Lady Killer

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

Perhaps to help jurors handle that issue, Smith has been using a prop. His hearing hadn't been an issue in numerous pretrial hearings over two years. In the weeks before jury selection in his trial, Smith complained of an ailment: poor hearing. Jurors now see him wearing headphones with an audio booster each day.

Of course, that information won't be available to the jury. But this will: Smith's careful explanation of why he didn't think his wife had been home may falter. McShane got Smith to repeatedly describe his entrance and exit from the crime scene. He never mentioned that he raised the front door shade. In fact, he said, "I attempted to push the button to let the shade up, but I can't see [the control panel] because it's too dark. It's just too dark to see it."

When police arrived, they found the shade up‚ the position Smith said would indicate his wife was home.

*   *   *

Keller's not holding aces in the case, but she's fighting hard for her client. Early in the trial, she suggested that McShane had tainted the case by not considering Minnie's only child, Bennie, a suspect. A not-so-subtle Keller has told the jury that if Smith is convicted of murder, Bennie, once a football star at New Mexico State, could take control of the $5.2 million Smith estate with his wife. But by the middle of the trial, Keller decided to offer the jury a second suspect. For seven years, Samuel Matthews worked as a cashier at the Smiths' liquor store. In 1997, Matthews and Smith had a dispute. Matthews quit or was fired, depending on who is telling the story. Eight years later, Matthews heard disturbing news.

"I seen on the television that Minnie Smith had been killed," said Matthews. "It shocked me. She shouldn't have died like that. . . . She was a nice lady."

Eight days after the murder, Matthews contacted McShane. He wanted the police to know not only about Smith's trysts, but also that he complained about his marriage.

"[Smith] said, The only way to get out of this marriage is to die," Matthews recalled during testimony. "Cause I ain't gonna give Minnie half of what I got so another man can live off it."

Jurors scribbled again in their notebooks. Keller jumped from her seat beside Smith. The angry grilling began before she even reached the podium.

Keller: You were fired in 1997 for stealing?
Matthews: No.
You owed Mr. Smith $15,000?
No, I didn't owe him nothing.
After Mr. Smith put cameras in the liquor store, you got fired?
No. I quit.
Do you have a gambling problem?

Murray objected, saying the question was irrelevant to the case. Judge McNerney agreed.

Did you sleep with [another liquor-store employee]?
Isn't it true that only you at the store knew where Marvin lived?

Murray objected. McNerney agreed and shortly afterward tersely added, "Let's wrap this up, Ms. Keller."

When was the last time you asked Minnie for money?

To bolster her attack on Matthews, Keller later called to the stand his estranged wife, who complained Matthews hadn't paid her child support. She summed up his character in three words: "a habitual liar."

*   *   *

The money angle doesn't necessarily help Smith. In the years before Minnie's death, he'd given Beverly Hubbard an enormous amount of money to put in a bank account. On the witness stand, Hubbard acted confused about elementary bank terms such as the difference between a checking and savings account. In fact, court observers would say later they assumed Hubbard had a learning disability.

In a beautiful moment for the prosecution, Murray pierced Hubbard's dumb act with a single well-placed question: Don't you have an MBA from Pepperdine University? Hubbard looked at jurors, back at Murray and stared. She eventually replied softly, "Yes."

Her resistance continued.

Murray: Did you have just one bank account with Marvin?
Hubbard: [after an eight-second pause] Not that I can remember.
How many bank accounts did you have with him?
I'm not sure. [Note: there were three, according to court records.]
Why did you open a joint account with Marvin?
Because he asked me to. Marvin's my brother.
How much was in the account?
I can't remember.
Give me a ballpark.

Hubbard looked at the jury, pursed her lips and looked back at Murray with an unpleasant expression. After a 10-second delay, she said, "Somewhere over $200,000."

If jurors had been experiencing a post-lunch mental lull, it was over. What type of man would have a substantial, secret joint account with a mistress? Three jurors shook their heads.

Murray followed up: "Actually, it was quite a bit more than, right?"

"I can't recall," Hubbard replied.

The prosecutor produced a document. It was from World Savings. Smith had given Hubbard $230,979 to put in a joint account.

Why did he do this? Murray asked.

"He didn't tell me."

Murray let the suspicious answer resonate and fired: "At the grand jury, didn't you tell me under oath that he put your name on it in case of emergency?"

Hubbard pursed her lips, sighed, hesitated again, and then, as if exasperated, said, "Yes."

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