Shantae Molina is Innocent

Now we begin the search for the guilty

Park and Guest claimed that the nude photographs were routine and necessary to determine if Molina had any scratches or cuts on her body. The reasoning seemed plausible—if you accept that shooting an eight-month-old involves a struggle likely to produce scratches and cuts. But sensitive to the possibility that a jury might conclude the male detectives were engaged in harassment, Guest claimed early in the trial that he had only looked at contact sheets of the photos, never at the photos themselves.

Rivers pointed out two problems with the prosecution's narrative. First, it is practically impossible to make out scratches and cuts from a contact sheet.

Then a reluctant Froeberg allowed the defense to show jurors the least offensive photograph of Molina. Taken by a deputy from behind, the picture shows Molina's long hair fanned out across her shoulders and covering nearly half of her back. Rivers asked a stone-faced Guest how he could have determined the presence of cuts and scratches from such a photograph. Park objected, and the judge sustained it. Lampel asked the judge to explain.

Froeberg dismissed the jury again.

"Color me jaded, counsel," Froeberg told Lampel outside the presence of the jury. He added that he didn't see anything wrong with the tactic. After shrugging his shoulders, he added injudiciously, "It's a homicide."

The jury never learned how the nude photographs of a distraught mother figured into the police investigation.

In the audience sat former homicide detective Jack Holder, a 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who largely donated his services to Molina out of empathy. He shook his head and quietly uttered a curse word at Guest's nude-photo tactics. "That's not right," he said.

A 'Remarkably

Clairvoyant Detective'

Sheriff's Deputy Sean Daniel Murphy seems like the kind of guy you might want at a party. He looks like he knows how to have fun, like he could tell a hell of a joke and then supply his own boisterous laugh track.

But testifying doesn't seem to be something the 17-year veteran detective enjoys. He arrived in court looking uncomfortable. He stole glances at the people around the room. He squirmed constantly in the witness chair.

According to Lampel, the detective also has a rare talent: "He's remarkably clairvoyant."

To obtain a search warrant from South County Magistrate Richard O. Frazee Sr., Murphy boldly predicted in official documents that he would find at Molina's house shocking evidence that "will aid in the prosecution of this crime."

Specifically, Murphy foresaw that something in the residence would prove Molina had "contemplated suicide in the recent past" and that she had "suffered [from] depression." He also told Frazee, "It is common for persons engaged in non-accidental crimes of violence to maintain evidence of motives within personal writings and printed materials such as personal diaries, notebooks and letters."

After obtaining the search warrant, police would claim that Murphy's predictions were exactly right: they found personal diaries, notebooks and letters in a purple binder under Molina's bed. The writings, dated back to a time one month before Molina's son was even conceived, described depression and vaguely referenced "doing something stupid" if her boyfriend left her.

The writings supposedly weren't found or viewed by Murphy prior to obtaining court permission, which, as Lampel later observed, meant "this Murphy guy has amazing powers. I've never seen anything like it."

There's something more amazing: Murphy claimed to find and collect the evidence after obtaining the search warrant from Frazee. His own notes—reviewed by the Weekly—show that the detective's last documented visit to the scene was at 3:30 p.m. He obtained the search warrant at 9 p.m.

Under piercing questioning by Lampel, Murphy claimed that he returned to the scene at a time he could not remember. But according to a meticulously maintained crime-scene log that details to the minute when an officer arrives and departs, there is no indication Murphy ever returned to the residence.

By the time Lampel was finished, Murphy sat glumly in the witness chair, his sullen face resting in the upturned palm of his right hand.

Spooky

Just before she was to deliver her closing argument, Park walked gingerly by the person she would in minutes describe as a premeditated baby killer to give a Weekly reporter a cold, lengthy sneer. A nearby Carlos Molina observed, "You'd think you were on trial for murder and not my daughter."

Newspaper Trail

Before the trial began, a spectator who had relied on the Register for news of the case commented that he thought Molina was "probably" guilty. His reasoning? The sheriff's department claimed that the defendant had kept a highly incriminating piece of evidence under her bed. The evidence? A newspaper clipping about an Orange County woman sentenced for murdering her baby. It was dated a year and a half before Armani was killed. In the January 1999 preliminary hearing, Guest cited this as evidence of Molina's premeditation. The local daily newspapers played the report prominently.

But the detective left several important exculpatory details out. The clipping wasn't a clipping at all, but the entire May 13, 1997, Los Angeles Times Metro section. The murdering-mother story was just one of about 30 articles in the paper that day. Also, the paper was found in a purple binder that held high school class assignments, including one called "Fun with Nouns and Verbs." That Metro section was, in fact, used for an assignment. The assignment was related to that day's leading front-page Metro story about Denise Huber, an Orange County woman whose body was found in a freezer in Arizona.

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