By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The thought of Rodney Alcala giving an opening statement for jurors this week was enough to pack Judge Francisco P. Briseño’s 11th-floor Santa Ana courtroom. Even a CBS 48Hours crew couldn’t resist the appearance of a man who has twice before been convicted of killing a 12-year-old Huntington Beach girl 31 years ago, only to twice escape death row after appellate courts overturned the trials on technicalities.
But any notion that Alcala, who represents himself, would produce a frightening Charles Manson-like moment—you know, eyes bugging out while screaming for a murderous revolution—disappeared quickly. At 66 years old, with long, stringy silver hair and a tan sport coat that covered his slouching shoulders, he didn’t appear physically threatening. He looked more like Tiny Tim while he spoke in seemingly sincere, polite terms to everyone from Briseño to the court clerk to the prosecutors.
Indeed, Alcala’s 72-minute presentation for a hushed crowd was delivered in an oddly emotionless monotone, perhaps the result of being locked up by himself in a prison cell for decades. He was at times relatively eloquent as he read the words he’d scribbled with his left hand on a white legal pad. He couldn’t have killed Robin Samsoe because, he argued, he would have had only a “six-minute-and-15-second window of opportunity.”
Supplementing his point, he showed the jury a video he had made that traced Samsoe’s final bicycle ride on her way to a ballet class. During portions of the clip, all we could hear was a girl in the reenactment quickly pedaling her bike. But, playing the role of tour guide for jurors, Alcala punctuated long silences by announcing street intersections as they approached in the video. To imagine what it felt like to be inside the courtroom, think of your oldest, least-interesting uncle narrating a lengthy slide show of his past four trips to Branson.
Besides the window-of-opportunity issue, Alcala encouraged jurors to look at the police-artist composite that witnesses helped create immediately after the murder and compare that to photos of him at the time. “[The guy in the] composite is bald,” he said. “As you can see, I am not bald. . . . The person they saw couldn’t have been me.”
He also said witnesses tied the killer to an “older, large, blue” vehicle, “while I drove a newer, small, red one.” And that some witnesses said the killer had worn a blue-plaid shirt and slacks. “That day, I wore a red-plaid shirt and jeans,” he said after claiming he was at Knott’s Berry Farm during the murder.
When his written notes were exhausted, Alcala tried to improvise—with dismal results. One juror wiped his eyes; another yawned. Alcala’s speech was peppered with senior moments such as “I think [long pause] . . . uh, uh,” “when [long pause] . . . so . . . uh” and “Oh . . . uh . . . [laughter].”
“Mr. Alcala!” Briseño finally said. “I think that you have achieved the objectives of your opening statement.”
Alcala looked up. “I apologize,” he said calmly. “I’ve gone way over my time. I was pretty much rambling. I wasn’t looking at the clock. Thank you for listening.”
Matt Murphy and Gina Satriano, the prosecutors from Orange and Los Angeles counties, respectively, say DNA and blood evidence proves Alcala—once a Roman Polanski film student, Los Angeles Times typesetter, U.S. Army clerk and 1978 contestant on The Dating Game—tortured and killed Samsoe as well as four young women in the 1970s.
Briseño said he anticipates the trial will conclude next week.
REWARD THIS SNITCH
At a January hearing in the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford indicated he is inclined to give former Orange County assistant sheriff-turned-admitted felon Don Haidl no prison time. The rationale? Haidl wore a secret body wire to help expose devious Sheriff Mike Carona, endured 10 often-grueling days on the witness stand in Carona’s corruption trial and admitted the depths of his own slimy sensibilities.
Federal probation officials recommend prison time for Haidl. But Brett Sagel, the prosecutor on the case, says he should only pay a fine, live under probation circumstances and perform community service. Haidl, a gruff, used-car salesman who craved a badge and gun, admitted he illegally bankrolled Carona’s first election as sheriff in exchange for being named assistant sheriff, gave him monthly envelopes stuffed with $100 bills, supplied him a private jet to take mistresses out of town, paid for Carona’s vacation hotel rooms, handed the sheriff thousands of dollars to gamble in Las Vegas casinos and gave him a boat with which to cruise the Pacific Ocean.
During his federal trial, Carona argued (largely successfully) that routine, illegal failure to disclose gifts is no big deal for the public, that gifts don’t influence public-office holders, and that, despite the law, elected officials should be allowed to accept and hide large gifts if the politician considers the gift-giver a personal friend. Don’t laugh. It worked with a jury largely dazed by Carona’s once-shiny badge and fake conservative-Christian persona. However, they did find him guilty of trying to sabotage a criminal probe into his activities.