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By Charles Lam
With a Newport Beach cop on the witness stand, a seemingly angry Angelo G. MacDonald paced the courtroom, stopped suddenly and demanded to know if police had altered anything at a residential murder scene or if an enlarged photograph on display for jurors accurately depicted the dining room of the bayfront home when the killer fled.
The tall, intense New York-based defense lawyer for Eric Naposki—an ex-NFL linebacker on trial for the 1994 murder of William McLaughlin, a Newport Beach businessman who earned more than $100,000 per month—asked the same question of other testifying officers and got the same answer: Nothing had been tampered with in the dining room.
From puzzled expressions on jurors' faces, you could surmise that MacDonald's point, despite its smooth presentation, wasn't obvious to them; I'd guess most of the spectators in Judge William R. Froeberg's 10th-floor Santa Ana courtroom were equally puzzled. To dramatize his fascination with the photograph, MacDonald stood in front of the jury box and used a large magnifying glass while staring at the photo for a lengthy period of time in a silent courtroom. Had a case-closing detail caught his eye?
There wasn't anything outwardly remarkable about the grainy photo taken before the mega-pixel rage. It looked like a typical crime-scene image memorialized quickly by someone with a point-and-shoot grasp of photography. It showed a small, circular dining-room table with an upright glass containing liquid (McLaughlin's evening cocktail) and stacks of work papers. About three feet from the table was a cushioned chair on wheels. Nothing else in the picture stood out.
To MacDonald, a former Bronx homicide prosecutor, the picture proved the innocence of his client, a onetime New England Patriot and Indianapolis Colt whose career collapsed in the early 1990s. Naposki, a New York native, had launched a Southern California bodyguard and security company. He won a few jobs, including a brief patrol contract at a gang-infested Inland Empire apartment complex, but the firm struggled.
By 1994, the 27-year-old, 6-foot-2, 250-pound Naposki was living in a cheap studio apartment in Tustin, driving his father's Nissan Pathfinder and using his parents' credit cards. He could only afford an Irvine gym membership by trading personal-trainer services. At that gym, he met and began dating Nanette Johnston, even though she was the 55-year-old McLaughlin's live-in fiancee. Three weeks before a killer with a key to McLaughlin's house fired six fatal, hollow-tip bullets into the businessman, Naposki got a $130 nightly gig as a bar bouncer just 52 seconds from the murder scene.
According to prosecutor Matt Murphy, Naposki and Johnston killed McLaughlin to capture half of his $55 million fortune in a palimony suit. Murphy believes a "diabolical" then-29-year-old Johnston—a convicted serial thief—was the brains of the plot with a "dimwitted" Naposki. McLaughlin's will made his fiancee—who shopped for $1 million homes with Naposki before the murder—a millionaire the instant he died.
Besides his tie to Johnston and the location of his new job, Naposki had a gun problem. The killer used a Beretta 92F semiautomatic handgun. Four months before the killing, Naposki bought a $700 Beretta 92F semiautomatic handgun. When first questioned by detectives, he said he didn't own a gun; when pressed, he admitted he owned three, including the Beretta, which he claimed went mysteriously missing. It didn't help his cries of innocence that prior to the crime, he'd told an independent witness, Suzanne Cogar, he hated McLaughlin and wanted him dead.
Yet, MacDonald insisted the dining-room photo wrecked the DA's circumstantial-evidence case. On Day 8 of the trial, the defense lawyer said in his opening statement that the picture "really tells all" about the killer's identity. He explained, "It's what's not in it that is important."
In a Perry Mason-style moment, MacDonald told the jury to study the photo. "The stacks of papers [on the table] are not askew," he said. "There's no spilled cup. The chair is not knocked over. It's screaming those things."
If an armed intruder McLaughlin didn't know had startled him—and the businessman had never met Naposki (before the night of the killing, at least)—then he would have created a mess around that table in his haste to stand up and defend himself, according to the defense.
MacDonald assured jurors the photo proved McLaughlin knew his assailant. That's why, forensic evidence showed, the victim had allowed the killer to get within two feet before firing the gun. "It's the key to the case," he said, concluding the shooter was Johnston, who is scheduled to face a jury in November.
Jurors stared intently. Reporters in the audience scribbled notes. A smirking Naposki sat at the defense table nodding, unable to hide his pleasure at MacDonald's logic. Had the defense scored a huge point? Was Naposki indeed Johnston's gullible "patsy"?
After dismissing Cogar's testimony as "kooky" and ignoring Naposki's brazen lies about not owning a Beretta, Gary Pohlson, MacDonald's Orange County-based co-counsel, reinforced the importance of the dining-room photo in his closing argument. "If this is supposedly Mr. Naposki who is rushing in there, Mr. McLaughlin is going to be moving away [and knocking over things, such as his cup, his papers or his chair], and we don't see any of that."
But an unimpressed Murphy pointed his finger at Naposki—who'd been caught collecting money for organized-crime interests in New York as a teenager, according to knowledgeable sources—and said, "The shooter is sitting right there."
The prosecutor, who has never lost a homicide case, declared the theory of the photograph meaningless because the intruder didn't startle McLaughlin in the dining room. He said the victim had been in the kitchen "when the shooter comes around the corner and starts shooting . . . boom, boom, pause . . . boom, boom, pause . . . boom, boom, pause."
Murphy played the 911 call McLaughlin's disabled and painfully distraught son, Kevin, made after he heard the shots and found his dying father on the kitchen floor.
"Take all the time you need," Murphy told jurors before deliberations. "But when you are done, ladies and gentlemen, you make sure there is justice for that moment. The evidence is all there."
Despite the defense's concerted effort, the dining-room picture wasn't the image that was seared into the minds of jurors who glanced at Naposki during the playing of the 911 call. Once again, this wildly cocky defendant callously smirked while the victim's daughters wept nearby. "Unbelievable" was the reaction one juror gave me about Naposki's courtroom behavior after the 12-0 guilty-verdict announcement, a July 14 decision that took just seven hours to reach.
This column appeared in print as "Eric Naposki's Rocky Murder Picture Show: Ex-NFL player hoped a crime-scene photo would save him from a homicide conviction."