The case of the pot-smoking, gambling-crazed granny—who shopped at Wal-Mart for an alibi after she allegedly hired hit men from Target to kill her husband—is an endless source of intrigue.
In the final stages of the evidence portion of the Sandra Jessee trial, a witness testified that she was paid a whopping $35,000 in taxpayer funds to perform basic accounting tasks for Jessee's defense against first-degree murder charges.
For perspective, consider that accountant Audra M. Marino was paid $15,000 more than what T.J. Garrick accepted to viciously kill Jack Jessee with a 12-inch, Rambo-style knife in August 1998, according to an exhaustive Orange County Sheriff's Department investigation.
The bombshell $35,000 revelation occurred on Nov. 30 inside Orange County Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler's ninth-floor courtroom when prosecutor Michael F. Murray asked Marino how much she'd been paid by a division of the Orange County Public Defender Office, which, at public expense, represents the accused, indigent mastermind behind the murder.
Marino's reluctant admission prompted audible gasps from trial observers. It also apparently rocked jurors. The faces of several members of the six-man, six-woman jury expressed surprise.
But Murray displayed the most incredulity. Through his questions, it was obvious he believes the fee is outrageous for work he found trivial in scope and sloppy in outcome. A West Point graduate with a commanding presence, the prosecutor stood in front of Marino, crossed his arms and curtly asked, "For $35,000, you copied Sandra Jessee's check registers, put her entries into categories and totaled the spending?"
The question clearly annoyed Marino, who provided a terse, "No." An unconvinced Murray persisted, and eventually, she backpedaled. Marino admitted she couldn't recall any other analysis she'd performed.
I have followed the case closely and am terrible at math, but I could have easily categorized Jessee's checkbook entries in less than two hours. If that is an accurate assessment, Marino made about $17,500 per hour of valid work. Let's say I'm wrong and it took her twice as long as I guessed. That's still $8,750 per hour for four hours of checkbook tallying.
To test my concerns, I contacted Marri Derby, the head of Orange County's Alternate Defender office. Derby approved the Marino contract for Jessee's spirited public defender, Derek Bercher. Though initially hesitant to agree to an interview, she assured me nothing sinister occurred. She also said it is "understandable" the size of the fee would be startling in these tough economic times.
"That's a lot of money," said Derby. "It sounds offensive, and I wish experts were less expensive."
She blamed part of the expense on the Orange County district attorney's office for compiling more than 12,000 pages of discovery in the case and, in her view, unnecessarily adding a special-circumstances charge that means Jessee will never be eligible for parole if she is convicted of hiring hit men to kill her husband in the murder-for-financial-gain scheme worth around $600,000.
"We'd clearly be remiss if we didn't do everything we could to defend this client to the best of our ability," she said. "Unfortunately, accountants are expensive."
Jessee's spending is at issue because her son, Thomas Aehlert, not only confessed to the conspiracy against his stepfather, but also testified that his mother doctored her checkbook registers to mask $50,000 in secret, cash payments that financed the brutal ambush murder in Placentia.
Bercher, the relentless Energizer Bunny of Orange County public defenders, has worked hard to undermine a law-enforcement forensic analysis that shows huge bank withdrawals in the days prior to each of four installments—ranging between $5,000 and $20,000 in envelopes stuffed with cash—to the hit man, Brett Schrauben, a Target store-security employee and an Orange County club promoter. Unbeknownst to Jessee and Aehlert, Schrauben subcontracted the killing for $20,000 to his dim-witted Laguna Hills pal and Target co-worker, Garrick, according to testimony. (Garrick, who awaits trial, denies involvement.) To raise doubts about Jessee's ability to hire hit men, Marino took her check registers, categorized the spending, and then produced for the jury totals for such things as gifts and gambling.
But from Murray's perspective, Marino's analysis was blatantly biased and thus misleading to the jury. The prosecutor asked the accountant if accuracy is important in her profession. She, of course, replied, "Yes." He then asked if she'd accepted Jessee's checkbook entries as truthful to create her findings for the jury. She had. Jurors scribbled notes.
If the witness had any remaining credibility in the case, Murray destroyed it with his last line of questioning: the thoroughness of her work. Marino, who works at Marcum LLP in Irvine, avoided the prosecutor's inquiries with nonresponsive replies and was admonished repeatedly by Judge Stotler. Eventually, she admitted that even though she was testifying as an expert on Jessee's spending, she hadn't bothered to double-check the defendant's checkbook assertions with available bank records.
That additional revelation spurred jurors to scribble notes again. Murray glanced at the jury and sat down triumphantly, perhaps relieved by the strength of his case. His first trial against Jessee ended three years ago in an 11-1 jury vote for guilt.
After Bercher briefly tried to rehabilitate her testimony, Marino quickly exited the courtroom, looking as though she had just seen a ghost. Murray has that effect on dubious witnesses. Marino declined my requests for an interview, and Bercher told me he was too busy to talk about the accountant's fee while the trial was ongoing.
According to Derby, I am making "an assumption" that Marino's $35,000 fee was just for work on the two Jessee trials. But my "assumption" isn't an assumption; it is based on Marino's unambiguous testimony. The prosecutor asked this witness multiple times if the fee applied just to this case, and she answered affirmatively.
To clear up any possible confusion, I asked Derby to reveal details of Marino's bills, her hourly rate and the terms of her contract. She declined. "The payment records are privileged," Derby said.
Translation: In her view, the public doesn't have a right to inspect these government-spending records.
I have no evidence that Derby is anything but an honest public servant. However, in a county with continual spending debacles, her anti-disclosure stance fuels suspicions of mismanagement or worse. Given the sensational size of the fee—an entire annual salary for some county workers—the public deserves to know the now-mysterious facts.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What's clear at this point is that, at least in the Jessee murder, you can make substantially more from a homicide as an accountant holding a calculator than an assassin armed with a blood-drenched hunting knife.
Note: This column was written as the lawyers made their closing arguments in the trial. For up-to-date coverage, visit our Navel Gazing blog.
This column ran in print as "Killer Fee: The odd case of an accountant who made a killing in an OC murder trial."