Lady Killer

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

Later, attorneys and crime-scene investigators would argue over the meaning of the burns. Was it a bizarre sexual ritual? Had Minnie been tortured? Or had the fire simply been a way of erasing the culprit's fingerprints and DNA from the coat-hanger cardboard?

The killer ransacked the home and found‚ and emptied‚ secret combination floor safe in a closet, but he left valuables including expensive art, crystal and a plasma-screen television. Among the most prized items burglars like to steal are firearms, police say. Weapons fetch good money on the black market. But this thief left behind a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun in a master-bathroom cabinet and a large arsenal of rifles, pistols and ammunition in a large garage safe.

If the intruder feared detection, he didn't show it. He likely wiped the bloody murder weapon, returned it downstairs to the fireplace tool rack and walked to the bar area of the family room.

Before the killer left, he grabbed a half-gallon bottle of Hennessey's liquor and, though it was probably earlier than 9 a.m. on a Thursday, poured an unknown number of shots into a plastic-coated Styrofoam cup from a Best Western motel and drank.

*   *   *

Jennifer Keller began her legal career three decades ago as an Orange County public defender. Over the years, she has established herself as one of the county's elite criminal-defense lawyers. Few things escape her notice. She is witty, knowledgeable and clever. Never mind the trial, she makes sure that jurors returning from recesses see her squeeze or rub her client's shoulders. But Keller's soft eyes and tenderness belie her trademark courtroom style. Though usually delivered in a monotone voice, her m.o. is attack, her bursts of energy fueled by a steady stream of Diet Coke.

Though she says Minnie Smith's murder was "a horrible, horrible crime," Keller ignores few avenues to undermine the government's case against Marvin Smith. She has repeatedly questioned the integrity of prosecutor Murray, chastised cops, angrily challenged spectators in the audience, suggested that Minnie's grieving son Bennie (a Los Angeles probation officer who vomited when he learned of his mother's death) should be a suspect, kept tabs on the Weekly's inquiries about the case, and had associates spy on upcoming government witnesses waiting in the hallway. When she has thought that those witnesses have compared notes before testifying, she has pounced as soon as they arrive on the witness stand.

That intensity is not the only reason some prosecutors fear her. She is personally close to their boss, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Indeed, she has always been one of his major campaign backers. The DA's ex-wife, Kay Rackauckas, is an ex-prosecutor, a onetime Murray colleague and now Keller's private-law-practice partner. Keller's husband is Joseph Michael Beecher, a retired judge. Would she use her courthouse connections to help a client?

"Keller can play nasty," said one veteran deputy district attorney after a guarantee of anonymity. "She won't hesitate to hit below the belt if she thinks it will help her client. I've learned over the years to be very leery of her."

Not unexpectedly, Keller isn't impressed with the case against Smith. Time and again, she's labeled the Cypress Police Department as inexperienced (the city is relatively murder-free each year), racist (white officers "disrespectfully‚" called Smith by his first name in the hours after Minnie's body was found) and incompetent (detectives failed to exhaust the possibility of other suspects).

But even without ridiculing the police, Keller thinks she has a winning defense.

"Marvin Smith didn't and couldn't have done it," she told the jury in her opening statement last month. "It is physically impossible."

*   *   *

Until December 2005, Marvin Smith was living a success story. He'd survived the hardships of anti-black racism during his Texas childhood, married well and enjoyed a multimillion-dollar fortune. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on diamonds, rings and gold chains, enough to stock a small jewelry shop. His friends adored him. He didn't drink alcohol to excess and wasn't interested in illegal narcotics. He had a loving daughter (from his first marriage) who'd grown up to become an Orange County physician.

Yet all the success didn't soften Smith's rough edges. In 1991, he pistol-whipped Minnie so violently that she suffered a black eye and a gash in her head. The injuries required overnight hospitalization and as many as a dozen stitches in her scalp. Afterward, she bought the Smith & Wesson to protect herself.

Smith didn't confine his violence to his home. In 1992, Smith approached a man in the parking lot of Pee Wee's and told him to leave. The man complied, but not fast enough for Smith. According to court records, he pulled a silver revolver from his waistband and struck the man in the back of the head. In 2003, he clubbed one of his apartment tenants in the head with a baseball bat during a rent dispute, other court records show.

But Smith's biggest vice was women: He maintained extramarital relationships with a series of Southern California women. It may have helped that he loved to talk. He was also financially generous. Some of his girlfriends still affectionately call the trim, 5-foot-8, 70-year-old man "Big Daddy." When he recently heard one of his lady friends say his nickname in the courtroom, he smirked.

« Previous Page
Next Page »