Lady Killer

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

The good life is now only a memory. Home is a cramped, two-person cell in the Orange County Jail. He's been held without bail for two years.

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The youngest of 12 children in a Bellflower family, Cypress homicide Detective Chris McShane appreciates the value of public service. Five of his brothers fought simultaneously in the military during the Vietnam War. Four of them pursued law-enforcement careers after the conflict. At the age of five, McShane knew he wanted to be a cop, too.

As the lead detective in the Smith case, McShane‚ "Officer of the Year‚" in Cypress in 1996 and 2006‚ has been one of the prime targets of Keller's wrath. When she cross-examined him, she didn't hide her contempt. She spent an enormous amount of time trying to imply that McShane is dishonest, insensitive, racist and unskilled.

During Keller's 90-minute grilling, McShane‚ who began his career as a Los Angeles County reserve sheriff's deputy‚ remained calm. He even smiled a few times at the insults. Afterward, he smiled again and told the Weekly, "Okay, I'm no Columbo, but I work my ass off."

McShane is modest. He has earned admiration from his department. For years, new hires had been given an unsolved cold case: a 1981 murder-for-hire in his city. It took more than 15 years, but McShane did what nobody else could do: He officially solved it. Thanks to him and backup from his detective colleagues, three killers are now in prison.

"It was all gumshoe detective work," he recalled. "There are a lot of similarities between that case and the Smith case. Both killers are arrogant, selfish guys who came into marriages with nothing and got greedy. There is no doubt in my mind that Marvin is 100 percent responsible for his wife's murder.‚"

But both Keller and McShane agree on three points: The killer is right handed (though Murray believes the evidence is inconclusive on that point), he repeatedly swung the murder weapon with tremendous force, and Smith is right handed. Nevertheless, according to Keller, these facts preclude Smith as the murderer. Why? On Nov. 3, 2005‚ six weeks before Minnie's death‚ an orthopedic surgeon performed open surgery on Smith's torn right shoulder rotator cuff.

"That surgery makes it physically impossible for Marvin to have committed the crime," said Keller. "It was a major procedure. It's slow to heal and takes six months to regain normal function."

Ironically, the day of Minnie's murder was Marvin's first day of physical therapy. Medical records at the clinic show that he arrived in advance of his afternoon appointment and was, according to Keller, advised not to "push or pull or raise his right arm above his head."

Keller asked the jury: How could a man in such a serious condition complete a therapy session that day without showing severe signs of pain "several hours after brutally murdering his wife?"

To answer that question, the defense hoped to call John R. Brault, a senior biomechanist, for expert testimony. But Judge McNerney said Keller offered him too late in the case. According to the defense, Brault was ready to testify that "given the timing of Mr. Smith's right-rotator-cuff repair, it is unlikely that he would or could have used the fireplace-log turner with his right upper extremity to cause Mrs. Smith's skull fractures."

To help dramatize that point, Keller displayed in the courtroom an Orange County Sheriff's Department post-arrest photograph of Smith's fresh surgery scar. "That right arm had just gotten out of a sling a couple of weeks earlier," said Keller. Smith nodded in his seat at the defense table. Jurors looked intrigued and scribbled in their notebooks.

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The Orange County district attorney's office is blessed with gifted homicide prosecutors. They include Ebrahim Baytieh, Larry Yellin, Matt Murphy, Sonia Balleste, Dave Brent, Cameron Talley and Mike Murray. Brent and Murphy are the effective soft-spoken, unflappable ones. Baytieh, Talley, Balleste and Yellin have an uncanny knack for producing "gotcha moments," in which hostile witnesses crumble.

But no prosecutor generates more fear in criminal defendants (and their lawyers) than Murray, Smith's prosecutor. A West Point graduate who is married to an FBI agent, he often speaks in a five- or six-word cadence, tolerates no nonsense, and has the posture of a drill sergeant. He stands only about 5-foot-9, but wild-eyed murderers have cringed when he entered their courtroom.

Inside the DA's office, the Smith case originally seemed like a 50-50 gamble for a conviction‚ especially with the talented Keller handling the defense, according to law-enforcement sources. That was before Murray took over earlier this year. With help from DA Investigator Bob Sayne, Murray immersed himself in the case for months, second-guessed every tidbit and emerged as someone who can speak in encyclopedic detail about the crime for hours without looking at a single note. That aggressive style might explain why Keller tried to have Murray replaced as her opponent.

Murray hasn't been distracted. He believes one of several keys in the murder case is Smith's extensive philandering‚ especially with Beverly Hubbard. A tiny-if-plump 71-year-old woman with good taste in clothes, Hubbard had had a relationship with Smith for 25 years. She did not want to testify. Indeed, in the weeks after Minnie's murder, Detective McShane found Hubbard shredding documents relating to her and Smith.

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