Lady Killer

An OC jury ponders this question: Who is the right-handed man who murdered Minnie Smith?

Three days before Christmas 2005, Marvin Vernis Smith stood at a massive dark stain in the beige carpet beside the bed in the master bedroom of his two-story Cypress home.

"Is that blood?" Smith asked. "What is that?"

"Yeah, that's blood," replied homicide Detective Chris McShane of the Cypress Police Department.

The blood was that of Smith's wife, Minnie, who had been brutally murdered there a week earlier. Yet Smith didn't jump away from the gruesome mess. He didn't cry. He didn't choke up or scream.

McShane asked himself: What type of man reacts like that standing in his own wife's dried blood?

He asked Smith a different question: "Do you have any ideas who would want to do this to your wife?"

"My wife didn't have no enemies," said Smith. "My wife didn't. I don't even think she know how to talk mean to people, you know?"

"You love your wife?" asked McShane.

"Oh, yeah," he replied.

Marvin and Minnie met in the 1970s and married in 1977. He moved into her Inglewood home, and together, they built a fortune worth more than $5 million. In 1994, they moved south to a two-story, six-bedroom North Orange County home worth $1.3 million. During their 28 years of marriage, Minnie worked as a security executive at Raytheon Corp., the international defense contractor. She retired in 2003 and devoted herself to her church and grandchildren. Marvin managed a small construction company and the couple's three Los Angeles County apartment complexes, which were financed in part with the proceeds from the sale of their Pee Wee's Market and Liquors in LA.

To all appearances, life was good for the Smiths. Except for Marvin's gaudy taste in jewelry, the couple didn't flaunt their wealth. Their cars were nice, but not ostentatious. They owned two vacation time-share units, but nothing too fancy. Indeed, they liked to share with friends how they'd bought the Cypress home significantly under market value.

McShane, the man assigned to solve Minnie's murder, looked at Marvin, who continued to stand at the spot of his wife's death without showing a hint of distress. The detective thought: Why isn't he asking about the blood on the carpet? What type of injuries his wife suffered? What type of weapon had the killer used‚ a knife? A gun? A bat? Or even: Did Minnie live until officers arrived?

The detective noted Smith's "bizarre behavior," his lack of curiosity. He asked, "Why would somebody want to do this?"

Smith sighed and said, "I don't know."

The next day‚ following a bombshell revelation during the execution of a search warrant‚ police believed they'd solved the case. McShane arrested Smith. The charge: murder for financial gain. He says Smith killed his 66-year-old wife and staged the crime scene to implicate a fictitious, crazed burglar.

The sensational case, which cops and prosecutors have compared to the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, finally reached the trial stage six weeks ago. It's an ongoing courtroom battle of wits and guts for Orange County's toughest criminal lawyers: Senior Deputy District Attorney Michael F. Murray and veteran defense attorney Jennifer Keller. They've gone after witnesses, cops, experts, the evidence, even each other in their efforts to answer this question: Who is the right-handed man who killed Minnie Smith?

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The defense's theory goes like this: A home-invasion robber climbed through a breakfast nook window of the Smiths' home at the end of the upscale Beach Circle cul-de-sac on Dec. 15, 2005. Minnie, who had already decorated her house for the upcoming Christmas holidays, was alone in bed watching television. Though the intruder knocked a large, $1,000 handmade ceramic vase onto the tile floor near the window, he wasn't deterred by the noise. He heard the television on upstairs, grabbed a metal fireplace-log roller in the family room and climbed the staircase. In the master bedroom, he found 5-foot-3 Minnie. Her husband's side of the bed didn't appear to have been slept in.

What happened next isn't clear, but somehow Minnie's right sock was torn off in bed. Wearing a red nightgown and a matching oval silk hair cap, she retreated or was forced to the far side of the bed away from the bedroom entrance. She endured a defensive wound to the underside of her left forearm as if she'd raised her limb to block an assault. Three more vicious blows with the metal rod cracked the left side of Minnie's face and skull. One strike was so ferocious it crushed her forehead above her left eye. At some point, she collapsed, most likely unconscious and certainly disabled.

The killer tied Minnie's hands tightly behind her back with coat-hanger wire and wrapped duct tape around her ankles. A fourth blow landed on the back of her head.

He then either lifted her gown above her waist, or it shifted when he moved her body. Whatever the cause, Minnie was naked from the waist down.

As blood poured from her lethal head injuries, he used wooden matches to ignite the cardboard torn from the coat hanger. Minnie suffered burns to her calf and four toes. There were also peri- or postmortem rectal tears of indeterminate origin.

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