

On the afternoon of the shooting, a sobbing but cooperative Molina begged officers to let her be with her dying son, then undergoing emergency surgery at Children's Hospital in Mission Viejo. Guest refused and drove her to the sheriff's station in Santa Ana, where he tested Molina for alcohol and drugs; both were negative. Though she wasn't under arrest, he had her photographed with a mug-shot identification board. Then Guest ordered Molina into an interrogation room where she was stripped and photographed naked. (The room has a one-way mirror for detectives, all of whom were white males, but they testified that they didn't watch.)

The defense argued that Guest had used the tests and photographs simply to humiliate Molina into confessing. A videotape of the incidents shows Guest persuading the mother to sign a "voluntary" search consent form outside the presence of Lampel, who was kept away in a nearby hallway, and telling her incorrectly that Lampel wouldn't object to a strip search. Guest advised Molina that her attorney would only care if she talked.

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